Listening to yourself and others

Radio and microphoneI occasionally encounter someone who has either been with or been one who has lost her/himself in a relationship. I give my advice on these situations through the lens of listening. It has proven tremendously helpful to talk about these situations (and others) through the lens of the balance between listening to youself and others (or inward and outward sensitivity). In my work as a therapist I have found myself returning to it many times and I want to share it with you here.

I initially came upon this idea when I was listening to a podcast interview with Esther Perel1. I had seen her two Ted talks 2,3 and read her book Mating in Captivity4. I had been impressed by her eloquence and frankness when speaking about touchy subjects; so I was scouring the internet for more from her. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t been able to find the interview later (I will update it this post if I find it later). I would strongly recommend reading her books and seeing her videos, they continue to inspire me at each re-watch and re-read.

In passing she muses that (while also admitting it is a strong generalisation): Men are culturally brought up to know what they want while women are culturally brought up to know what others want. It struck a chord with me and I ended up using this concept as a tool to understand relationships. Initially I will say that I don’t attribute either quality (listening to self or others) to women or men, but I believe that these are acquired abilities. The more we practice listening to our desires, the better we will get and vice versa.

The most profound lesson I learned from looking at the world through this model is that they are mutually inhibitory. That means that being relatively more sensitive to one side means the other becomes harder to pick up. So even if a person is very experienced with both, a bias will turn into a blind spot. I didn’t understand the fully until I began using the metaphor of two microphones pointing in either direction, connected to just one speaker. When one microphone becomes very sensitive the signal coming in through that one drowns out the signal coming from the other, and vice versa. The relative sensitivity between the inward and outward pointing microphones defines us on this spectrum of listening to ourself and others.

This helped me to see that some are incredibly sensitive to the desires of others and it ends up leading them away from their own needs. It wasn’t that they were sacrificing themselves to please others, they simply couldn’t hear clearly what they desired. Especially when around someone who expressed their own desires strongly. I understood that people who seemed selfish actually found it hard to pick up the desires of others when they hadn’t fulfilled their own first. It wasn’t stupidity nor malice, it was simply an unbalance in sensitivity.

I do believe that Esther Perel has a point in saying that men are generally praised for being masculine by knowing what they want. Not knowing what they want is often seen as unmasculine, and so a man does not fully realise himself until he expresses and knows his desires. In the same way women are often praised for diplomacy, and being unreasonable and selfish is often seen as hard or unfeminine. The hardness of masculinity and the softness of femininity may have its roots in this sensitivity to self or others.

It is usually those who are biased towards being outwardly sensitive who approach me for advice. These are the ones who get lost, and suddenly find that they have not fulfilled their own needs for years, while spending all their energy on others. They hit a critical wall, where some part of them pulls the handbrake and they usually react outwardly with a sudden ferocity. I often see people who explode into a period of exploring their own needs after leaving a relationship, I think this is connected to a lacking inward sensitivity during the relationship. Those who are balanced towards inward sensitivity are usually too self driven to ask others for advice, and for better or worse never notice their problems.

Being strongly biased towards inward sensitivity is usually associated with selfishness, solipsism and/or egomania. These are people who simply aren’t able to hear the desires of others before their own has been fulfilled. It is the feeling of knowing exactly what you desire at all times, but the volume of that desire is so high that the desires of others seem less significant. This can potentially grow into a form of sociopathy, where the person suffering from a heightened inward sensitivity can perceive the feelings and desires of others, but simply does not care as long as it has desires of its own.

My experience is that simply understanding where you find yourself on this spectrum is very helpful to guide you away from overly selfish or overly selfless action. We may introduce artificial volume knobs that amplifies the volume of either our own desires or those of others. We may also be interested in practicing either expressing our desires or listening to others express theirs, in order to balance our sensitivities.

Personally I have a strong desire to balance my sensitivities, and from there improve both together. I wish to do this in a practice of listening to others while I express my own desires. I don’t want to confuse this with reaching agreement or finding common interests, to me it is rather one of being sensitive and accepting towards the desires coming from within and without at the same time. My own experience is that by doing this the resolution becomes greater and the waters of desire becomes clearer. To me it is a big part of relating to create a space that can hold my own desires and those of others. Knowing that some are initially set up to be very outwardly or inwardly sensitive helps me greatly in my creation of this space.

I believe we all have private worlds, and we all long to reach out and be reached out to. I hope that this text will inspire you to either getting less lost or perhaps listening more. Then maybe someday I will be lucky enough to enjoy a relationship with you (or I’m lucky enough to already be in one with you) and that relationship can be a house where our desires can live together in mutual acceptance. That sounds a lot like love after all.

