If I see myself as a burden, I probably won’t talk to you. When I see you, I’ll most likely think “oh, they must have so many interesting and fun people around them — they don’t need me taking up more space in their life.” To make sure I don’t bother you, I’ll avoid you.
Or maybe I’ll approach you, but I’ll carefully plan how I’m going to behave to ensure that you don’t see me as a burden or a waste of your time. Maybe I’ll make sure to mention how successful I’ve been at this or that, so that you know immediately that I’m “worth meeting.”
But if I see myself as a gift, talking to you will be the obvious choice. I’ll see you and think “I’ll give them the joy of connecting with me, and make both of our lives more fun.”
What’s more, if I have this mindset, I’ll be okay even if you don’t want to talk to me. Your rejection may sting, but it won’t shake my conviction that, in the grand scheme, my existence is a good thing for the universe.
The Same Goes For Creating Stuff
In my experience, whether I see myself as a gift or a burden doesn’t just affect the way I meet (or don’t meet) new people. It also has a big impact on how I approach my creative projects.
If I see myself as an imposition on people, I probably won’t write anything. Each time I come up with an article idea, I’ll talk myself out of writing the piece, thinking “so many people have probably written about this already — I’ll bet I’d just bore everybody.”
Or maybe I’ll write the piece, but I’ll try really hard to ensure that readers see how smart or original I am, and don’t see me as dull or average. Maybe I’ll use lots of big words, or take months to write my piece because I’ll constantly second-guess everything I say.
On the other hand, if I see myself as a gift, the act of writing will have a light, “flowing” quality to it, because I’ll be secure in the knowledge that what I’m creating will uplift somebody out there.
Being A Gift Is The First Step, Not The Last
Experiences like these have convinced me that the conventional wisdom about creativity in our culture has it backwards.
We tend to think that, if we want to “be a gift” to others — if we want to contribute something to the world — we have to create something really amazing. Once we’ve written that groundbreaking novel, we’ll finally become worthwhile.
The trouble is that, if we refuse to see ourselves as a gift until that great project is complete, the project will be painful and difficult to do. We’ll be constantly worried about putting out inadequate work and burdening or bothering people, instead of feeling excited about how we’re going to enrich others’ lives with what we’re doing.
So, I think that learning to see, and treat ourselves, as a gift to the world — even before we’ve “hit our peak” creatively — is crucial if we want to enjoy, and get a lot done in, our work.
With that said, I’ve got some more gifts to shower you all with. In my last post, I shared some of the videos I’ve been doing recently, and they sure provoked some interesting discussion. I hope the next four I’ll share in this post will do the same. Enjoy!
Well, as advertisers are helpfully reminding us, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. For me, as for many other people, this can be a time of irritation.
This isn’t because I’m what our culture calls a “single guy.” I enjoy that, actually. It’s because this is the time of year when I get to hear people lament how long it’s been since they’ve been “in a relationship,” or since they’ve done whatever other romantic thing they think they should be doing.
One Person’s Romantic Comedy Is Another’s Horror Movie
The most frustrating part, when I listen to these people, is that they don’t seem to be paying attention to what they actually want. Instead, they’re measuring themselves against what they see as the culture’s expectations, and blaming themselves for falling short.
“My friends are all married,” I hear (and I’m sure you’ve heard) people complain. When I hear this from someone, I try to respond compassionately. But I have to admit, sometimes I just want to caustically remark: “that makes perfect sense — after all, the rule is that you have to do whatever your friends do!”
And, of course, there are people (mostly men, but not exclusively) who will be able to tell me, to the month, day and hour, how long it’s been since they “got laid.” Hearing this, it’s all I can do to keep my inner Captain Sarcastic from spitting out: “true, if you don’t ‘get some’ soon, you’ll lose your place at the ‘jock’ table in the high school cafeteria!”
The saddest part of this, in my experience, is that many people stay dissatisfied even if they do find what they say they’re looking for. Trying to live into somebody else’s vision of how romance or intimacy should be, I think, is a recipe for suffering.
What Do You Really Want?
If someone is griping to me about their “singlehood” (at least, I think that’s the right word), and they’re really willing to explore the issue, what we’ll often discover is that they don’t even want to be married, “in a relationship,” or whatever else, right now. They are hurting because they’re telling themselves it’s wrong not to want those things, and beating themselves up.
In my experience, when people become willing to admit that lack of desire, often it’s as if a weight lifts from their shoulders, and their bodies feel lighter. What’s more, amazingly enough, sometimes acknowledging they don’t want intimacy actually opens the way for them to want it again.
