This story ran on page H6 of the Boston Globe on 3/27/2003. © Copyright 2003 Lawrence J. Cohen

“Indeed, I am always moved when people relate something from their hearts, because most of us stop doing this once we grow up. Sometimes that’s because we have been teased for being emotionally honest, or because we have been told too often that we don’t really feel the way we say we do, or maybe we were warned that we shouldn’t feel that way. All of that invalidation makes it hard to keep talking openly, but still, somehow, some people manage not to give up. Those people sometimes make us uncomfortable, but they also are valuable for the truths they tell. The real key to getting along, after all, is simply listening to one another and speaking openly and honestly to one another.

About 20 years ago, a friend dragged me to a workshop that was supposed to teach us how to keep a journal of our dreams, goals, thoughts, and experiences. The workshop was a dud, though. The biggest problem was the leader, who kept telling each of us that he didn’t like the things we read aloud from our personal journal entries.

I was irritated enough when he did this to other people, but when he did it to me it really stung. At one point I read something about feeling like a volcano inside – this was during my stormy youth – and the workshop leader said quietly, ”I’m not sure about that image of the volcano, it’s so violent.” Well, duh.

He probably said some interesting and useful things after that, but it didn’t matter, because I had stopped listening. How can you listen to someone who has invalidated, in a few careless words, your deepest feelings? I was particularly aggravated by the ”gentle” way he said it. If he had come right out and said, ”You’re one sick puppy and you better get yourself some help,” then I could have argued with him or agreed with him or proved him right by exploding and throwing my desk across the room. But how can you respond to someone blandly saying they ”aren’t sure” about something personal you have shared with them?

This type of comment is invalidating at any time, but especially when the goal is to write from the heart without censoring your thoughts, as in a journal. I think the problem is that raw emotion, especially painful emotion, is hard to listen to. We either want the other person to stop suffering, or we want him to stop reminding us of our own suffering. So we tell him to tone it down, or we suggest that he doesn’t really feel so explosive or heartbroken or bereft. Sharing pain, however, is what makes life bearable, and what makes close relationships such a treasure. The late Elvin Semrad, a psychiatrist who trained a generation of Boston-area therapists, used to say, ”No therapy is comfortable because it involves dealing with pain. But there is one comfortable thought: that two people sharing pain can bear it easier than one.” Of course, the same is true for any two people who listen to one another.

So my parting Getting Along advice is to go ahead and take that risk and tell other people close to you what you really think and how you really feel. If they try to shut you up, don’t give up, like I did in that journaling seminar. Just let them know how important it is to you and tell them how you’d like them to respond. On the other side, listen carefully for when someone might be telling you about their volcano inside, or whatever their deep feelings might be. Pay attention to them. Kindness and compassion don’t have to be the rare commodities that they often seem to be.”

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