  1. Esther Perel – Therapist / Author / Speaker / Thought Leader ↩︎
  2. The secret to desire in a long term relationship ↩︎
  3. Rethinking infidelity … a talk for anyone who has ever loved ↩︎
  4. Goodreads: Mating in Captivity ↩︎

The power of expressing desire

Handing apple to shopper I’m standing in the kitchen of a friend. We’re in the midst of planning the day. We both want to see one of her old friends whom I have recently been introduced to. She tells me that he had expressed a selfish desire to spend the day with both of us and gave some more details about what he wanted to do. I repeat the words “selfish desire” back to her because they’re slightly odd sounding to me, and I must have said it in the tone of a question because she elaborates with a “I think he means that it is his narcissistic personal desire, if he was the only one deciding what would happen”. At this point my mind begins making mental notes for writing later. What triggers my interest is that he is clearly expressing what he wants, before taking into account what others may desire. He is given my friend the courtesy of being directly honest about his personal desires, exposing them directly to us. Immediately I feel a sense of ease and lightness from knowing what he wants. An ease that arises from knowing that he hasn’t taken my wishes into consideration.

If someone had told me “Express your desires. It will make you happy.” I would likely have agreed with her. It may even have happened to me once or twice, and it has almost surely been mentioned in one of the many psychology and philosophy books I have read over the years. What it took for me to understand its power, was to be subjected to it myself. Experiencing a person clearly and honestly state their desires without no expectation of fulfilment. Throughout the day I kept reminding myself to write notes, and remember this profound act of communication. Only a few days later I had the time to fully write down my experiences and ideas. This turned into a “How to clearly express your desires” guide, and missed the point of my journey completely, it took me a long time to find the motivation to write up a different perspective.

My first question was why I hadn’t done this before. It seemed blatantly obvious. How could I possibly have missed such a useful tool, and how could I have survived without it? I started keeping an eye on my communication regarding my wishes, desires and needs. It quickly became obvious that most of the time I was asking others what they wanted, seeking to see how my desires may overlap with theirs. In many cases, I noticed that they were playing the same game. None of us would truly divulge our innermost clearest desire, and so our wishes to fulfil each others would always be limited by our own holding back. There was a benign and caring intent of respecting the desires of those around us, that eventually ended up blocking out stating our personal desires clearly. I began exchanging my “What do you want to do?” with “I have a desire to see you at 12.00 at the café and spend two and a half hours together, then I have a desire to go home and work”.

My expectation was that people would be offended at this directness. Rarely this was the case, but mostly people responded in the opposite way. Often people felt relieved that they knew exactly what I desired. They felt safe that I would express my desires.

I began making clear distinctions between needs and desires. Needs were different from desires in that they were required, I couldn’t go without them, and I found that I ended up using needs very rarely. Most of what I wanted was desires, in other words they did not need to be fulfilled. I made a promise to myself to always state them. I made this promise to give myself the opportunity to have them fulfilled but also to give others the opportunity to fulfil them.

In the period that followed people became accustomed to my new way of clearly expressing desires. Quickly people learned to say no, and planning time together became less of an insecure probing-the-waters and more of an open and honest sharing of things that would bring us joy. I ended up feeling much better about expressing my introvertness by expressing desires for meetings to be time-bound, and expressing a wish to be alone together. Often I would have a secret desire to just sit together and read or write, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable expressing it. This way of expressing myself in a way where I felt that my communication was clearly only about my selfish desires, helped me to overcome this discomfort. In a surprising number of cases others revealed that they had similar desires to mine.

Now I find myself starting almost all conversations with a statement of desires. I find myself planning by expressing my desires almost all the time, and giving space for others to express their selfish desires. Sometimes I will explain that it is my personal desire, and that I haven’t taken anyone else into account. Often I will ask how that desire sits with them. I have found that the fear of being rejected in terms of sexual or romantic desires have become almost non-existent. This is mainly because I am able to express my desires without accidentally making the others that they should fulfil them. Most rejection hurts because it is accompanied by a push back. This push back, I feel, is often the result of the undercurrent of “and now you should fulfil my desires”. That is the difference between expectations and desires.

My language has become a lot less manipulative. Subtle (not malicious) manipulation has been replaced by the (disturbingly obvious) tool of direct language. I am sure that I have read advice similar to what I am giving here through my story. For it to sink into me I had to experience being on the other side of clear communication of desire. I am hoping that by writing my impressions instead of a “The guide to expressing desire” you will go along with me on that journey in your heart. The first step is as easy as saying: “I have a desire to see you”. Statements of that type have become a recurring theme in my language. Because this is what love feels like to me; a direct desire to see someone. Sometimes I have a desire to be close to a special someone, to touch, to kiss, to play board games and many other things. Stating them seems more like expressions of love and not of personal selfish desire. As I have experienced others adopting my mode of speaking I can tell you that there’s nothing quite like being told: “I have a selfish personal desire to be close to you”.

