Who Listens to Listeners?

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In my role as Staff Psychologist at the UO Counseling Center, one issue comes up consistently. Students will appear in my office who have never sought counseling before, but who suddenly feel overwhelmed by a stress and anxiety the likes of which they’ve never seen. They cannot pinpoint the reason for their current distress, which of course leaves them very confused and helpless.  I have noticed a common thread among many of these students. When I ask them if they have a support system (i.e., friends and family whom they love and trust), most will answer yes. I then ask if they talk to their support persons about their own problems and worries.  Most answer no.  Indeed, most of these students tell me that they tend to “bottle things up.” They avoid or suppress their own emotions. They have difficulty opening up to others, even their closest friends.

Ask yourself if you identify with any of the following:

  • All of your friends come to you with their problems because you are a wonderful listener and give great advice.
  • You are the unofficial “therapist” of your friend group.
  • The thought of opening up about your problems feels incredibly scary and uncomfortable.
  • When people ask you how you’re doing, you say “fine” even when you’re not.
  • You worry that you will burden others by talking about your own problems.
  • You are concerned that you will feel guilty if others “have to” worry about you.

If you answer yes to some of these statements, perhaps you have found yourself in the role of “the listener” or “the caretaker.” This is the person everyone comes to for help, but who hates to ask for help in return. Maybe this was modeled to you within your family—or perhaps a role you found yourself playing with a parent. Maybe you have played this role for so long, the idea of doing something new and different simply feels wrong. Maybe you embrace personal, religious, or cultural values regarding selflessness and attending to others’ needs.

Being a friend, a support, a listener is not a bad thing. In fact, being a good listener is a wonderful quality. However, the important thing is balance. If the helpers are always helping, they are prone to stress, exhaustion, and burnout.

So, here’s the question: Who listens to the listeners? In my clinical (and personal) experience, bottling things up comes at a price. While avoiding our emotions can provide some short-term relief, we often suffer longer-term consequences.  Invariably, when I challenge my clients to open up to others, even if it just sharing one problem they are having with someone they trust, despite the newness and awkwardness of the experience, they often report an instant sense of relief.  The pressure valve has been released and there is more room to breathe. They often notice a decrease in anxiety and an increased ability to cope with stress.

If you are someone who often assumes the role of a listener or caretaker, consider engaging in the following experiment. Identify a friend or family member who you trust and who you know is a good listener. Someone you know to be supportive and validating.  Challenge yourself to tell them about one difficult thing that is going on in your life. Most of my clients tell me that simply initiating the conversation is the hardest part because it is so new. Since it’s not in your repertoire, it can feel weird and scary. See if you can let yourself tolerate this discomfort and awkwardness. Try to imagine the situation from your friend’s perspective. Is it safe to assume that they would want to know if you were having a hard time?

So, if you are someone who tends to play the role of “listener,” someone who rarely talks about your own problems, consider experimenting with something new. Social support helps build resilience, a force field to help us navigate life’s challenges. Sharing our feelings and struggles with others helps lighten the load so that we do not have to carry it all ourselves. Life’s problems don’t disappear, of course, but they sure feel more manageable when we are not facing them alone.

Chandra Mundon, Psy.D.
Staff Psychologist