I Just Want to Be Heard

This is a common complaint in marriage and other partnerships including business and family – “Just listen to me. Don’t try to solve my problems. Just be quiet and listen.”

Seems simple enough until you parse the verb a bit. What does listening mean? Different things to different people so it turns out.

Parents, especially moms, talk about active listening and passive listening with their children. Active listening is when you engage the speaker with your verbal summaries, concluding thoughts, various attempts at empathy, nods and affirmative grunts. Passive listening is when you pay attention but say not much, just vector in, eye-to-eye. I like the latter kind of listening a lot more. But there are other definitions of listening as well.

The other day in my office someone said, “I just want to be heard.” Here is what she seemed to mean:

  1. First, listen deeply and thoroughly to my point of view.
  2. Second, accept my point of view as true or at least more true than yours.
  3. Third, change your thinking and behaviour in accordance with my point of view.
  4. Fourth, advocate for my point of view that you now thoroughly endorse.

Otherwise, I will not feel heard, she seemed to be saying. In fact, she did not feel heard or understood in her family of origin (that is, her growing up family), in her marriage and also felt that her pastor minimized her thoughtfulness. She felt alone, misunderstood and antagonized by various other non-hearers.

Sometimes we can ask to be listened to when what we want is to be agreed with. Different.

“The Female Brain”

I am reading “The Female Brain” (2007) by Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco and founder of the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic. I had read “The Male Brain” (same author) and felt understood – now that is a compliment. But as well, a bit boxed in without the freedoms and capacities I think that men have. However, it is probably timely to understand my wife and so I have launched into her older book on “The Female Brain.”

Here are some of the things I have read, enjoyed and wrestled with:

(1) “Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty-thousand words per day.” I know that Carole often asks me, “What are you thinking” when I don’t really have any words for my thoughts. In fact, I am not sure I am thinking at all. More cognitively muttering.

(2) “Girls arrive already wired as girls and boys arrive already wired as boys.” This is certainly the case for my 2.5-year old grandson. Loves trucks, shouting his “outside voice” around the dinner table, playing pirates with a hooked finger and a mean sounding “grrr” (taught to him by his aunt) – if this is part of what it is to be a boy toddler then he seems to have been born this way.

(3) “Men are on average twenty times more aggressive than women.” Makes no sense to me at all. I have talked with lots of female client-friends who are the clear aggressors in their parenting and marriage. And their husbands / partners / kids agree. Seems more personality-driven than gender-caused.

(4) “Girls are motivated — on a molecular and neurological level — to ease and prevent social conflict.” Interesting. I am aware that men are often domesticated by women, especially in marriage and so become less competitive over time. But many men are “rescuers” in relationships equipped with a dominant fear of harming the significant other.

(5) “85% of twenty to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds and women think about it once a day – up to three or four times on fertile days.” No wonder math scores are plummeting. Actually, I have heard this so often I think it must be a suburban myth. What I do know is that men can control their thoughts and lusts however frequent and that this self-control reduces the obsessional, minute-by-minute interruptions. I don’t think that most men are victims to their sexual impulses.

(6) “Men pick up the subtle signs of sadness in a female face only 40 percent of the time, whereas women can pick up these signs 90 percent of the time.” Maybe for some men but it is not true for me. And I am aware that men can learn to discern faces and the differences between sadness and tiredness, or hurt and anger.

(7) “65 percent of divorces after the age of fifty are initiated by women.” A divorce initiation, by a man or a woman, is a response to something else, usually a hurt or a harm. Subjectively I think that men typically break covenant for another relationship, probably sexualized, while women break covenant for peace and quiet or differentiation (“find out who I am again”).

The thesis of this book is that the female brain sees the world differently and reacts differently than the male brain in every stage of life from newborn to old age. Sweeping in its generalizations, I feel like I know women less by Brizendine’s research or at least I have to think more about what I think about men and women.

(1) I think that men and women are not “opposites” but “equal others.” Opposite-thinking looks for differences, creates misunderstanding and minimizes similarities.

(2) I think that men and women have strengths and abilities based on context, culture, circumstance and that both or either can lead or submit (the latter I see as a great strength), create or appreciate, initiate or complement.

(3) I think that emotional-sexual resourcefulness is distributed to the species in a higgledy-piggledy way with men typically being the sexual initiators (80%?) and women typically being the emotional initators (80%?). This is more of a clinical guess than research. And we can learn and practice and benefit from the other’s strengths.

There is a wonderful King James description in the Bible about men and women in relationship. “Helpmate” is the ancient word. It means help appropriate to another or resourcefulness sufficient for another. I think that man is sufficient for a woman and woman is sufficient for a man and they can be more than sufficient by empowering each other. More than hormonal or biological differences.

A Husband’s Hope

When I saw you cry
today
at the psychologist’s
— you were so vulnerable and sad —
I wanted to catch each tear with my tongue
but also to stop the pain
or at least help you feel your way
through
and beyond it
to us
again
(Anonymous to you but known to us)

Hurt, Harm and Help (“One RingyDingy”)

Hurt is inevitable, predictable and measureable. It is part of what it is to be human. Some hurts are trifling (like being middle-fingered by a fellow highway traveler who dislikes one’s lane-changing creativity is a level 1 hurt) and some are terrible (I think of my friend’s recurring cancer – this is a level 10 hurt).

