When Someone Really Listens, We Heal

Silhouette of two men talkingNever underestimate the power of talking with someone who really listens.

Our culture doesn’t encourage people to talk about their emotional pain. Our culture teaches people to suppress their feelings. People tell each other not to “whine” about problems or not to “dwell” on them. People are told to “get over it” and to “be strong,” meaning “don’t feel anything—and if you do, don’t talk about it or show it.”

One example of this is when only certain emotions are deemed “appropriate.” Anger, especially for men, is more acceptable than sadness or anything vulnerable. So, for many men, emotions like sadness, loneliness, disappointment, anxiety, guilt, and shame get funneled into expressions that look like anger. Unhealthy coping mechanisms—such as using alcohol, other substances, or addictive activities—are taken up in order to push the genuine feelings down. These provide some temporary relief but, ultimately, undermine a person’s strength, health, and functionality.

Most people, when they feel upset, benefit by talking to someone who listens patiently, nonjudgmentally, empathically, and who shows that he/she understands at a deep level. There is something basic in the way human beings react when receiving this simple, but skillful, response to talking about their emotional pain.

Depression is no different from any other emotional pain, in this sense.

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If everyone who felt depressed was comfortable talking about it to a good listener, we would have far fewer depressed people—possibly even fewer people on antidepressants.

Recently, a psychiatrist who was treating a friend of mine said that few people truly have a chemical imbalance causing their depression. Maybe this is why some research shows that antidepressants work about as well as placebos. Maybe the placebo works because the patients get some caring human contact before taking the pill. Human contact goes hand-in-hand with talking. We all need to see people smile at us, be warm toward us, perhaps even touch us in a friendly, appropriate way. Warm, caring human contact is essential for us to live and thrive.

Ideally, we would all have this in our lives without having to pay someone to get it. We would all have friends, relatives, spiritual leaders, mentors, teachers, or healers around to listen and care when we are upset. Yet our culture no longer supports this basic need. We are too busy. Many of us come from families who have abused us, or from whom we are separated. We often live alone, or have only our immediate family around. We are not connected to a church or community where this kind of talking may have been more available in the past. Instead we put value on the rational, over the emotional, to the extreme. As a result, many people end up trying to hide their tears and vulnerability, thus creating more alienation and isolation. Ironically, suppressing our feelings and being deprived of warm contact actually makes us more susceptible to depression, making people think they have even more to hide.

So if you are feeling depressed or in emotional pain, try to find someone you can talk to—someone who will listen deeply and without judgement. Talk to him/her about everything that’s seriously bothering you, and keep talking until you feel relief (even if you have to go through several people to have as much time talking as you need). If there’s no one in your life like this, and you don’t think you can find anyone, find a good therapist. It will help to do your talking with a highly trained, skilled, and naturally intuitive professional. You owe it to yourself to do whatever it takes to prevent depression, or deeper depression. It’s really so simple (though not always easy), yet so important.

© Copyright 2012 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, CA. All Rights Reserved.

Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org. The preceding article was solely written by the author name above. The view and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Genevieve

    June 11th, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    Sometimes it’s not about the advice that you get back, but just knowing that someone is listening and that they care makes all the difference in the world.

  • brooke

    June 11th, 2012 at 4:50 PM

    I honestly feel the most isolated and alone when I am trying to talk to someone but feel like they are not really engaged in me or the discussion that I am trying to have with them.
    Talking to a wall is no fun, not productive, and really I feel better just writing it all done than I do talking with someone who has nothing to add because they are not paying attention to me.

  • Jim C

    June 12th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    It is a wonderful idea that you should find someone to talk to to hash out those problems. But anyone looking for this person should remember that it is not always the easiest thing to do, that you may have to search for a little while before finding that person who makes you the most comfortable and willing to open up. Just don’t get discouraged if it is not the first person that you find.

  • Rhonda

    June 12th, 2012 at 12:42 PM

    Wow, love the succintness of the title. So true. “Talking” and “listening” online isn’t the same as talking to someone face to face. We must remember to take time for relationships with others.

  • Beth

    June 12th, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    This is what is on my mind:
    If you cannot be a true friend and hold my hand when there is a high tide, at least don’t ask me to “stop acting like a little girl” or to be “a strong young woman”. I want to cry over it and feel better gradually and that is how I want it to be!

  • jade

    June 13th, 2012 at 4:47 AM

    I hate that feeling of talking to someone and I feel like they are ignoring me. It is like they are just going through the mostions of listening but then when I know that they have nothing valuable to interject then I know that they are not all that concerned with the things that I am going through. If I care enough to give a hundred percent when I am listening to a friend and trying to give some helpful advice, why can’t they think enough of me to give me the same?

