One of our deepest longings – deeper than we recognise – is that other people should acknowledge our feelings. We want, at key moments, for our sufferings to be understood, our anxieties and sadness to be given legitimacy. There is a hunger for us to be heard. There is a need for our lives to have meaning. There is a yearning for our stories to be told. We don’t want others necessarily to agree with all our feelings, but what we crave is that they at least validate them. When we are furious, we want another person to say: I can see you have been driven to distraction; it must feel very chaotic for you inside right now. When we are sad, we want someone to say: I know you’re down and I understand the reasons why.
The habit of not having one’s feelings properly acknowledged begins in childhood. Parents, even the most loving ones, frequently stumble in this regard. It’s not that they don’t care intensely for their children, it’s just that they don’t appreciate that true care involves regularly reflecting a child’s moods back to him or herself – rather than subtly pushing the moods away or denying that they exist. Parents use the weaponry of advice or distractive fixes as a way to shut down communication about difficult topics, thus suffocating the child and disturbing the harmony of his existence.
We are told to learn the art of questioning but are never allowed to employ it practically. It’s true that ‘the world is too much with us’ and that ‘we’ve given our hearts away’ but it needs to be understood also that we no longer have ‘sight of Proteus rising from the sea’ or ‘hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn’. In our culture, people quickly feel guilty or ashamed when they appear as being overly negative or critical, particularly because we are biased toward positive thinking, which is worth cultivating but which creates problems when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.
There is a reason why parents don’t acknowledge the concerns of children as they should: fear. The feelings they push away are all, in some shape or other, emotionally inconvenient. They may be of the opinion that acknowledging a difficult feeling will make it worse. It will mean fostering it unduly or giving way to it entirely. Parents fear that they might be encouraging children to grow cataclysmically depressive, unfeasibly timid, or manically resistant to authority. What they’re missing is that most of us, once we’ve been heard, become far less – rather than far more – inclined to insist on the feelings we’re beset by. An angry person gets less rather than more enraged once the depth of the frustration has been recognised. The rebellious child grows more, not less inclined, to buckle down and do homework once their wish to burn the school down, or break the headmaster’s glasses, or abscond to a desert island have been listened to and identified with for a few seconds. Feelings get less strong as soon as they’ve been given an airing. We become bullies when no one listens to us, never because someone listens too much.
There’s also the fear that making room for the intensity of another person’s pain will encourage a greater outpouring than we are able to cope with. The human experience is complex, multidimensional, and ever-shifting. While parents are not their children’s personal therapist, they can hear them out and acknowledge that anguish exists. It sounds simple, and in a way it is. And yet how little of this emotional nectar of acknowledgement we ever in fact receive or gift to one another.
Crucially, we don’t need to be listened to by everyone. We can bear an awful lot of unacknowledged feelings when just a few people, some of them in our childhood, and ideally among our friends, every now and then play us back to us. The person animated by a rigid desire that everyone should listen to him or her is just playing out the frightening consequences of never having been heard when it mattered.
There is almost no end to what we may be ready to do for those who pay us that immense, psychologically redemptive honour of once in a while acknowledging what we’re actually feeling, however odd, melancholy or inconvenient it might be.
The writer is a student of English Literature. [email protected]