This isn’t a new idea or concept by any means. But it seems like each generation discovers it a new. Usually when we first learn what it means to be heard and a part of the whole, a community. For me and my family, it came later in life than is typical for this type of milestone.
In fact, it seems to be working in reverse. The younger generation guiding the more experienced. And this is by no means a judgement on those of us who are slow to learn. I myself am amongst those ranks. Also, life gets pretty weird sometimes. And I totally understand the learning curve that us slow learners are on. So who am I to judge?
But what I’m finding, and the more I talk with those closest to me is, that most of the time when we’re too afraid to connect it’s due to the pain of not feeling heard or understood. Usually from when we were vulnerable enough to put our emotions on the line. And old relational wounding is most likely what’s holding us back. This was the case with my caregivers. And to some extent, still is.
Wounds from the Past Can Sometimes Mute Our Voices
I’ve recently been attempting to reconcile my connections with my childhood caregivers. It seems to be going considerably well, given the circumstances our relationships were ruptured under. But it has taken a lot of pride swallowing on my part. To be able to come to a place where I’m able to let go the anger and listen to my caregivers’ stories. And there was a lot of anger I was holding on to. A subject for another post for sure.
But what I’m realizing is, the more I listen to my caregivers’ stories, the more I understand that they were/are dealing with some of the same issues I was/am dealing with. Only our situations were a bit different. It’s as though we have been handing down these traumatic experiences, from one generation to the next, like some cursed family heirloom. No bueno. So how do we break the cycle of feeling hurt, alone and fearful in our own family? By feeling heard and seen by one another.
Feeling Heard Ain’t So Easy
From my understanding, most of the people in my family are afraid to connect with one another because deep down, we’ve been made to feel as though we’re unlovable to some degree. Whether it’s from the unreasonably high standards we were measured up against, or just plain neglect and abuse. We’ve let the fear of being rejected stop us from connecting with one another fully. To speak and be heard became something to be feared, instead of embraced. And sadly, this is something I feel isn’t unique to my family’s experience.
And the consequences? We’ve learned to hide ourselves and our emotions. The risk of being hurt again, too much to bear. So we lived in a cold, isolated existence from one another. As Tara Brach puts it, “longing to feel belonging” again but to afraid to reach out.
One of the main ways my family has done this is by keeping most of our interactions at surface level. Also by speeding past and numbing out the discomfort of old relational wounding. Avoiding going deeper at any cost, so as not to feel vulnerable around each other, who are in the habit of attacking vulnerability on sight. Because to us, we saw it is a weakness.
This reminds me of a visit to my doctor’s office more than a decade ago. I was talking to my GP about my anxiety level, and described the anxiety attacks I was having as, “a weakness I just couldn’t live with anymore.” But that was how I was raised. To view emotions as weak. Especially as a man, which in my family meant “weaker” emotions, such as tenderness and caring, were feminine by nature. And definitely not something men should be feeling.
The Toxic Lessons I was Taught About Vulnerability
My family was very much a product of the popular machismo culture that has been alive and well for many generations. Owning guns and drinking were prerequisites of this culture. And if you weren’t belittling those who didn’t fit in, you were considered weak and ineffectual. Vulnerability was a trait that was considered “childish”, or “feminine”, while power and control were traits of a “real man”. A man who showed vulnerability, in my family, especially around other men were punished severely and swiftly.
We were mean, with a childlike sense of cruelty. When someone was foolish enough to express an emotion that wasn’t approved of by our family dynamics, they were ridiculed and ostracized by both the men and women. In a misguided attempt to teach me what it means to be a man, when I was seven or eight years old, my uncle would come into my room at three in the morning, pulling me from a dead sleep, and verbally assault me. All the while he would be telling me how to be a man. I don’t remember the lessons from those visits as I’ve blocked them from my memory. But the effects have lasted a life’s time.
You Can’t Listen When You’re Running From One Another
My family started falling apart around the time my abuse was happening. The most independent family member had lost her battle with cancer, and my parents were divorcing in the most hostile ways they were able to muster. And when I told one parent about the abuse, they turned their back on me without a word. With so much anger, hostility and trauma flowing so freely through us, it seemed insanity to open up to what was around me. So we ran from one another. Blocking all attempts to reach out or be comforted or heard, because connection at any level meant pain.
We also didn’t know how to be tender with, or comfort each other. This was another trait that was considered feminine. So the men never learned how to be tender with anyone, especially towards ourselves, and the women were so used to being verbally abused, but also inflicting abuse, that they as well forgot how to foster the seeds of tenderness and compassion. This was a cold and confusing place to call home. Especially since we were all still telling each other that we loved one another! Sometimes in the same breath as some freshly spit venom.
