One of the things I’ve learned over the years, through my own therapy, therapy training, recovery from addiction and understanding the influence of my pathogenic family, is that every person we meet has some pain or confusion. It might manifest itself through addiction, aggression, people-pleasing, bullying, controlling behaviour, anxiety, or other ways, but it’s there. When we encounter the 'rude' retail assistant, how do we try to understand the potential difficulty of their life? The cold-caller who wants to tell you about the compensation you are due as a result of the accident you (never) had - what disadvantages have they had as they started out in life? How dispiriting must it be to work for a cold-calling company where most people either hang up on you or shout at you?
Our society is greatly influenced by social media. We see what others have and we judge ourselves in comparison - the glamourous holidays, perfect partners, smart cars, and stylish homes. But what’s beneath the façade? What are those lives really like? In many cases, they are painful and unfulfilled. The externals have become a substitute for real meaning, and the projected image of 'success' and happiness is an illusion. By acknowledging and accepting that others are as confused and in pain as we ourselves are, we can have empathy for them and not judge them. By listening to what they have to say, we allow them to feel a true connection.
Clients who enter therapy have something that they want to talk about - in many cases, if not all, we can trace their present-day difficulties to childhood. Without apportioning blame, we can lay the responsibility for their pain today in the microcosmic family of origin. But that’s those who decide they want to work through their pain; many others are living it and experiencing it daily with no reprieve. They aren’t aware of the origin of their anger; they don’t know that they fear to be authentic because it will blow the edifice away and leave them having to reconstruct themselves and live authentically. And so, the masquerade continues. They buy more things, gamble one more time, and take another drink in the hope that, finally, things will change. They won’t. These temporary external fixes are precisely that - temporary. I see it play out in the gym (particularly among men) - the obsession with having the perfect body. But I wonder when they will reach the point where they feel they have achieved the body that gives them the validation they need?
Yet, all these people are crying out to be heard. They want to connect so badly and be 'seen' that they will grab at the chance when it’s presented. Whether that’s anger at the sales' assistant, off-loading to the taxi driver, getting into a fight in the pub, or assuming superiority over the restaurant waiting staff - it’s all there. This was brought home to me recently when I bought some wooden roses from a street vendor. We got talking and he asked what I did for work. When I said I was a therapist he told me about the difficulties he was experiencing with his son’s OCD and the fact that his mother was reaching the end of her life. We talked for a few minutes, and as I was leaving, he said "we could stand here all day and put the world to rights". There was something moving in the way he wanted to tell me a little of his story; how he wanted to say, unobtrusively, how he was feeling, and for me to hear him so that he didn’t feel quite so alone.
This was one person among millions, but there are others that we pass every day and either assume they’ve got it all worked out or we dismiss them as not acting in the way we’d like. We’ve got the script and they aren’t reading the lines they’re supposed to.
Pause and reflect
If we know that someone is having a difficult time, then we treat them kindly, so let’s assume everyone is carrying their burden today. Their loss, fear, anxiety, rejection, or sorrow is hurting them more than usual now; taking a few moments to hear them, or at least not add to their difficulty, might very well help them through.
And I must listen to my own advice. Recently, as a conference, a man whispered to his colleague during presentations. It irritated me that he wasn’t paying attention in the way I felt he should. Later in the day, I was talking to him and he told me he was tired because he was in a hotel the night before and he hadn’t slept well; that his young daughter has Down’s Syndrome, and he and his wife were often up during the night to help her to the loo, or to get her a drink. I also noticed that a photograph of this daughter was his laptop screen saver. So here we have a loving dad, a tired worker away from his family overnight, and a man who was holding his love and his pain together, and yet I only had compassion and empathy for him when I knew his difficulties.
Such difficulties are summed up perfectly in 'The Hollow Men'...
The Hollow Men
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
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