The other day a mean-spirited and wicked driver (the words are in italics because that is not exactly what I shouted at the time) cut me off, gave me the finger, stamped on his brakes and shocked me and my cute Mini Cooper into less than “British racing green” subservience. This experience hurt my normally sweet nature, but no harm was to be found on my soul.

Until I considered this intentional insult a little bit further and then much harm was discovered just below the surface. I pondered, “Why do people pick on me when I am such a saint?” (I actually don’t think this in my more knowing moments) and “He could have killed me; must have been drunk!” etc.

And then I felt justified sufficiently to be wounded, harmed even.

Of course, talking to my friends didn’t help. “Paddy you are such a great driver,” some said and then I was reassured that the hurt I experienced was definitely intentional and, almost, “spiritual warfare” (this said by my biblical friends who find a devil under every muffler and bumper).

An old lesson I have re-discovered: I judge others by their behaviours (especially the evil ones, e.g. middle fingers) and I judge myself on the basis of my good intent (e.g. being a “saint,” which I don’t really believe as I have said above).

Hurts don’t necessarily lead to harms unless you give them a big, fat promotion. Harms have to do with how you inflate the hurts. Magnify your hurts, treasure them as horribly special and, sure enough, you will have florid harms. Plenty of them in fact.

So what is the help here? It comes from the world-renowned philosopher, Lily Tomlin, (you can see her on this classic You Tube, “One RingyDingy”) who said, “forgiveness is giving up the hope of having a better past.” Even a better driving-the-highway past.

Okay. Healing to me.

WWJD? and Ego-Centric Bias

I am in the advice-giving business. At least I am when I am worn down from 8 hours of listening and I want to have a five-minute private audience for my thoughts and opinions.

I have discovered that most people are pretty bad at taking advice from me and probably from others as well. My client-friends don’t mind listening to my stories, smile at my jokes, engage some of my ideas, but they mostly glaze over when I get into my advice-giving mode. And I don’t really think that they will do much with the pearls once I have tossed them in their general direction.

Psychologists call this “egocentric bias,” that is, people generally figure that they can operate their lives best with their own hard-learned advice. I get this. I have people offering me advice all the time and mostly I ignore it. (Carole has been advising me for 40 years what vitamins and medicines I should take when I have a cold.) Still I carry on dispensing my treasured wisdom, knowing it will probably not be invested with the kind of thoroughness I think it should.

This egocentric bias happens everywhere: doctor’s offices, weight loss centres, guidance classes in high schools, used car dealerships, Starbucks (“you ought to try the …”). So, when someone turns to you and says, “What do you think I should do?” or “Do you think I should marry Jeff?” they actually don’t care much about your advice. They are probably just structuring the passing of time or looking for confirmation of what they already want to do.

I think I am okay with people, including my client-friends, ignoring my advice (“So, what did you get out of that homework I recommended from our last meeting?”). But sometimes my ideas are really great. So then why don’t I take my own advice more often?

One question works for me in advice-taking. WWJD: “What would _______ (Jesus) do?” (Fill in the blank with whomever you like?)

That question makes me receptive to advice and puts me in a mind space to not quickly resist the wisdom of others. It shifts my reactivity. Sometimes I say in my mind, “What would Mom do?” since I would really love to know (she died much too young). I sometimes put in the names of others that I admire or are mentors to me. Sometimes I put in the names of my kids, as in “What would David do?” or “What would Christine do?” If it has anything to do with computers or technology I ask, “What would Brent do?” He’s my son-in-law and is brilliant in ways I am ignorant. Somehow this “identifying question” makes advice palatable and makes me think outside of my egocentric bias.

This kind of identifying with someone helps me make decisions. I become part of a community of thorough opinions and applicable wisdom. I get to share in collected brilliance rather than thoughtlessly “dis” it. Amazing what an identifying question can do.

The idea of identifying questions is that if we can make a personal connection with someone we admire, then we can take the advice and apply the wisdom. If we are told what is right and good without having that personal identification, then we are more likely to reject it, forget it and not benefit from it.

Fiddling with the State of Being

I grew up in a home where alcohol ingestion was done compulsively. I discovered as a child that the drinking compulsion is an equal opportunity phenomenon – both my Mom and Dad were serious imbibers. I also learned that my parents and their friends formed an alcohol-conscious community where successful parties were granted the status of “great” by the quantity imbibed and the consequent sexualization of intimacies.

My parents were trained in drinking by the Canadian Forces during WW2 when service men and women had their pleasures subsidized by the government. I am reminded of this each and every November 11th and sometimes I stop to tell the “poppy people” why I am not buying their red and black lapel flowers while I stride righteously into the liquor store.

