One thing that I frequently hear, especially at times after a long session with a new client, is how hard it must be to have to listen to someone talk about their struggles. It’s often said in a jokingly way: “I bet you don’t want to see me again,” or “This is going to be the craziest hour of your week.”
While these jokes are just little comments that many of us make, I think they reveal a deeper issue.
It’s not easy to talk about tough things, such as loss, depression, anxiety, loneliness, hurt and sadness, and sometimes it can be really hard for people to listen to those things, too. We are all about positivity in our culture.
How many movies end up with a “real-life ending” in which the family ends up in a divorce and the kids are now splitting Christmas Eve and Christmas day between mom’s and dad’s houses?
We don’t like realistic endings, and that bleeds into how we talk about hard things. We have a desire to make things better, even in situations where there is no quick fix. When we enter into those conversations, we can feel helpless if we don’t have some small positive takeaway for our friends or loved ones to help them “look at the bright side.” This feeling of helplessness often steers us away from those conversations; they are awkward, and no one likes to feel uncomfortable.
But it’s not just the listener who struggles to work through these conversations.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people pause and tell me that they are worried that I think that all they do is complain or that the people they are having issues with aren’t nearly as bad as they are making them sound.
While there definitely are some people who might not be aware of how negative they can be, in my experience most people are conscious of how they come across. If anything, I’ve found that there seems to be more people who withhold saying things out of a desire to not sound like they are nagging or complaining than those who just say whatever they think or feel.
One thing that I’ve always remembered from my time in school studying to be a counselor was when my professor said that every time you hear someone’s story, you’ve entered into a sacred place. We too often diminish our own stories and see them as common or basic. I try to communicate to my clients that it is a privilege and honor to hear their stories. I know personally how hurtful it can be when someone ignores you and seems to be more focused on something else than what you’re telling them. I promise you that every married couple I’ve ever talked to has at some point talked about how frustrating their spouse’s phone use is.
Let’s be people who are honoring of other people and their stories. Let’s commit to being the type of people who realize that some conversations are really hard for both the speaker and the listener, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from them.
Let’s respect the things that people tell us — both by the way that we listen to them and also in how we protect their story and not turn it into gossip. Let’s commit to being the type of people who can lean into the discomfort of not being able to fix something, and who can listen and say, “I don’t know what to tell you except that I’m so glad you’re sharing this with me.”
And let’s treat each story that is shared with us as a privilege and honor.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to firstname.lastname@example.org.