  • TH

    June 13th, 2012 at 6:24 PM

    I agree. When I am so down, I don’t want to hear any advices from anyone. I just want someone whom I could confide my problems and will just listen to me. Knowing there’s someone who listens to me eases the emotional burden.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    June 13th, 2012 at 10:12 PM

    Thanks for all your great comments! For sure, “really listening” is a skill and talent not everyone has. Keep looking until you find it–don’t try to talk to someone who doesn’t listen, or makes you feel worse than when you started. Find someone who lets you feel and express whatever is going on inside you and knows how to show they get it, and respect it.

  • Katherine

    August 31st, 2013 at 12:52 AM

    I find talking to someone and getting outside for fresh air helps with symptoms of depression and drink lots of water. Our brains need it.

  • Deanna

    August 12th, 2014 at 8:23 AM

    I don’t feel like talking to anyone about anything, that has been my problem lately. I do have people to talk to, I just don’t feel like it. Too exhausted and it would take too much effort. I have been writing my feelings in a journal though, which does help.

  • skip

    September 2nd, 2014 at 8:54 AM

    I agree with your analysis however some people need a certain somebody to show caring affection. .rather than to write them off cause you don’t have time..your working your busy your not the one who needs ..guess what happens when the mother/mother-inlaw buts in…

  • Lisa

    September 4th, 2014 at 7:26 PM

    Since September is Suicide Prevention month I’d like to mention that crisis hotlines are a great source of support and will usually help with a wide variety of situations (anything from feeling lonely or having a bad day, dealing with loss, relationship issues, sexual and family violence, financial struggles, substance abuse, mental illness, to suicidal crisis) They are usually staffed by highly trained volunteers or mental health professionals who use Active Listening skills and to tend to be naturally empathetic, non-judgmental and really caring people. Hotlines are usually immediately accessible, FREE and confidential.They often have databases full of community resources and can help find a therapist if you’re looking or help you hold on until you get an appointment. They also offer support between doctor’s visits and therapy sessions. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) is one such hotline and consists of a network of local centers throughout the country. More and more centers also offer online crisis counseling via live chat on their websites if you are more comfortable chatting online.

  • Veronica

    October 31st, 2014 at 1:41 AM

    Coming from a long battle with depression, I have definitely found ways to confide in myself for positivity but sometimes… Well a lot of times , I feel alone and defeated. I don’t know where to turn to since I have yet to trust someone who will truly listen and be gentle with me.

  • Debra

    February 5th, 2015 at 9:09 AM

    It is so hard to find someone who is not narcissistic. I have some “friends” who tell me how important I am to them, but then they just talk about themselves. I wait patiently and try to support them. Then when it’s my turn to speak, they looked bored, distracted, or want to leave. I am a therapist in training and this is a big problem, not just for me. There are so many narcissists and they are charming. I think heart to heart connection with a healthy, generous friend goes a long way.

  • Tara

    February 5th, 2015 at 9:12 AM

    Hi Jade, my name is Tara. I see this was written awhile ago, however I couldn’t agree more with you… It’s frustrating talking to people, especially those whom you’re close to and not receiving the same emotional response from them that you give.

  • Linda

    February 5th, 2015 at 10:10 PM

    Is anyone listening, can anyone hear me? I am very alone especially since mom can no longer hear me. She is 93. I’ve been severely depressed / crushing. Not to be heard. I just want to say I love you & I know she know it, but Darn, I need her to hear me. Can’t sleep. Live far from her, partner is a jerk . Whole situation just sucks

  • Ann

    March 24th, 2015 at 7:31 AM

    I agree with many of you in response that it is hard to find someone who is willing to listen.

  • Thankful

    March 24th, 2015 at 5:49 PM

    im in my late 30’s and I must say I’ve trusted many people who are no longer part of my life or who betrayed me. I began trusting people when I began my career for the YMCA 7.5 years ago. They’re the reason I go to work each day. I have a great friend who I text and phone a lot. She’s got my back and never lets me give up. The other person has to be my current therapist. She’s amazing. I may tell her I don’t like her when she asks questions about my past but if she didn’t I would still be bottling up my emotions. My last session was cancelled due to snowstorm and I was heartbroken even though it wasn’t safe to be out and about. So obviously she has become an important part of my life and healing. Trust takes time to build especially when it has been broken over and over again.

    Hope everyone finds that trusted someone out there.

  • Elizabeth

    May 31st, 2015 at 4:56 PM

    Dear Linda,

    So sorry you are having a tough time. Do give yourself the gift of taking time to call a hotline and talk about how you are feeling. You deserve to be heard! Best, E

  • Joanna

    July 28th, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    Very good article..

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