Everybody was paralyzed by fear, and we all had forgotten how to connect in healthy ways. By communicating needs, being heard and seen fully by one another are some examples of healthy connection. So if you’re in this place, one of isolation, how do you begin to forge new and strengthen what bonds are left to salvage? Open and honest communication. It all comes back to being and feeling heard.
Listening to Feel Heard
The journey to feeling heard began for me when I started listening inwardly. I had followed in my family’s footsteps unwittingly and left my then wife for a woman who I felt heard and seen with. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but it wasn’t the love of another woman that would make me feel complete. What I was really looking for was a place I could feel safe enough to feel the child like vulnerability and tenderness that was so abused, and what I was shamed for feeling. All because it wasn’t “manly”, according to my family.
I say childlike not as a way to diminish the feelings of vulnerability and tenderness, only that they were still immature in me. They felt young, as from when my trauma originally happened. But these are human emotions, not ones to be relegated to a gender or age bracket.
I learned how to listen to myself when I started taking care of my basic needs. Needs such as rest by meditating regularly, and exercising consistently to take care of my physical health. Taking care of my nutritional needs by cooking healthy meals, as well as keeping my living space clean and organized. I practice self-care regularly and stay in touch with old friends while making new ones. And this, as they say, is where the magic happens.
Listening to My Friends = Listening to Myself
Learning to be present for my close friends by listening to them as they recounted their day to me. Or when they ask for my perspective on a something they are experiencing. This is where I really understood what it means to be a part of something larger. Community. To find safety in feeling uncertain of opening up to another, but opening anyway and feeling closer because of it. This is similar to how I was looking to feel safe with myself again. By listening to and comforting myself. I wish that my doctor’s visit, so long ago was the wake up call that I needed to start treating myself with more kindness. And that was after him telling me “you know, you’re being too hard on yourself”. An understatement for sure. But that lesson was still a ways off for me.
So when I started taking care of my surroundings and my physical needs, that’s when I began to understand that I had to listen to my emotional needs in the same ways I listened to and attune to those closest to me. For example, if someone I care for isn’t feeling well, I check in with them regularly to see if they need anything. I do the same for myself as well now. Rumi said it best when he wrote, “do you pay regular visits to yourself?”
Attuning to Your Own Emotions Like an Old Friend
When an emotion arises, let’s say I’m feeling a bit fearful, I check to see where my feelings of fear are coming from. Is it situational? Is there someone or something around me that is making me feel this way? Also, how I respond to this fear is equally as important as recognizing its presence.
Maybe the fear is brought up by being around a person who reminds me of someone who’s harmed me in the past. I recognize that I am in the present and that I am now in charge of keeping myself safe. Also that the past is in the past. And if I need to, I can remove myself from the situation. There is great power in the ability to choose.
Responding to the fear without reacting is an important step to break from these cycles. Because we make poor choices when we’re afraid! And it takes some digging to come to understand where your fear cycle starts. For me, it’s usually when I’m around somebody that reminds me of someone who’s abused me in the past. Stay curious about your fear and its cycle. Note when the fear takes hold. You can learn a great deal from being open to what’s happening internally, as it’s happening.
For me, the more I recognize what’s happening inside of me, my emotional states, the more I feel taken care of by myself. This is how I’ve been practicing loving myself. And no surprise, it’s similar to the ways I practice love and care with those closest to me. It’s not always easy, but it is most definitely worth it : )
Don’t Forget to be Kind
And what holds this all together is, you guessed it, being kind. When I remember that conversation I had with my doctor about my anxiety, I shutter a bit. To realize that I had been so far removed from my tenderness made me feel as though I wasn’t able to trust myself to be kind to myself. I had become my own abuser in the ways that were modeled for me in my abuse. And that was a terrifying thought.
But I remember all the work I’ve been putting into healing and feeling heard, and the ways that I am now listening to myself, and that brings me a sense of ease. Knowing that I’m capable of change is comforting also. It shows me that I’m willing and able to take care of myself in the ways that were never done for me. It’s a little scary at times, for sure. But it’s doable.
It’s when we treat ourselves with kindness that we’re able to open up and receive kindness. But it takes persistence. Especially if you were trained to view kindness as weakness, and something to be avoided at all costs. It’s been strange at times for sure. Just remember, take your time and rest when you need to. It’s difficult work. Opening up again emotionally when you’ve been abused and shut down for so long. But there’s no deadline, or need to prove anything. Just do as much as you’re able to when you’re able.
I hope this has been helpful in some way. If you have stories about how you’ve come to listen inwardly, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And as always, peace and thanks for reading : )