Why? I think it goes back to what I talked about in my post on “finding compassion through selfishness.” We’re all made up of a bunch of different parts, or, as some put it, “selves” or “energies” — the aggressive part, the solitary part, the outgoing part, and so on.
Calling Out Our Doubts
As I put it earlier, the way I see it, each person is like a prism — something that breaks up a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow. Sometimes, we don’t like one of the colors — the anger, the hurt, or something else — and so we cover up the prism. The trouble is, when we do that, no light can get through.
We all, I think, have a part that wants connection with others. But we also have parts that are cautious, hurt, untrusting, and so on. When we tell ourselves it’s not okay to feel afraid or unready about intimacy, and we push the hesitant parts of ourselves down, we can cause ourselves a lot of pain.
I’ve found, both in myself and in talking to people, that it can be so liberating when we acknowledge the areas where we’re uncertain, and it can actually help create the connection with others that we’re looking for.
I think that, to some degree, we all have a love/hate relationship with being seen — with letting another person see all the parts that make up who we are, whether it’s our joy, anger, grief, ambition, or something else.
On the downside, if we show the other person parts we usually keep hidden, and they leave, we’ll feel hurt. The more of ourselves we let them see, the more pain we’ll experience if they decide not to be with us.
On the plus side, the more of ourselves we allow others to see, the more it’s possible for them to “love us for who we are” — for them to embrace all of our parts, no matter how unique or socially unacceptable those parts may seem. I think most of us crave this kind of love, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not.
The “Unvarnished You” Is a Gift
So, being seen is both risky and potentially rewarding — that much, I think most of us understand. What we don’t grasp as often, I think, is that letting ourselves be seen can also be rewarding for the person we’re with. Giving them a glimpse of who we are, beneath the polite, competent “social mask,” can be a gift in itself.
I know that, when I’m with another person, and they become willing to show me a part of themselves they usually conceal, my body suddenly feels relaxed and alive. It’s as if they satisfy a yearning I didn’t even know I harbored until that moment.
This happens even if the part they show me is typically seen as “negative” or unwelcome in our culture. For instance, although we tend to see anger as a “negative emotion,” it’s such a relief for me when someone who normally holds up a pleasant and even-tempered façade gives me a blast of their fierceness. When I’m with a woman who does this, it’s often a turn-on.
The Pain of “Relationships” Without Relating
Of course, the idea that just letting someone deeply see us can be a gift flies in the face of the conventional wisdom. In our society, the “value” we offer each other depends on our accomplishments, possessions and appearance — how much money we make, how “hot” our bodies are, and so on. Conversation isn’t about seeing and being seen — it’s about communicating our “selling points.”
I suspect this way of thinking is the reason so many of us are dissatisfied with the relationships — “intimate” and otherwise — in our lives, no matter how “successful” our peers say we are. Of course we feel unloved and unappreciated — because we aren’t letting anyone see us, we aren’t allowing anyone to love us for who we are.
We think working on our credentials, possessions and looks will make us “stand out” and get noticed, but there are plenty of people with all of those things (many of whom are unhappy). What’s rare, in my experience, is a person who’s willing to give me the gift of who they truly are.
Yes, it feels vulnerable to let someone see us — “negative” and “unacceptable” parts and all. But opening ourselves in this way, I think, allows us to be genuinely appreciated, and can be a liberating experience for people we’re with as well.
I have to admit, I cringe a little when I see personal development products offering us the ability to “make” others do what we want. Whether it’s books about “making her attracted to you” or “getting him to commit,” CDs on “making your audience applaud” or seminars on “getting customers to close the deal,” there’s a ton of products with techniques for influencing others’ feelings and behavior.
I won’t get into whether these products are ineffective or manipulative. My main concern is that I don’t think they can deliver the happiness they promise.
Does Control Equal Happiness?
The assumption these products make is that, if you really did “get” another person to do what you wanted—go on a date with you, buy your air conditioning equipment, or something else—you’d find happiness or peace of mind. But is this really true?
Let’s look at something that tends to happen in intimate relationships. We often hear about one person leaving the relationship because their partner proved to be “too nice” or “too eager to please.” It seems that, as human beings, when our partner sacrifices their wants and needs to make us happy, we get bored.
In other words, when one person in the relationship becomes able to “make” their partner do what they want, they begin to lose interest. Being with someone who does whatever we want, as many of us know from experience, is not a path to happiness.
And how about marketing? Suppose you knew a magic word you could say to a customer that was guaranteed to “make” them buy your product. You could sell as many products and make as much money as you wanted. Would you be happy?
I suspect the answer is no. Another trait of human beings seems to be that we aren’t fulfilled in our work unless it challenges us in some way. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience has some great explanations and research on this.) If you knew you could never fail to close a deal, the challenge, and thus the fun, involved in making sales would disappear.
