Recently, a good (I think she's kind of a guru) friend observed me talking to a stranger for a while. After the interaction was over, we headed to her car and she turned to me and said, “I see it now! I see why you attract certain types of people.” I replied with a stunned but no less eloquent, “Huh?” and she explained, “You listen to hear. Most people wait for the other person to stop talking so they can push their own thoughts in ASAP.” (Let’s be real - some people don’t even wait for that.) She noted the dynamic of an unequal energy exchange, where one party pours their own stuff out, the other takes it in. She said one indication that tips off an “energy vampire” is that a person listens to hear. And asks questions. “You don't just hear what they’re saying, you process it and respond with their feelings as the priority. You don't ask a thing of them.” I replied that I didn’t think this was a bad thing at all, and she said that overall it’s a nice trait to have, but that it’s risky because, “Self-obsessed energy is way aware of souls like you. I could see that lady sucking your empathy in like the Sea Witch.” I said, “Are you telling me I’m singing away my soul?” She said, “Your lifeblood. If it’s someone selfish, you shouldn’t give them so much. God, no wonder you’re so tired.” Then she asked me what my communication style was like growing up.
I flashed back whether I liked it or not… knowing that it boiled down to nurture. Sure, I'm empathetic and that complicates everything, but what my friend said bolstered images I swore I was numb to. Memories of being a child and pleading with my grandmother to see reason, to understand that things were not okay in our house. Pleading to be heard and acknowledged, pleading for changes and help and reason amidst insanity and everyone else's silence to no avail until it all dissolved into tears. Then I would really be silenced. “Just keep your mouth shut.” "Silence!" “I don’t want to hear it.” “Children should be seen and not heard.” “Another word and you’re out that door.” “Be silent.” “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” A swift slap across the face. A subtle, eternal withholding of all affection. Two or three agonizing weeks of the cold shoulder. Let me tell you, that was the worst. You can slap a kid in the face a hundred times, but nothing makes a child feel more invisible than being ignored. Then, when I’d learned my lesson enough, I guess, when she felt I’d finally grasped just how disdainful my thoughts were, she’d speak to me again. In this way, I was trained to carry the weight of her explosions without expressing a drop of my own feelings to her or anyone else. Keep things quiet. Keep her happy. Or at least keep her from exploding. You never knew, from one day to the next, when the bomb would go off. And the silence of others only confirmed that it was right. It was my job. It was right to tend, first and foremost, to the emotional needs of others. It didn’t matter what they were like—I should always listen to hear, but never speak to be heard. It was a virtue to be silent. If people were tedious, if they were difficult, if they were toxic, give them your ear. Give them your compassion. Your patience. Your repeated forgiveness. Your damned sanity, even.
Flash forward and pardon my language, folks, but FUCK THAT NOISE. I realized I was still doing it, to some degree, though not nearly as much as I used to. I was still letting some people stomp all over my boundaries, drain me dry and manipulate my emotions, train me to put their needs first. I was still defaultedly listening to hear, even though some people never really shut the hell up. “Mhm. Sure Jen, now BACK TO ME.”
And then I was angry. And for some reason anger makes me cry. It always has. And that’s okay. But you know what isn’t? Being that little girl. Compassion is one thing—conditioning is another. I thought I had a handle on the part of me that fell silent and let things slide when they shouldn’t. But I was lying to myself. I still needed the reminder that my voice matters. What I say matters. What I feel matters. What I think matters in balance with anyone else. And where there is imbalance, I will not give my energy away anymore. I am not a stupid little mermaid. No more Sea Witches for me. My voice is mine.