One of my favorite things about myself is my eagerness to listen. I am an empath, through and through. I love this about myself and I have absolutely no qualms with claiming this because it has taken years of hard soul work to become a good listener. And I’m nowhere near done doing that work, but I know I’ve come a long way. And I am proud of myself for it.
I love listening to the problems of friends and family, and even strangers. Because of my Instagram following, I have the great honor of being on the receiving end of frequent dm’s from people who feel safe to open up to me about their struggles. They know I won’t judge them and they know I offer a safe space.
I am proud of the safe space and warmth I am trying to create around me, even if, I admit, it can be emotionally and spiritually draining, and some days I need to shut down for a while to refuel. I still love this work. I love the work of loving others. And so much of that love in action involves listening.
But, a few weeks ago my pre-teen gave me the opportunity to create a boundary within this safe space of listening. It’s a boundary I always inherently understood I needed, but not one I knew how to communicate until recently.
My pre-teen is in the throes of hormonal changes and life changes, and with these changes come a lot of feelings that have to be processed. It’s often easier to process things when we can talk about them, so sensing my kiddo had a lot on their mind, I asked if they wanted to talk about it. And when they shrugged and mumbled, “No”, I didn’t ask again. I cheerily responded, “Okay!”, and went about my business.
My kid was quiet for a few moments before turning to me and admitting, “Okay, I’m not okay and I want to talk about it. But, you didn’t ask me again?” I looked at my blossoming pre-teen, who leaned awkwardly against the wall, arms crossed, with a raised eyebrow, displaying all the signs that they were slightly offended.
“You said you didn’t want to talk. So, I’m respecting your boundaries.”
My kiddo shrugged, dropping their arms, and both eyebrows shot up. “But, Mom, okay, sometimes I say I don’t want to, but I really do want to. And used to you kept asking me and I would tell you, but now you don’t keep asking me and it’s like you don’t care.”
My eyes flickered. “Teachable moment!”, by brain screamed!
“I hear you. But, here’s the situation: you’re getting older. And as you get older you gain more rights to your own body, your own choices, and your own life. One of those rights is the right to privacy. I’ve stopped harassing you into opening up to me because if you tell me no, I need to respect that boundary. Just like if you tell anyone else no, they need to respect it as well. Even if I think you should talk to me about something, at the end of the day it is your choice. And I will not play a back and forth game with you. I will not beg you to confide in me and I will not ply you for details about your feelings. If you want to talk to me, you can. You always can. But, if you tell me no, I will respect that boundary. I will not push you. So, you have to decide what you want. And whatever you decide, from here forward, I’m going to respect it.”
There are many joys in a parent’s life, but they are a bit more spread out as our kids go through puberty and their teen years. (Angst is TOUGH.) I can say with absolutely certainty however that watching your lanky, soon-to-be teenager mulling over what you’ve just served them, their expression pulled upward into a furrowed brow, rife with sincere aggravation, but also deep understanding, is one of the GREATEST joys ever.
My kiddo was quiet and stared at the floor, brow still quite furrowed. After a beat they exhaled, re-crossed their arms, relaxed their face, and said, “Okay, fine. Can we talk now then? Because I actually do want to talk.”
I WIN. (This is me being a little petty. I’m a Leo. This will happen from time to time.)
We sat and we cuddled and we talked. And they felt better, as we both knew they would, but it was THEIR choice to do it. And it was MY choice to make it clear that I am not here to beg them for the opportunity to listen.
As we travel through this life we will be confronted by individuals who were never taught that they have the right to privacy and the right to boundaries. I’m not speaking of those who cross the boundaries of others, but those who do not understand they themselves are inherently endowed boundaries and rights. For this reason, they will be used to saying, “no” and receiving some push-back when they do.
Sometimes they may do it for attention. In the case of my kiddo, it’s partially for attention. They want to really drive home the point that they’re upset and by making me perform a dance of begging for them to confide in me, they gain positive reinforcement through a negative behavior.
Others do it because they’ve always been made to feel that their thoughts and feelings are inconsequential and unimportant, so when asked in earnest by another if they’re okay or if they want to talk, they feel trapped by this query, feeling almost certain it’s a trick question and having absolutely no assurance that their vulnerability will be met with compassion and understanding, even if they really do want to open up. (Any fellow children of narcissists in the room? If this one hits close to home, that’s why.)
Whether they feel the need to be begged because they like the attention or because they’re trying to make sure you really do care about how they feel, we who listen are also endowed rights and boundaries, and one of those is knowing when to tell them that we will not perform for the opportunity to be their crying shoulder.
Listening in an act of love, but performing for the approval of others is an act of humiliation. A little humiliation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it is neither a moral nor immoral concept, but it can affect everyone around us in a negative way when done so out of desperation. I refuse to be desperate for anyone’s time or emotions. If I am to do the emotional labor of listening and encouraging, I refuse to perform the dance of begging to receive my emotional labor. Regardless of why we’re being asked to perform, ultimately it is manipulative and it abuses the listener’s own needs and wastes their time.
So, no, I will not beg you to talk to me. I will not beg my partner to, I will not beg it of my child, and I will not beg it of my friends and family either. I will always, always be an open door and a soft shoulder to cry on, but I will not perform for this emotional labor, and I will not cross your boundaries regardless of how I feel about them.
If you are an empath and a natural listener, remember to teach those you love that you have rights and boundaries too. Being an empath is a powerful, incredible life journey, but like everything it requires careful tending and respect: both of the boundaries of others and having our own boundaries respected.
Additionally, we’re living in an age where consent is becoming increasingly crucial. Teach those around you (especially your children) about consent. Not just sexual or physical consent, but emotional, spiritual, and mental consent as well. And remind yourself to be mindful of the consent of others. Even if, as an empath, you believe you know best, you must honor and respect the boundaries of others. If someone tells you they do not want to talk about something, respect that boundary. Honor their right to consent. And know where your own boundaries exist.
Until next time.