We Want Realness, Not “Results”
I think we usually prefer to interact with people who have their own personalities, feelings, wants and needs. That’s what makes relating between human beings interesting—the excitement (and, sometimes, the challenge) of finding out about another person. As I talked about in my “joy of listening” series, understanding someone else’s world can be a thrilling journey of discovery.
If everybody started thinking and feeling the way we wanted, we wouldn’t be able to experience that joy. Not that we’d prefer that everyone disagree with us or fight us all the time, but if they do agree with us, I think most of us would like it to come from what they genuinely desire, instead of a need to please or obey.
Because of the focus on “results” in our culture, we often lose sight of this. We tend to assume, consciously or not, that we’d find contentment if everyone else would just do what we want—if they’d start paying us the money or having the relationships with us that we desire.
When we realize this won’t bring us happiness, and we focus on enjoying the process of relating with people rather than what they do or don’t do for us, being with others takes on a joy and lightness we may not have experienced before.
My last post was about empathic reflection—the practice of reflecting back the desires and emotions of the person you’re listening to. While this may sound simple, it’s trickier than it sounds. When an interaction starts to feel emotionally intense, it’s easy to fall back into old, reactive patterns of thinking and behaving. If someone is angry and we’re feeling attacked, for instance, it can be hard to avoid the temptation to stop listening and start defending ourselves. Similarly, if the other person is sad or worried, it can be difficult to stop consoling them and actually listen to what they’re telling us.
In this post, I’ll talk about some ways we can stay centered, and continue caring about the other person, even when faced with a lot of emotional charge.
Recognize That It’s All Just Sensation. If the emotional intensity of the conversation is starting to feel overwhelming, pause for a moment, take a breath, and notice what you’re experiencing in your body. Is some part of your body—maybe your shoulders, neck, pelvis or somewhere else—feeling tight? Is some place—perhaps your face or hands—getting uncomfortably warm?
Usually we mentally label these sensations, calling them “anger,” “joy,” “fear,” and so on. What’s more, we come up with a mental story about why they’re happening—for example, “what she said made me angry,” or “he hurt me when he looked away from me.” Still further, we tell ourselves we’ve “got to do something” about what we’re feeling to “make things right”—“I’ve got to hurt him back,” “I need to make her feel better,” “I must prove my point,” and so forth.
What I invite you to do is experiment with letting go of these labels and stories, and purely focusing on the physical sensations arising in you. What I think you’ll find is that, without all the mental stories about what other people are doing and how you need to respond, those sensations no longer seem so threatening or intense. It’s just a tension in your shoulders, a heat in your forehead, or something else that, in all likelihood, will quickly pass, leaving you intact and unharmed. In other words, it probably won’t kill you.
For some people, it seems difficult to slow down and notice the sensations they’re feeling, because emotionally charged interactions feel really fast-paced. Maybe, for example, the other person is demanding to know why you did this or that, and you feel an intense pressure to answer them as quickly as possible.
In these moments, it’s useful to remember that you, as one of the parties to the conversation, actually have some control over its pace. You don’t have some kind of “moral obligation” to talk as quickly as the other person, have every bit of information they demand at your fingertips, or otherwise follow their lead. (In fact, as I wrote in an earlier piece, sometimes it’s more enjoyable and meaningful to stay silent.) It takes practice to keep this in mind, but when you really internalize this, relating with people can become less stressful.
Ask Yourself What You’re Really Defending Against. As I said, it can be tough not to slip into our old habits of defending ourselves when we feel attacked. And, what we usually don’t stop and wonder is what we’re really trying to defend ourselves against in those moments. In other words, if someone is criticizing you and you’re feeling defensive, try asking yourself: what am I trying to prevent from happening right now? What goal am I really trying to achieve?
If you’re able to slow down and observe what you’re thinking and feeling in moments like these, you may notice an inner voice making comments like:
“If I hurt the other person, I won’t feel as hurt.”
“I need their approval, love or respect to survive.”
“This conversation is a fight or a competition that I need to win.”
“If I don’t convince them I’m right, I’ll be punished or even killed.”
Once you recognize what your inner voice is saying and why it feels so important to defend yourself, ask yourself if what that voice says is really true. What I suspect you’ll notice is how paranoid, childlike and disconnected from reality that voice often sounds. Usually, the assumptions it makes simply aren’t true—you don’t need the other person’s approval to live, and hurting them isn’t really likely to make you feel better.
When you have this realization, you may begin taking your urge to stop listening and counterattack a bit less seriously, and feeling like you can actually choose how to respond in a conflict situation rather than automatically reacting.