Over the years I have had lots of addicts of various sorts in my practice. I prefer to call them “obsessive fiddlers with states of being” – it sounds less prejudicial than “addicts” though that is what some of them are. These fine folk and friends have been compulsed by all sorts of obsessions: being happy, being right, being perfect, being taken care of, being in love, being admired, and the list goes on. (Perhaps making lists is a compulsion too?) And then they act these ideas out with predictable behaviours: drinking and drugging are common but so is arguing and defending and mean-spirited criticism. I especially dislike it when addicts pretend the moral high ground (e.g. “You are a bad person and I am busy being good or right,” or “I wouldn’t drink if you didn’t criticize me so much.”).

I often hear of sexual addictions as well. These are usually requests for affirmation and attention where the behaviours involve a moving computer image and a few square inches of genital flesh. What these folk want most often is some ordinary passion and some affection directed in their way. At least that is what heals them (mostly men) more than “Just Say No” mouse pads.

Now… I think that there are factors that may increase risk of some kind of addiction. Here are a few for you to consider and I am thinking especially of online compulsions:

♦  Fear of relationships can lead to online compulsions. I mean real relationships not surface social contacts. And a consequential lack of other interests and social isolation – this can lead to compulsive behaviour.
♦  Pre-existing abuse or addiction can easily transfer: for example, online gambling or gaming, cybersex, or online shopping.
♦  Social anxiety or nervousness can make online interactions a very attractive alternative to face-to-face interaction and thus much more compelling.
♦  Low self-esteem, poor body image, or untreated sexual dysfunction can add to obsessions and compulsions.

What fixes this more than anything else is a little reality and a little thoughtfulness. Person-to-person honesty and care, also called empathy, works well. I have found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is really good in breaking the power of addictions and compulsions. I recommend people buy “Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky. It is best to work this through with a therapist and I have a copy in my office so that if you choose we can work through the harder parts together.

You Better Start Kissing Me

This poem is by Hafez, a 14th C Persian poet (also called Hafiz, meaning someone who has memorized the Quran), well summarizes the spirit of Valentine’s merriment, perhaps from God’s viewpoint. Enjoy.
————————————–
Throw away
All your begging bowls at God’s door,
For I have heard the Beloved
Prefers sweet threatening shouts,
Something in the order of:
“Hey, Beloved,
My heart is a raging volcano
Of love for you!
You better start kissing me—
Or Else!”

The Excellence of Eric Bibb

I am not a big fan of perfectionism though I am in awe of excellence. Watching the Sedins pass the puck, or my grandson laugh eating a mouthful of banana bread, or driving a Porsche 911 as fast as it should go — this is  the experience of excellence.

But perfectionism robs the delight from a lovely object or a job well done. Perfectionism removes the joy from success and squashes creativity, courage and simple relationships while doing it.

You cannot find perfectionism and happiness in the soul of the same person — they are antithetical. Once a perfectionist succeeds, all he feels is relief, having dodged the bullet of failure one more time.

Perfectionism is the fear of failure. Whereas, excellence is the one who risks failure to succeed. There are excellent mothers and fathers, pastors  and churches, kids and teens, students and professors (I am in the middle of marking academic papers from my teaching in Kenya last December), but none that are perfect.

Last week David (my son) and I went to hear Eric Bibb sing and play at Capilano University. An amazing concert with gorgeous sounds, and tearfully touching when Eric introduced 90 year old Leon Bibb, his mentor and beloved father. Father Bibb’s voice is not what it was perhaps but there was an even more excellent thing. Hearing the Bibbs sing with arms wrapped around each other, weeping with the friendship of many years, the music was transported. And here I was with my son. Excellent it was.

And more… I read a Psychology Today article on”Perfectionism” for a parenting class I am teaching this Saturday. It is worth reading.

The Guest House (Rumi)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(Rumi was a 13th C Muslim poet. This reflection sounds like wisdom to many who experience depression, loss and heartache. Change happens only when acceptance precedes it. Ignoring one’s life — or worse, rejecting one’s life — is the surest way to non-change.)

Baptist Handshake — About Boundaries

I always thought I had a pretty good handshake. A simple forward thrust and vertical pump is what I was taught by my Dad who told me “a good man has a good handshake.”

I met a pastor with a “Baptist handshake” (I know that this is an unfair caricature) where my welcoming hand was twisted sideways and horizontally mowed like a handsaw, all the while the boney back of my surprised pod was pressed by his aggressive thumb.

I reminded myself to wave at him in the future and I avoid pleasantries with him whenever possible. I remember the handshake and the bruising.

Handshaking is about boundaries really – who is in charge of your life and in this case my hand. I don’t like feeling trapped in a coercive handshake but I love to be welcomed by an open hand. I don’t like the dominance factor: “my handshake is more manly than yours.” Handshakes are not for competition but for camaraderie.

Handshakes are also for mutuality, a greeting of equals. It serves as a personal acknowledgement and perhaps as an expression of early affection. Vulnerability is implied in a way in which a “high 5” does not. It allows for eye contact, some greeting or departing conversation, a time to signal a connection that could turn into a friendship.

Boundaries are hard to set and even harder to explain. Try telling your spouse or parent or boss that their intensity is pressuring to you and that sometimes even the bonhomie bruises.