Listening to Dragons

So, I’m in a fun, negative cycle where I beat myself about my lack of accomplishments, marketable talent, and overall worth as a person/friend.  Good times.  I read The Gift of Imperfection by Brene Brown in preparation for an online class that starts at the end of March, and she offers some good practices for how to stop doing that.  I’m working on it, is what I’m saying.  I don’t think it will surprise you to read that it is not easy; in fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it back-breaking.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been criticizing myself about is not being a good listener.  People will share news or a story, and I can feel myself starting to zone out while they speak as I prepare my own allegedly clever story in response.  Being able to respond with an equal or better story does not constitute good listening.  I used to have a job where my success depended on my ability to listen and make conversational connections for other people, so I know I have the ability to be a better listener than I have been.  I don’t know when I fell out of the habit, but I hate that I have.

In Brown’s book, she says that sometimes it helps to know that others are struggling with the same issues that you are, to know that you’re not alone.  I’m not sure I agree.  I know that I’m not the only bad listener out there.  I see it all the time on Facebook, especially in the comments when my mom friends post something about their children.  I’ve discovered a new horror in this self-critical spiral, which is that I’ve started to criticize (in my head, luckily) people I don’t know.  My mom friends will post something about their adorable children, and inevitably, THEIR mom friends will post something similar that their own adorable children have done, but in a more adorable or smarter or more horrific way, depending on the topic of the original status.  On a rational level, I know that the mom commenters are only trying to offer support; the irrational side of me flinches at the one-upmanship vibe I get from them.  Then I flinch that I’m judging people I don’t know over an issue that has nothing to do with me.

I have been exposing myself to many opportunities to flinch.  I got stuck in an airport for several hours recently, and I eavesdropped on a lot of conversations.  I’d say that in a solid 60% of them, people weren’t talking TO each other; rather, they were talking AT each other.  I wonder how many of them noticed that they were engaged in a competition rather than a conversation, and then I remembered that it was none of my business and that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  I put a stop to my judge-y, critical spiral by putting in earplugs.  No reason to inflict the ugliness in my brain and heart on strangers, even silently.  Silence doesn’t mean non-existence, and ugliness is quick to proliferate.

I reread a couple of books that I picked up when I was 20, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown.  They are YA fantasy books, and I love them for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the main characters are women who have agency, true hearts, and clean souls (they definitely don’t simper).  In The Hero and the Crown, there’s a dragon that gets slain, and its skull gets taken back to the palace as a trophy.  The problem is that the skull still has the power to whisper horrible, soul-eroding doubts and criticism to everyone within the city.  We’re all fighting dragon skulls in our own heads and hearts.  If yours has been louder than usual lately like mine has, I wish you luck and strength in beating it back.  I think for me, getting better at listening isn’t just going to be about turning my focus away from myself; it’s also going to be about figuring out what triggers make the dragon’s voice louder and taking back control of the volume.

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