Margarita Tartakovsky, an associate editor at PsychCentral reached out to me with these thought provoking questions about the barriers to listening to ourselves, and how we can shift this pattern. Here are her questions with my responses, which I hope help you in your journey in reconnecting with yourself!
Q1: Why do so many of us not listen to ourselves?
- It was at least slightly adaptive to not listen ourselves in the past: I think many of us do not listen to ourselves because it was adaptive in some form in the past. Some examples include if you grew up in a home with authoritarian caregivers where it was “their way or the highway,” a child who had to push past their needs to take care of an unwell parent, or a person who tried to maintain peace by ignoring and minimizing their wants. Over time, this way can become our default method of operating and perceiving the world, which perpetuates this cycle of not listening to ourselves.
- Fear of rejection: As people, we need and love connection and safety. Sometimes we’re in situations where we feel a connection with our true values and beliefs may threaten the connection and safety we have with important others or in our communities. As a result, we may ignore ourselves and our needs to protect our sense of safety or connection.
- Fear of what we’ll hear: We live with so many expectations from others and ourselves, and sometimes I think we’re afraid if we truly listen to ourselves, we will be disappointed, hurt, or angry at what we hear. This is particularly true for people who have experienced difficult and painful experiences. Sometimes the emotions and thoughts that come up when we try listen to ourselves can feel so utterly heartbreaking, overwhelming, and even chaotic, that we’d rather not listen to ourselves.
- To avoid navigating inner conflict: When we have conflicting emotions or reactions, we can sometimes panic and feel “crazy.” How can I love someone and be mad at them? How can I be grateful and still be hurt? How can I want a promotion and feel exhausted just thinking about the additional responsibilities? It can feel easier to tune out than try and navigate these conflicting experiences.
- Fear of responsibility: If we ignore what we need, we do not have to think about how to make it possible. There can be a lot of work, emotionally and sometimes physically, in trying to give ourselves what we need, and sometimes it can feel easier in the short-term to put it off by not listening to ourselves.
Q2: What are a few examples of how we don’t listen to ourselves?
- Distraction: Most of us seem to use distraction as a way to avoid sitting with ourselves. Our world offers us so many ways to distract whether it is through work, trying to fix other people’s problems, overscheduling your life, using substances to numb out, tidying your home, or clicking “Next” on Netflix. Sometimes we can even use seemingly healthy outlets like career goals or yoga as distractors.
- Rationalization: This is when people try to explain away behaviors or experiences that were upsetting or inappropriate. This often comes up when navigating sticky issues with important people in our lives, like a partner, a parent, a child, or colleague. The downside is this strategy minimizes your feelings, and prevents you from identifying a more thoughtful ways of addressing the issue that might actually be more respectful and balanced for everyone involved.
Q3: What do you think listening to ourselves looks like? What does it entail?
I think listening to ourselves is an ongoing process. It begins with trying to meet ourselves where we are, and how we try to meet ourselves can look different (see response 4).
As we begin to practice listening to ourselves we will likely notice the barriers we’ve each cultivated and the reasons for them. Notice what comes up and identify strategies to help you understand and address the barrier. Some possible barriers include feeling overwhelmed by intense emotions, intense self-judgment about our thoughts, unresolved trauma, or fear of loss.
Q4: Please share a few ways that readers can start to listen to themselves.
- Specific techniques: Journaling, audionotes, quiet reflection, or dance can all be wonderful ways to begin listening to ourselves. Therapy is also wonderful because you can work with a non-judgmental and respectful trained professional, who’ll help you sort through and understand your experiences. Therapists can also use their training to equip you with strategies that address your unique barriers.
- Set time boundaries: when starting a new practice, it helps to set a timeframe that feels realistic to you. So if 5 minutes of journaling feels more doable than 10 minutes, be kind to yourself and start there.
- Pay attention to emotional intensity: If you begin our practice of listening to ourselves by trying to face the most traumatic thing, it can make us feel completely overwhelmed, scared, and more afraid to listen to ourselves. I recommend practicing initially with something that might be a level 3 or 4/10 on a distress scale. It could be writing about your recent conversation with a friend, reflecting on a movie you watched, or identifying 3 experiences you are grateful for. If you are processing something more difficult, find supports to do it (e.g., protecting enough time for your feelings, connecting with a supportive friend, finding a therapist).
- Be kind to yourself and give yourself time: Any new behavior takes intention, protected time, and thoughtfulness, so give yourself time to grow at your own pace.
Q5: What else would you like readers to know for this piece?
Currently, we are getting a lot more messages about loving yourself, being body positive, listening to ourselves, and being kind. Sometimes we can then think, “Why is this so hard for me? Look at all the support I have to actually listen to myself!” Try not to judge yourself.
Remember there were reasons it was effective to disconnect from yourselves, but maybe now you’re realizing the costs of that disconnection feels too high. Honor your journey to grow and heal – take it one step at a time as you strengthen your practice of listening to yourself. Reading this article itself is part of the strengthening process!