Keeping our thoughts, turbulent emotions and difficult questions suppressed can cause severe damage to our mental health. That is why talk therapy, expressive therapies, CBT and DBT are all the cornerstone of mental health treatment. They are exceptional tools to practice processing difficult emotions so that they don’t control our lives. Learning how to communicate and express emotions healthily is essential to a long-lasting recovery.
However, learning how to be a good listener is just as important. Good listening involves a trained ear to hear others and our own internal voice as well. I would even substitute the word “hear,” for “listen,” as we can listen all day to someone talk, whether it is a friend or a conference speaker, and not really “hear” their message or their heart. Additionally, learning how to listen well to ourselves and others improves our ability to be introspective, deepens connections, and builds the trust that is key to maintaining a support network of friends and family that nurtures recovery. Learning how to listen, and even further, to hear, yields tremendous healing benefits.
How to do we hear others better? To begin, it starts with whole-body listening. That means maintaining natural eye contact and eliminating distractions around the conversation: not looking at your phone, fiddling with something in your hands, glance directed away from the person, or doing some other mindless task while they are talking. Face the person and listen with your whole body, even your eyes. Let yourself observe the person, their body language, be curious about what you see as you listen. By listening mindfully, you’ll get out of your own head and be able to move beyond the judgments or defenses that may arise and actually hear their meaning, and maybe even a message underneath the words that they are saying. If you think this sounds like too much work, wouldn’t you, in the reverse position, really cherish being listened to in such a way?
How do we hear ourselves better? It requires turning the volume down on the outside world, noise and stimuli. Often, we are afraid of silence because the idea of being alone with our thoughts is anxiety provoking. But is that fear justified? And will our thought life ever reach a certain level of peace and stability if we don’t face, head on, the ocean of thoughts and feelings swirling around, honor their existence, give them space and hear them? The biggest questions we must answer in order to fuel recovery, such as, “what are my fears?” “what are my values?” “why do I want to recover?” can only be discovered by tuning in, with courage, to explore what those answers may be. Talking about them is essential, but we must not be afraid to first turn inward and listen. Our healthy selves exist in the mind, even on what feel like the darkest days, and are profoundly wise. But being able to discern between the healthy self and the voice of the eating disorder, addiction or depression requires a fine-tuned ear, and it comes through the practice of bravely embracing the stillness and listening to your heart.
We all know deeply the desire to be listened to and to be heard. It is an incredible feeling and fosters deep bonds with others. Therefore, the next time you enter into a conversation, or feel tempted to fill a quiet moment with noise or distraction, instead pause, enter into a mindful presence and really listen: with your whole body, without judgement, with acceptance.
Through the process of learning to listen, and to hear, we develop the skills necessary to recognize our own healthy voice, our truest self, and help others to find and express theirs as well.