On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
Over the years, I have witnessed ways in which empathy and active listening can harm rather than serve.
Weird thing to say, right?
Stay with me.
We all need to digest this fully for empathy to help rather than harm.
In many forms of psychology, the self is not one solid, always consistent, thing. We are moving from different parts of ourselves all the time and growth is about learning our inner architecture so we have more choice in our lives to live freely rather than shackled by psychological patterns that are outside our awareness. When our minds and relating patterns are fixed we are driven by defense mechanisms rather than empowerment.
For some people, active listening and empathy can be a defense mechanism that harms rather than helps.
Below is a diagram from Transactional Analysis. Just one simple model among many different ways to view how the self is split into many parts or ego states. I don't love the primacy given to "thinking" and "rationality" in this diagram and wish the word "thought' under the adult column were swapped out for "regulated" but the image still serves us. albeit, imperfect. (I also love Gestalt Theory, Internal Family Systems, Systems Theory, Jungian Analysis, Trauma and Sensorimotor Therapy, and Indigenous Concentric Systems Framework Theory who all have parts models).
I have witnessed folks who engage in active listening from a parent or child ego state. Their listening isn’t free because they are needing to be a savior, seen as good, or right (parent). These listeners feel badly if talkers don’t share something intensely personal or emotional, don’t get a lot of people coming to share with them, don’t get recognition from the community for their act of service, or they get angry when they are challenged with a boundary.
What is often missed in most listening training is the skill to track what ego state we are listening from that stops equality in our connection.
I am going to throw my own profession and myself lovingly under the bus a bit.
Therapists get into this work for various reasons but often one main one is to help. I know a snaggly part of me studied psychology because I was trying to prove I wasn’t crazy as I was told by my mother my entire childhood. “Something is wrong with you” she would tell me virtually any time I had an emotion that wasn’t happy. I continue to do earnest inner work around my defense mechanisms and I see my work as part of justice work. Yet, while conscious of my ego states more than most, I still get caught in what transactional analysis terms drama triangles.
Photo From Data Hive UK, How To Train Your Brain For Business Success
The Victim sees life as happening to them and feels powerless to change their circumstances. Victims place blame on a Persecutor who can be a person or a situation. Being powerless, the victim ostensibly seeks a rescuer to solve the problem for them. Victims also have a sneaky interest in validating their problem as being unsolvable. The Rescuer, in turn, seems to want to help the victim but in fact acts in a way that is geared to the rescuer's own need to be seen. Forbes, How To Escape The Dreaded Drama Triangle, Blumenfeld
Without intentional inner work, we run the risk of perpetuating a power over, power under dynamic as therapists and empaths.
When I go to a dinner party and folks find out I am a therapist, they almost always ask “Oh are you analyzing me now?” to which I always reply “I only analyze people under two conditions. One, if I am being paid. Two, if I am acting some hurt of my own out and I am using my therapy training to try to gain power (persecutor or parent ego state).”
Non-profit volunteers engage in disempowering “saviorism”, “parent”, “rescuer”, or “power over” dynamics that may harm rather than help.
In fact, I am learning, drama triangles are even more rampant in volunteer work.
Does this mean do not do good? No way.
Does this mean do-gooders are bad people? No way.
It means we have an invitation right now to support equality and health by listening from our empowering adult selves.
And the way to do that is to look inward at how your “do gooder” is and is not an empowering adult part of you.
I will use my own mistakes as a good example of how to do this.
In response to the COVID19 quarantine, my scared child self first took over and felt like a victim because it only saw problems and the worst-case scenarios. I was looking desperately for a rescuer. My inner parent took over to help that inner child but it also quickly wanted to help everyone else too and on to rescuing everyone else I went.
But my adult said “Wait, Traci let’s go for a run, calm down, and think things through.” I got calm and solutions focused and zeroed in on options that were empowering to me and others.