At a deeper level, I suspect that the voice that urges us to defend ourselves is a relic of very early moments in our lives, when the world looked unfamiliar, scary and confusing. While I think it’s helpful to treat this frightened, young part with compassion, we don’t have to leave it in charge of how we relate to people.
Connect With Your Curiosity. One thing that tends to happen in emotionally charged interactions is that we lose our curiosity about what’s going on for the other person. If they’re feeling frustrated, despondent or something else and blaming us for it, we stop trying to understand why they’re feeling and acting the way they are, and instinctively start withdrawing, attacking, tuning them out, or whatever else we normally do to protect ourselves.
The next time you find this happening for you, see if you can consciously choose to stay curious about what’s having the other person be this way. What’s going on at a deeper level that’s having them blame, belittle, ignore, or do whatever they’re doing in this moment? What are they really concerned about or afraid of? What ideas might they have about the world and their place in it that would cause them to be like this?
What I think you’ll find if you can consciously choose to stay curious about the other person is that, even if there’s a lot of anger, sadness, fear or something else coming up in the conversation, the interaction can actually stay interesting and fulfilling to be in. Seeking to understand someone else and where they’re coming from, even when they’re expressing intense emotion, can actually be an adventure.
As Juliet from LifeMadeGreat recently observed, our desire as human beings to be understood is at least as important as our desire for money, relationships, “six-pack abs” and all the other typical “personal development” goals. Just having a genuine interest in understanding what’s going on for another person, in my experience, can defuse conflicts and bring a peace and depth to our conversations.
If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:
The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests
Both in and outside my work, I do a lot of listening to people. This is no accident—it’s actually one of my favorite things to do. Because of my fascination with the subject, I’ve decided to write a few posts on learning to enjoy listening, and overcoming some of the barriers we often face to fully bringing our minds and hearts to hearing someone out.
Listening, on the surface, seems like an easy thing to do. After all, in theory, all you’re doing is sitting in silence and paying attention. In fact, I suspect that for all of us, from time to time, hearing someone with authentic compassion and with our full attention can be challenging. In this post, I’ll talk about a few of the blocks that tend to get in our way, and some ideas for moving beyond them.
1. A Need To “Deliver Value.” One reason many of us have trouble just sitting back and listening to someone is that we worry that our mere presence and desire to hear what they’re saying “aren’t enough.” That is, we’re afraid we aren’t contributing enough to them by just hearing them out—we need to say something insightful or valuable.
If we don’t “make a contribution” in this way, we assume, the other person will think there’s something wrong with us. Maybe they’ll decide we aren’t special enough, we’re stupid or unimaginative, we lack “social skills,” or something else. And they’ll decide they don’t want to talk to us and leave.
The irony is that, when we try to “deliver value” this way, even though we’re sincerely trying to help, our efforts often backfire. You’ve probably seen this for yourself—think of a time when you were explaining a problem you were having to someone else, they started telling you what you “should” do, and you felt patronized and annoyed.
I’ve heard some people suggest (a la Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus) that men and women see this issue differently, and this creates a communication barrier between the sexes. Men supposedly tend to give and expect advice, while women prefer to listen and be heard. But I haven’t found this to be true—in my experience, men (myself included) seem just as likely to bristle at unsolicited advice.
I think genuine listening and compassion require some self-trust. We need to trust that it’s “enough” for us to simply let go, sit back and hear the other person. Developing that, in my experience, makes interacting easier and more fun, and has the other person feel the sincerity of our listening. In short, whether we feel like we’re “delivering value” depends more on how we feel about ourselves than anything we say or do in the conversation.
2. Judgment. Another common barrier to listening with our full attention is our tendency to mentally evaluate and judge what other people say. Perhaps we don’t like the way they’re handling some aspect of their life, we think they should stop complaining, we don’t like how they’re looking at us, or something else.
Another common judgment can arise if the person we’re speaking with keeps talking for a long time about their situation and concerns. Some of us start feeling disrespected or neglected. “What about my feelings?” we start wondering.
Some of us, instead of judging the other person, start attacking ourselves. Perhaps, in our minds, we’re unfavorably comparing ourselves to the other person. For instance, we might be thinking “this person is doing better than me. Look at all the success they’re having.” Or maybe our attention keeps drifting back to some unresolved issue in our lives—“oh, no, what if the bonus at work is too small this year?”
However we may judge the other person or ourselves, some of our attention gets occupied with the act of judging and criticizing, and diverted from what the other person is saying. Our compassion for them shuts down, and the conversation becomes an exercise in tolerating rather than enjoying them. Although we might not say what we’re thinking out loud, others can feel this change in our attitude.
