I woke up today beaming with positivity and inspiration and feeling like I really wanted to write!
We tend to equate courage and bravery with battles fought with swords and spears. As a Sikh, the image of Guru Gobind Singh Ji riding on a horse, sword drawn, comes to mind. I think of the brave Sikhs that gave their lives for us, and for freedom of religion. To be willing to risk your life or sacrifice your life is most certainly courageous! But I think the definition of courage can also be expanded into the realm of the mind.
Brene Brown writes I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame, “In one of it’s earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences- good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.’”(1) I agree with this definition. It is courageous to speak out, tell your story, tell the truth. When we speak out, we are taking the risk of being rejected, isolated, shamed, judged, etc. This is especially true for individuals speaking out about topics like mental illness, addictions, sexual assault, domestic violence, etc. that have a lot of stigma around them. Although it’s not physically life or death, acceptance and connection are necessary for humans on a social level, so the risk is a big one. I don’t think forcing anyone to speak out before they are ready is acceptable, but if an individual is willing to share their story, I think we should be ready to recognize the courage it took for them to get there. Speaking out gives an individual a chance for empowerment, but that can be taken away if the person they are sharing with it invalidates their feelings. I’m not just talking about the serious issues I mentioned above, but I think even sometimes our everyday experiences can be painful ones, and being receptive and supportive is important.
Like most people, I’ve had a lot of hard conversations in my life. Overwhelmingly, I’ve had tons of support, but there have also been some experiences of people saying the wrong thing, being not only supportive but actively harmful and perpetuating negative stereotypes. I learned that even if it’s in your job description, you might not have the empathy skills to be able to listen. Having been on both sides of emotionally charged conversations and having supported others through emotional crises, I wanted to share some of what I have learned.
For the person who wants to share: Emotional processing is difficult for both the person talking and the person listening. Because of this, I think it’s important for the person wanting to share their feelings/experiences to check in and see if the other person is willing to receive the information. It doesn’t end well when the other person is having their own difficulties and is emotionally vulnerable too. Rather than making any assumptions, just ask to make sure they are in a headspace of being able to listen. It might just be a bad day for them and you need to talk another time. Second, I’ve found it useful to take a break once in a while if you are sharing a particularly long story, and write it down, if it’s a particularly emotional one. Just reading out what you write is easier because then you don't have to rely on your brain to remember when you are already nervous.
For the person listening: This is a lot harder than people think. Sometimes you feel overwhelmed, helpless, or you just don’t know what to say. You need to be understanding of the fact that its really hard for people to share their feelings (this is especially true for men, who have been taught in our culture that it’s not okay to share their feelings). In your position its important to reserve judgment, and keep from advising the other person, but instead listen to try to understand from that person’s point of view. Brene Brown writes “Teresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar in England, identifies four defining attributes of empathy. They are: (1) to be able to see the world as others see it; (2) to be nonjudgmental; (3) to understand another person’s feelings; and (4) to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.” (1) These are all essential when you are listening to someone share their story. People really want to be reminded that they have a right to how they feel, and it’s okay that they feel that right now. I read about some common ways people invalidate and I think they are worth mentioning: blaming, minimizing, trying to avoid feelings that you aren’t comfortable hearing about, and wanting to fix other people’s feelings (2). Lastly, you have a right to your own reaction, but it’s important not to take away from the other person’s need to express their feelings by throwing in your own. For example, sometimes people misdirect their anger, which is actually at the situation, to the person telling the story. Also, I think being on this end of the conversation is emotionally draining and sometimes we need some time for ourselves. It’s important to communicate that you are still there for the person but need some space right now to deal with your own feelings. I personally had this experience a month ago when several friends were going through a tough time at the same time and were leaning on me for support. I quickly realized the importance of taking some time to do some emotional processing of my own.
A few yrs ago I would have been uncomfortable and mentally run away from a hard conversation someone was trying to have with me. Usually all I could think of were generic messages of support like “I’m so sorry that happened to you," "that must be hard," "let me know if there is anything i can do” And although there's nothing wrong with those per se, it's just that they aren't all that great. I think i simply didn’t have the skills to be able to do much more. Today, I know how much courage it takes to be vulnerable enough to share something, and I’m happy to be the one listening when I can. The best way we can celebrate that courage is to make sure that we can do all we can to support the person telling their story.
Watch this awesome video from Brene Brown on empathy
Watch this awesome video from Brene Brown on empathy
(1) Brown, Brené. I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame. New York: Gotham, 2007. E-book.