When in conversation with other human beings, most of us are inclined to offer an uh-huh, hmmm or head nod every now and again, to let the other person know we’re hearing them and receiving their information. These gestures are a way of maintaining a connection in the interaction and assuring the other person that we’re with them in their story.
One friend, whom I’ve known for many years, simply doesn’t participate in this customary behavior. These normal symbols of acknowledgment don’t happen and never have. When I share thoughts or experiences with this friend, I don’t receive any clear signal that he’s receiving them, much less absorbing my experience in any meaningful way. I assume that he’s hearing me, given that he’s in the room and not deaf, and also because he will often allude to what I’ve shared in a later conversation. But in the actual interaction, there’s nothing to affirm the fact that I’m being listened to. And often it feels as if I’m speaking to no one.
In a recent “conversation” with this friend, I noticed that I was growing increasingly anxious and even low-grade frantic. In the absence of any acknowledging words or gestures from him, in the silence, I felt increasingly untethered, ungrounded, off-center, and no longer in touch with my own experience. I was losing connection with myself. The words that were coming out of my mouth were still telling the story I wanted to tell, but the one saying them (me) had left the scene. I was disconnected from what was important to me about what I was sharing. Imperceptible though it may have been externally, internally I was on a feverish chase, fixated on eliciting a response from him, on getting him to hear me, validate my experience, and ultimately, show me that I existed.
Regardless of what you or I might think about my friend’s behavior, or my choice to be in a relationship with him, the experience points us toward a larger issue. If we stop and check in with ourselves, take note of our internal state while in conversation with friends and significant others, frequently we find a background feeling of anxiety, struggle, or effort. Without being aware of it, we’re trying to get something from our listener, to elicit a certain response, and ultimately, make something feel better in ourselves.
Often, we need something from our listener that we’re not even aware of needing. We’re trying to get the other person to make us feel heard, to give us the feeling that our experience is understood, that we are understood. We award the other person with the power to fulfill or deny us this primal craving, the most basic of all human longings. And because this longing to be heard is so deep and profound, so painful when it doesn’t happen, giving it away to our conversation partner creates a sense of stress and even desperation in us. Without knowing it, we render ourselves powerless in the fulfillment of one of our most basic needs.
Sometimes, in addition to trying to be heard, we’re struggling to get support or validation, to get the other person to make us feel okay about something we said or did, to confirm our rightness. Sometimes we’re trying to elicit a response that will assuage our guilt, shame, or fear, and quiet our own negative thoughts. At other times, we’re trying to get the other person to see us in a particular light, as smart, impressive, good, or any other positive identity; we’re trying to elicit a response that will make us feel like we’re enough.
No matter what we’re trying to get from the other person—and usually, it’s something—we suffer if we don’t get it.
Trying to elicit a response is a normal part of every human interaction. But at a subtle and not so subtle level, this often hidden intention creates a background feeling of stress and struggle.
In order to free ourselves from this way of relating, we need awareness.
First, we need to become aware of when we’re internally caught in an interaction and being driven by the need to get something from our listener. We need to be able to stop right there, in that moment of caught-ness, and pull the lens back. Then we can observe our own internal condition.
We need to become conscious of what’s really driving us, what response we’re trying to get, and most importantly, what such a response would satisfy or ease in us.
With awareness, we can step out of the struggle, step back from the relentless effort. We can turn our attention away from the other and toward our own longings. Then we can begin feeding ourselves in ways that we can control. The heavy lifting required to get someone else to give us what we need can then melt into a compassionate presence within ourselves.
In a recent conversation with my aforementioned, non-responsive friend, my body alerted me to the fact that I was in a state of intense anxiety and distress. I became aware that my shoulders were up by my ears and my breathing was rapid. My voice was growing louder and there was a boulder-like tightness in my chest. As soon as I became aware of these physical sensations, I stopped the chase, unhooked from the conversation, from the trying to get him to hear me, and took a slow conscious breath. I paused and turned my attention from outward to inward. I literally and figuratively gathered up all the energy I was launching outward, at my friend, and brought it back into myself. Through this process of awareness, I was once again at the center of my own universe. I had stopped orbiting around his planet and settled back home on my own.
I then continued to tell the same story, but instead of telling it to and at him, I told it to myself. I began, not just to speak, but also to listen to and receive my own words. Rather than sending my energy out into the ether, giving away my words, hoping to get some signal back from space that would prove I existed, I consciously became my own destination and mirror.
What’s most important is that we stay in touch with ourselves, stay internally conscious and connected when interacting with others. At any moment, we can check in with ourselves and notice our state of being. Are we feeling anxious or disconnected? Are we chasing after something, trying to elicit a certain response from the other? Are we blindly striving to get some need fulfilled?
Whatever we discover can then be an opportunity, not for criticism or judgment, but to know ourselves better, to uncover what’s driving us and what we really need and want.
Such an inquiry is an invitation not just to become more self-aware, but also more self-compassionate. Through this process, we acknowledge our own struggle and the suffering that comes when our own needs go unmet.
We self-inflict suffering when we abandon ourselves and award others with the power to fulfill or deprive us of our deepest needs. Here’s the good news: We can change the way we experience basic human interactions. Awareness is the door to freedom.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com