I think a key step in letting go of our judgments, and listening with our full minds and hearts, is to simply notice the judgments are there. By this, I mean just observing the running mental monologue that may be going on while you’re in a conversation with someone, and what it’s saying. In my experience, our mind activity tends to quiet when we focus our awareness on it, allowing us to gently return our attention to the conversation.
3. A Need To Look Like We Care. Some of us, when we’re listening to someone, start worrying about the image we’re projecting. We get anxious that the other person might doubt that we’re really listening, or assume we don’t care about what they’re telling us, because of some aspect of our body language or verbal responses.
To relieve our fear, we consciously start smiling, nodding, saying “mm hmm,” and adopting all the other mannerisms we think a genuinely caring person would have. Or perhaps we try some more sophisticated NLP-type thing like “matching and mirroring” their movements. Maybe we’ve even read a book or blog post on the “Top 10 Ways To Build Rapport,” and use the conversation to test-drive those techniques.
The irony here is that, when our attention is on whether we look like we’re listening, it’s no longer on actually listening. And when we’re wrapped up in the image we’re presenting, we aren’t genuinely caring about the other person’s wants and needs—we’re concerned with managing how they see us. Human beings are much more empathic than we usually give each other credit for being, and my sense is that people can detect this kind of pretense.
As with the feeling that we need to “deliver value,” which I talked about before, getting over this compulsion to look like we’re listening requires us to trust ourselves—to trust that, if we’re genuinely concerned for someone’s wellbeing, we don’t need to make any special effort to get them to believe it. Instead, we can relax our minds and bodies, and just absorb what’s going on in front of us.
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests
I do a lot of writing and coaching on the issues of finding one’s life purpose and transitioning to a career aligned with that purpose. I don’t write as often about exploring new ways to experience the career, and the life, one already has, but I think it’s equally important.
I know a number of people who have tried several different careers, but nothing they’ve done has satisfied them as much as they’d hoped. After working in a given field for a while, it seems they inevitably find themselves asking “is this all there is?” And they wonder if they’ll ever find what they’re really supposed to do with their lives.
In these situations, I often suspect that the person’s dissatisfaction doesn’t stem from making a bad career choice. Instead, the problem is with the way they experience their career, and their life in general. More specifically, they have a desire they’ve never been able to fulfill, and they’re using their career to satisfy that desire. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of desire that no type of work, no matter how engaging or lucrative, can satisfy.
People who use their careers to improve their relationships with their parents are a common example. I know one man, for instance, whose parents split up when he was very young. He was mainly raised by his mother, and as a kid he wanted to see his father more often. To make sure his father continued to visit and care for him, he decided to rack up as many academic and professional accomplishments as possible. That way, he thought, his father would view him as worth seeing. He continued to follow this strategy long into adulthood.
No matter what he achieved, however, he was never satisfied that he was pleasing his father. He began to despair, wondering if anything would ever be enough to create the relationship with his father he wanted. One day, however, he had an idea. He decided to ask his father if they could spend more time together. To the man’s surprise, his father quickly agreed.
As it turned out, the man’s problem didn’t result from his failure to accomplish enough. Instead, the problem stemmed from his own perception that his father didn’t want to be with him unless he proved himself through his achievements. In other words, to reach his goal, he didn’t need to change the facts of the world around him by making more money and garnering more professional accolades. He needed to question his own experience of the world–in this case, the assumptions he’d made about his father’s attitude that ultimately proved to be false.
Perhaps you’re in a situation similar to the one I just described. Maybe it seems like you keep making more money, accomplishing more professionally, earning more degrees, acquiring more possessions, changing careers, and so forth, but nothing seems to satisfy you. If you’re feeling this way, a simple but important step toward change is to ask yourself what exactly you want.
Put differently, what are you really trying to get with the career moves you’ve been making? How do you want your job to make you feel? What do you want your work environment to look like? How do you want your career to impact your relationships with others?
Once you’ve determined what you want, notice that you’ve been assuming that your career is going to satisfy your desire. You’ve been relying on your career to get you where you want to be in life. But take a moment to carefully consider that assumption. Can your career really fulfill the wants you’ve identified?
Take a moment to ponder the possibility that, like my friend, you’ve been using your job to get you something it can’t get you. Striving for more career success often isn’t the key to creating more inner peace, better relationships with the people in your life, and other goals that tend to be important to us. If you’ve been expecting your career to meet a need that no vocation can satisfy, it’s no wonder you’ve been looking at your career situation and asking “is this all there is?”