Photo From Data Hive UK, How To Train Your Brain For Business Success
For our listening to provide the kind of connecting that heals our listening needs to be empowered and empowering. To do that, we need to understand our own inner ego states that may have us moving from an inner parent or inner child. When we move from either parent or child inside, we easily get sucked into harmful drama triangles with others.
The goal in our listening, is to move from our adult self and connect from the empowerment triangle. So often we talk about the importance of boundaries here at Sidewalk Talk. Why? Because having none means you are slipping into a rescuer mode in the drama triangle and that connection is not heart-centered and empowering to the talker.
Tips to remain in your empowered adult self when listening:
Let’s enable our listening to be an act of inner and outer empowerment and freedom for all.
Do you know you are a good person?
Do you know you are valuable because of who you are, not what you do?
Do you have a regular practice of self-compassion when you forget?
What does any of this have to do with Sidewalk Talk?
Sidewalk Talk is a PRACTICE....we exist to explore, learn, grow, and deepen our practice of heart-centered listening and connection.
It feels good to be out there on the sidewalk where there is a greater diversity of people who we might not run into otherwise. Our lives are enriched by others’ stories. That is our jam - to widen our embrace to more and more different kinds of people. To diversify our inner and outer ecosystem because diverse ecosystems are the most thriving and long-living ones.
Sometimes a person plops down in a chair and they confide some pain, or some heartache, or some really big need. And it feels really really good to be a benevolent human who can connect with someone in need. It feels good to help. For Sidewalk Talk listeners it also feels good to know others struggle with life, just like we do.
There is a temptation that we all slide into that I invite us to consider a bit together. (No finger wagging or shaming anyone here. Be curious and gentle with yourself ok?)
Sometimes, inside, we volunteer because we are trying to get away from some bad feelings we have about ourselves. Guilt. Shame. A feeling of unlovability. Not enoughness. You get my drift. It is shadow stuff. And every human has shadow stuff. It is normal. I have it too.
Our work is to learn about the less kind parts of ourselves and embrace them so we can listen from love rather than lack or “connection” rather than “separation”.
Want to know what Sidewalk Talk has taught me about these shadow parts? My feelings of lack can get in the way of connection. Sometimes they can be beautiful feul for shared vulnerability if I can connect with them but often, when volunteering, they can create a barrier with someone who is sitting down to talk.
When can our own ‘not good enough feeling’ block connection?
I may need to “help” or “advise” or “fix” so I can feel good enough. Or I may need to save or rescue so I can compensate and feel “better than”. Inadvertently and quite unintentionally, I am imposing on this person that I need them to be smaller than me so I can feel better about myself. We have had volunteers show up and tell me ‘I really want to advise this person on what to do with their life. It isn’t enough to just listen.’
If you listened to my interview with Julian Plumadore on the podcast this week about listening to homeless folks, we laughed that fixing is not actually helpful for it robs that person of the agency and dignity to know what is best for them. What they need most is humble listening and someone willing to sit in the muck and discomfort together and the strength that brings allows people to organically hear their own empowered wisdom.
One of our volunteers, Barbara Myers, is perhaps better at embodying this than anyone else inside the Sidewalk Talk organization. When she listens, week after week, on the streets of San Francisco in the roughest neighborhoods, there is a trust she has in folks who sit down to share. She believes in their dignity and their wisdom.
But Barbara, as I have talked more with her, is very serious about the things she does in her life to know her value from the inside out. She doesn’t over give. She exercises. She says no to things. She prays. Jen Singer interviewed Barbara last week.
If any of us need our “listening” or “volunteering” to make up for a sense of not feeling good enough inside, we may feel like we need to go out and save people in order to feel better.
We love our volunteers feel good and enlivened from widening their embrace. We also love that their practices of self-compassion and self-exploration allow them to be more fully present. Part of serving the communities we live in is to come from fullness, love, and equality. We are serious about practicing that here.
I am a woman, therapist, wife, mom, friend, listener, and founder/leader of Sidewalk Talk. You can subscribe to my couples therapy list here.