Competitive suffering, I call it, and it drives me bloody mad. People who think they have an answer to everything; who look down on you as you wade through deep flurries of emotional shit;who judge you as inadequate because you do not choose to worship the god they swear is the answer to all salvation; because you go to a different kind of therapist; because, in moments of weakness, you relieve stress by smoking or drinking or eating too much chocolate; because you cannot do things exactly the way they tell you that you should – and so it becomes your fault that you continue to suffer; it becomes your bad that nothing relieves the pain, that you are not getting any better.
Listening should be conducted with ears and heart, not mouths and judgement which is thinly-disguised as advice. Listening is a form of love if done properly – and that includes knowing when it is right to advise and when it is best to simply let the other talk, weep, scream, howl without interruption or condemnation; without telling the other that he or she is wrong to feel that way, or imagining the wound, or misguided or stupid or feeling sorry for him-or-herself.
Listening to someone in emotional extremis should not include telling that person the detailed story of your far-worse experience – when the sobbing friend or relative is struggling to cope with the very words hewn so painfully from deep in the soul, nor should it be a necklace of passive spite beaded with ‘All men/women are like that!’ or ‘I think you are exaggerating!’ ornaments of one-up-man-ship.
True listening is actively hearing what the other is saying, both the words and the non-verbal cues; it is not sifting through your own reactive strata, thinking of anecdotes which prove that you are far worse off or seeking to make the distraught one feel small and mean and guilty for confiding in you at all.
A balanced conversation is the proper place to share rants, to compare and contrast, to bring your own miseries flooding, sometimes humorously, onto the field of words.
The animal howl of pain which we all experience at some point or another is most definitely NOT the place for any of the above. A person at the end of his or her tether does not need your emotional weight added to the end of the rope.
Going back to my title and first paragraph: The reality is that no one actually IS experiencing your precise life trauma since identical circumstances (death, for example, or rejection or marital breakdown) produce as wide an emotional response as it is possible to imagine and stem from hugely different sources. To assume that you would do better is sheer arrogance and invites hubris of the worst kind.
Look at how you are dealing with your own life traumas (or failing to deal, in so many cases) before you get sanctimonious about what you see as failures in other suffering human beings.
Often the correct use of the mouth at such times is limited to the animal range of soft and soothing warm noises, the oral equivalent of licks and strokes and cuddles.
The correct message, surely, is ‘Your distress matters to me, even if I cannot ease it,’ and not, ‘You’re doing this wrong. I can tell you how to do it better.’
Why do some people imagine that those whose nerves are at screaming point and minds so overburdened by terror and sadness that barely another thought can be crammed in are capable of taking stringent advice, no matter how well meant, on board?
Your deity may be the best in the universe. For you. Your brand of therapy may work a treat. For you. Your distraction techniques may be beyond compare. For you. Offer them, by all means, as gentle gifts, as loving suggestions. Maybe at a later date, however. But do not apportion blame, or turn your back, or give up caring, if they are not right for the desolate soul shuddering and crying before you.