If this observation resonates with you, I invite you to test your assumption that your career can satisfy your wants. Just as my friend gave up trying to earn his father’s approval through professional accomplishments and simply asked to see his father more often, experiment with pursuing your goal through means other than your career. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.
A friend recently admitted that she feels guilty when she talks to me, because it seems like she’s always “unloading her problems” onto me. It’s true that she sometimes tells me about the obstacles and anxieties in her life. But I’ve never felt “burdened” or “unloaded on” when she tells me what’s going on for her. I’ve actually felt touched that she chose and trusted me to discuss those issues with. In fact, I’ve never quite understood what “burdening someone with your problems,” and the social taboo against it, mean at all.
Many others seem to understand this idea. When asked how they’re doing, people feel obligated to respond “fine,” lest they “burden” the person asking with what’s going on in their lives. Several of my friends make sure only to tell their parents the rosier aspects of their lives, in order to be good children and avoid worrying their parents. And most of us have many “less-close friends” with whom it’s understood that we don’t discuss the negative or difficult aspects of our lives. These days, it may seem like the only person you can talk to about your problems without being rude is your therapist or some other “helping professional.”
Unfortunately, to my mind, the social custom forbidding telling one’s problems to others inhibits the growth of deep and fulfilling relationships. I feel far more connected to my friends and loved ones when they’re willing to share the difficult aspects of their lives with me, and when I do the same with them. It saddens me when people are afraid to open up to others in their lives, or shut out others who want to open up to them, based on the belief that you’re not supposed to “burden” others with the less upbeat events of your life.
If you feel “burdened” or otherwise uncomfortable when someone describes their problems to you, I suggest that this feeling stems from the perception that you’re required to respond in certain ways when others do this. First, when someone else describes a problem to us, we often assume we’re required to help solve it. Second, we often believe that, to avoid being rude or inconsiderate, we must listen to the other person’s full description of the problem, and ask questions that make it sound like we’re interested—even if we aren’t.
Neither option is very appealing. Trying to solve another person’s problems can feel like hard work, and raises anxieties around giving unhelpful advice. And sometimes, for various reasons, we don’t have the time or desire to process the difficult aspects of others’ lives with them. As I’ll explain below, however, if you tend to assume that you have to select one of these two options when someone discusses their life’s challenges with you, you aren’t considering the full range of choices available to you.
Let’s think about the two alternatives we tend to feel are available to us when someone tells us their problems. First, many people feel that, when someone else brings up a problem, they have an obligation to help solve it. If I tell you my intimate relationship is on the rocks, you may feel like I’ve made you responsible for making me feel better or offering some plan to improve the quality of my relationship. If you take this view, you probably will feel “burdened” and resentful when I relate my problem to you, because I’m imposing an obligation upon you by telling you about it.
But do you really have such an obligation? If you’re convinced that you do, think about why you believe you’re supposed to solve others’ problems. What event in your life made you decide it was your job to do that? And what do you think would happen if you didn’t solve a problem someone presented to you? What would that say about you as a person? Would it say you were ignorant? Incompetent? Or something else? If you seriously consider these questions, I think you’ll begin to doubt that this obligation exists, and to see that your fears around failing to solve others’ problems are at least somewhat exaggerated.
Also, consider whether others, when they tell you their problems, really want and expect you to offer advice. When you describe the painful events of your life to someone else, don’t you sometimes just want them to listen to your story and to how you feel? In fact, don’t you sometimes become irritated when someone offers you advice, because all you really wanted to do was express your emotions around your problem? And if you feel this way, doesn’t it seem possible that others do as well?
Second, as I said, some people feel that, when someone brings up a difficult aspect of their life, they have to fully listen to the other person’s concerns. Anything else would be selfish and hurtful. If you hold this view, it’s no surprise that you feel imposed upon—and perhaps even exploited—when others talk about their problems. You probably don’t have the time or desire to process, or act as the sounding board for, all of the complaints of every person in your life.
If this concern comes up for you when others relate their problems to you, consider whether there are acceptable ways for you to convey that you don’t have the time or inclination at the moment to listen to those problems. Can you tell someone “unfortunately, I don’t have time to talk about this right now?” Or will even that feel inconsiderate or impolite for you to do? Will saying that hurt the other person, or cause them to hurt you, in ways that seem too painful to risk?
If you don’t feel there are any acceptable ways to tell someone you don’t want to hear about their problems at the moment, take the inquiry a bit deeper. What will happen if you tell someone you aren’t available to listen to their problems, and they’re hurt by it? How will they respond? Will they abandon or attack you? Will you be an evil, selfish or ignorant person? If you simply consider these issues, you’ll likely start to question whether you truly need to be available to listen to others’ problems at all times.
