I 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.