I have no illusions that you will promptly pick up the mantle and begin expressing your desires to those around you. But I do have a hope that you will feel inspired to let a few of them slip out, and then maybe that trickle will slowly turn into small stream. One day I may pass under the waterfall of your desires and I can be that person who will fulfil them. There are few things that bring more joy than to fulfil the desires of those we love, but the first step for that to happen is to get to know them.

The art of looking around

Life seems a climb up a mountain. We strive for the next level, the next plateau that may offer us a bit of rest. We pitch our tents, and then the next day we head upwards once more. Some move slowly and choose paths that are more horizontal, so they rarely get up very high. Others wish to move quickly so they find the steepest inclines and by way of ropes and picks escalate the sheer rock face. The latter is obviously more perilous and offers many dangers to the one who rushes up. The reason for taking this risk and rushing up the mountain is simply, we wish to get to the top. Because at the top we can see it all. As long as we’re going up, then we know we’ll get to a point where it will all become clear to us. We can see the valleys, the mountains – everything. At one point we can take in the full meaning of it all as it unfolds before us as a landscape stretching in all directions. We understand how the valleys are simply the spaces between the mountains, and we see that the mountains are just spaces between the valleys. There is no need for knowing anything here, because at the top we can see it all, and so we may understand our own place. The problem is that our society tells us this, our elders, our spiritual guides. We are told to go to the top, become better, richer, more enlightened and many other things. Some even tell us to think less, and thinking less becomes another part of the mountain. The mountain we are climbing is one of security, we seek to feel safe and comfortable. But we do not understand the act of looking around once we feel safe and comfortable. In many ways we overshoot the top of the mountain, and go into a valley just to find a higher mountain, one that provides more safety and more security. So we plunge through a valley of depression because we notice that money wasn’t it. Then once we find love, we overshoot that peak also, and think that love wan’t it. Then we find spirituality or religion or science, and instead of stopping at the top we continue over the peak, rushing forward at such speed that we do not notice the security and safety we are in, and so we become confused. What is then it. We search for another sheer rock face, and choose the most daunting one we can find. Physical fitness, spirituality, love, sex, wealth, hedonism and still none of the peaks are it. So we find ourselves rummaging around in the valley, what about pain, loneliness, abstinence, coldness, anger is that it? but we know it is not.

There is an art that is different from climbing the mountains to feel safe and secure. This is the art of just looking around. This is what meditation is. Meditation is to feel safe and secure, and then look around from that point of view. Noticing that your body is healthy, your mind is healthy and you have shelter, water and food. Noticing that your loved ones are in the same state. From that point your entire being may relax, and simply notice what is around it. There is nothing left to do. At the top of all the mountains you can climb, this is the only reward. Standing there, not doing anything, just looking at what is. Because you do not understand at this point, you just look at it. You do not have to think, you can just see.

But there is a more subtle point here, and one that when missed will cause a lot of frustration. We should start by admitting to ourselves that getting to any top is hard. To feel completely safe, completely loved, completely inspired – all these are rare moments in life. So while it is true that when you reach this state, there is nothing left but looking around and seeing the whole thing, because at the top of the mountain there is no further up. It is also true that at any point while climbing you may turn around and look. It is not the privilege of the one at the top alone to see the world around you. While it may be obscured to some sides by mountain, you are still free to walk around the mountain and take in the view. This is the art of looking around, and this is what meditation is. Meditation is to stop, not do anything and just listen. It is to simply experience, with your entire being. Your feet, your skin, your lungs, your mind, your senses – all of it, let it all experience at one point. This is looking around, and while you look around you may get disturbed, because there is an upward slope in some directions, most of the view will be of a beautiful landscape stretching out in all directions. One we cannot see when we are only walking up the mountain. Also it becomes clear that the combination of the speed and incline defines the difficulty of turning around. If you are rushing up a vertical cliff, then you can’t just turn around and enjoy the view, because you would tumble down. If you are moving slowly, and on a less steep incline, then it becomes easier to look around, but also you may not be very high up yet. So you may simply not feel safe/loved/rich/healthy enough for it to be interesting to look around at the entirety around you. This is the ecosystem of safety/meditation/rushing-to-the-top. It is up to the individual to know how fast it wishes to go up the slope it choses, but it is advisable that it leaves time to look around at least once a day.