Simply developing awareness regarding why you feel “burdened” when others tell you about the painful aspects of their lives can begin to ease that burden. With this awareness will eventually come the realization that you aren’t obligated to solve or listen to people’s problems. You may want to do these things, and choose to do them, but at least recognizing that other options are available to you will weaken that feeling of “burden” or imposition.
I have a simple question for you. Are you involved in your current career, relationship, and other activities because you actually find them fulfilling? Or is it because you think they’re the best way to avoid others’ disapproval?
Unfortunately, for many people, the answer seems to be the latter. Many of us picked our career paths because they looked safe and thus unlikely to frighten or displease our loved ones and friends. Many of us are in relationships with people largely because we think those people are likely to appeal to our families. And so on. The possibility of others disliking our choices is too unbearable to accept, and thus we’ve selected whatever activities we think others are least likely to criticize.
What’s most insidious about living to avoid criticism is that it seems perfectly natural because, in various ways, we’ve been doing it all our lives. As children, we cleaned our rooms, went to bed, went to school, and so forth because, if we didn’t, our parents would disapprove and punish us. We certainly didn’t do those things because they brought us satisfaction. Today, as adults, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply continuing on the same path, and letting the fear of others’ disapproval drive every choice we make.
This approach to life causes us much suffering. Even though we aren’t always conscious that we’re living to avoid criticism, being out of alignment with our callings and desires gives life a bland, uninspiring quality. We wake up early in the morning, suddenly wondering why in the world we chose this job, relationship, or some other aspect of our lives. We drag ourselves through our days, suppressing our dissatisfaction with caffeine, alcohol and perhaps stronger drugs, wondering why our bodies seem to be fighting us every step of the way. We feel resentful toward our colleagues and partners, assuming that their failings, rather than our own decisions, must be the reason for our malaise.
Ironically, living to avoid others’ displeasure also makes others worse off. Each of us, I believe, has unique, natural gifts we can bestow upon the world in our vocations, in our relationships and in our other pursuits. By ignoring our true callings and desires, we deprive the world of the full benefit of those gifts. And when we design our lives to avoid criticism, we bring a flat, lifeless quality to our interactions with others. When others ask what’s going on with us, we respond “nothing much”—and our answer is an accurate expression of our feeling of emptiness. Needless to say, this doesn’t make us pleasant or uplifting to be around.
If you feel persistently dissatisfied with what you’re doing in any area of your life, it may be because you chose the activity out of a desire to avoid others’ disapproval. If you did, however, you won’t necessarily be conscious of that fact, because—as I said earlier—you may have become so accustomed to living to deflect criticism that it seems like the only possible approach to life. If you ask yourself a few simple, targeted questions, however, you may become aware of the truth.
First, ask yourself who is likely to criticize you if you stop doing the activity you’re doing—if you leave the job, relationship or other aspect of your life that you’re dissatisfied with. Is it a person you love, trust and respect? If they didn’t like your decision, would you be able to live with their disapproval? If you can’t accept the possibility of displeasing this person, you are probably staying in your present situation to avoid their disapproval rather than to fulfill your own needs.
Second, if you determined that you are remaining in your current job, relationship or other activity to stave off someone else’s disapproval, ask yourself what would happen if that person did disapprove of you. Would they say nasty things to you? Would they abandon you? Or perhaps unrealistic or exaggerated consequences come to mind—for instance, maybe the first answer that comes up is that you would die if this person didn’t like your choice.
Understanding what you’re afraid would happen if you earned someone else’s disapproval is critical to managing that fear. If you don’t know what specifically you’re afraid of, you can’t make an informed decision about whether to make the transition you want in your life. But if you do know, you can consciously weigh the happiness you’d gain by making a change against the pain you’d feel if someone else were unhappy with you. And often, when you have some idea of the effect another person’s disapproval would have on you, it doesn’t seem so frightening. After all, if someone else—even a close friend or family member—were displeased with one of your decisions, life would still go on.
To be clear, I’m not saying you should never be concerned with the impact your actions have on others. But surely there are at least some areas of your life where it’s okay for you to make a choice that someone else may dislike. Examples, at least to my mind, would include your choices regarding your career, the number of children you have (if any), your sexual preference, and the hobbies you enjoy. I think you’d agree that you aren’t somehow obligated to make decisions about those areas of your life in constant fear that someone else—even if it’s your parents—might disapprove.
The question I posed at the beginning of this article is a sobering one to consider, and it’s one that many of us would rather avoid. But if you want genuine, lasting fulfillment in your career, your intimate relationships, and other areas of your life, it’s an important question to ask yourself. If we can get past living to avoid displeasing others, we can finally come to understand what we truly want, and maybe even what we’re here to do, in our lives.
