Simply holding space is one of the greatest gifts we can give one another – to be a compassionate witness without judging or needing to make things better. So why do we rarely hold space for ourselves? Why are we so slow to give ourselves the same gift of compassionate listening? (Abby White)
In this blog series I am exploring my three words for the year, and today I park my pen one last time on the word listen. I’ve shared my struggles with listening to God and my insights on listening to others. Now it’s time to go inwards and examine listening to myself.
As I begin to wrestle with this new listening angle it strikes me that, once again, I may not be very good at it. Abby White’s opening question—why are we so slow to give ourselves the gift of compassionate listening—is worth examining. I suspect our culture teaches us that we must put the needs of others over the needs of self. This may be particularly true in the way girls are raised: always having to be ‘nice’ and ‘accommodating’ and ‘helpful’—a cohort of people-pleasers in the making.
In addition, I suspect we are taught to dismiss or hide ‘inappropriate’ feelings such as anger or fear. Repressing emotions deemed unacceptable makes it difficult to get in touch with our true feelings.
Another barrier to internal listening (at least for me) is busyness and distraction. This may also be a strategy to avoid those feelings we don’t want to deal with.
Last year, as I journeyed through the book The Deeply Formed Life, I wrote a post on this same topic of interior examination, and I can’t say I’ve covered a great deal of ground since then. But one thing has stayed with me from Rich Villodas’ book and that is his invitation to be ‘compassionately curious’ about my feelings, particularly any anxiety that surfaces. It strikes me that his invitation is similar to the one in the opening quote on compassionate listening.
Listening to ourselves may just start with gently and compassionately asking ourselves, ‘what do I need right now?’
There is quite a bit of anxiety swirling around my family at the moment, and after a particularly stressful and rushed dinner, I stopped and asked myself this exact question: what do I need right now? The answer came: I want to go sit outside in the dark, in the quiet. I’m always quick to drown out my anxiety by watching something on Netflix or getting stuck into something on my To-Do list. Yet when I stopped to truly listen to myself it led me to a restorative evening of self-care.
One other practice that has served me well in listening to myself is not saying yes before I have time to examine how I truly feel. When someone asks me to do something, I will generally say, ‘I’ll think about it’. And then—this may surprise you—I try to put the request out of my mind. I don’t churn over it, listing the pros and cons and debating whether I should or shouldn’t with every person around me. I’ve found that over-engaging my mind can lead to confusion. Sometimes the counsel I need is deeper than this—my heart needs to leap up with a ‘Yes!’ or it needs to thump out a firm ‘No!’ That’s precisely what happens when I give my heart the time and space to respond*. When I ask myself a few days later how I feel about the request, I usually know what my answer needs to be.
Friends, let’s take time to honour ourselves with the compassionate curiosity and gentle listening that we so desperately need.
I’d value your thoughts and insights on why listening to ourselves is such a struggle and how we can give ourselves the gift of compassionate listening.
(*As a Christ-follower, I also believe that this approach gives the Holy Spirit time to guide my decision-making).