People sometimes observe that I form emotional connections quickly with the people I meet, and that I tend to make friends and build relationships with people after just a brief conversation. Occasionally, people ask how I do this. They wonder if it’s the specific words I use, my tone of voice, or the way I move my body. It’s actually none of those things.
I connect with people by refusing to make assumptions about the way they experience the world. Instead, I ask them about their experience of life—their emotions, aspirations, defining moments, and so forth. I understand that their experience of the world is probably different from my own, and I take pleasure in learning the unique ways in which they see and respond to the world.
To understand what I’m talking about, it’s important to see that a person’s experience of the world is different from the facts about his or her life. For instance, the facts about my life include where I work; my income, age and marital status; what I ate yesterday; and so on. By my “experience of the world,” I mean the way in which I experience the facts about my life. My feelings of excitement and passion about what I do, my enjoyment of what I ate yesterday, my irritation about having to stand in line at the post office, and so on are all aspects of my experience of the world.
Often, our conversations revolve around the facts about our lives rather than our experience of them. The questions we ask in conversations are usually geared toward learning about facts rather than experiences. We ask things like: “So where did you go to school?” “What’s your degree in?” “Where do you live?” “How long have you been in your job?” “What was your golf score yesterday?” And so on. Unfortunately, this approach makes for dull conversation and doesn’t create emotional connection. Somehow, asking for and reciting facts about our lives just doesn’t make interacting interesting.
The reason for this is that the facts of our lives are not nearly as important to us as the way we experience those facts. Suppose, for instance, that my significant other and I break up. From my perspective, the mere fact that we broke up isn’t the important part of this event—the important part for me is how I feel about it. I may feel devastated because the relationship was very important to me. I may feel liberated because the relationship was becoming smothering. Or, I may have mixed feelings about it. Whatever my emotional response to the event is, it will be the most important aspect of the event to me.
Most of us, I believe, understand that our experience of the world is more important to us than the mere facts of our lives. However, even though we know this, we often hesitate to inquire about the way others experience the world in our conversations. Instead, we make assumptions about their experience of the world based on the facts they give us.
For example, if I told someone that my significant other and I broke up, they would probably assume that I felt bad about it. Thus, they wouldn’t ask how I felt about the situation. Instead, they would likely say something to console me, ask for more facts about the breakup (“how long had you been together?” and so forth), or become uncomfortable and move onto another topic.
I used to make these sorts of assumptions about others’ experience of the world, and I made them out of fear. I was afraid to inquire into others’ experience for two reasons. First, I feared that people would think I was asking stupid questions. For instance, if I asked someone how he felt about breaking up with his girlfriend, I figured he would get angry or disdainful, and say something like “obviously I felt bad about it. How else could I feel?”
Second, I believed that people would think I was being rude and intrusive. “It’s none of your business how I felt,” I thought they’d say. To avoid negative responses like these, I would stick to “polite” questions about the facts of others’ lives. “Personal questions” about others’ emotional experience were reserved for people I already knew well and felt comfortable with.
Eventually, I became frustrated with the interactions I was having. Many other people I knew seemed to find social interactions meaningful and fun, but I usually either dreaded them or found them dull or both. I wanted more friendships and intimate relationships, but I didn’t know how to get them into my life. Ultimately, I decided to do an experiment. I would try discarding the assumptions I’d been making about others’ emotional experience, and start expressing my natural curiosity about how life made them feel.
I was surprised at the results. I found that people were far more willing to open up to me than I’d expected. More importantly, people I’d just met started telling me that talking to me felt good, and that they felt connected to me—things I’d rarely heard before. And people I’d known for a long time started wanting to be around me and introduce me to others in their lives. For the first time, I started developing an enriching and enjoyable social life.
Many of us go through interactions with others believing that we shouldn’t ask them how they feel until we really get to know them. The flaw in this approach is that, unless we inquire into their experience of the world, we can’t “get to know” them at all. We can’t create an emotional connection with someone without talking about their emotions. If we want uplifting, exciting and deep relationships with others, we have to take the risk of asking them how they feel about the events of their lives. If we don’t, those relationships won’t develop.
And is there really any “risk” at all? I don’t remember anyone ever shunning or lashing out at me for asking how they experience life. Yes, those questions are “personal,” because they go to the heart of who someone is as a person. But we can only connect with each other and form meaningful relationships if we learn about each other as people. When we give up our assumptions about how others see and react to the world, and actually start asking people about their experiences, we can interact with them on a deeper level than we may have explored before.
(This article appeared on the Avenue of Authenticity blog, located at http://coachgirl.typepad.com/.)