The need to be listened to

The need to be listened to
Monday March 05, 2007

Dear Alice Miller

I just want to say how much I found myself empathising with the contributor who wrote about how his need to be listened to has shaped (or mis-shaped) his life. I have recently been spending some time with my parents and although I am in my 50’s and they are in their 80’s I believe the way they talk with me is unchanged. I always come away feeling empty, unsatisfied and vaguely humiliated. I think I regarded it as normal for parents not be interested in anything their children say and I see now that I have spent my adult life looking for people who might be interested in what I have to say – or, more to the point, – interested in me. I became very interested in words when I was a teenager and, I think, this was a quest to find a way of being listened to. I became of teacher of adults and have spent much of my working life engaging in the attempt to make others want to listen to me. All of this is a futile quest, of course, because as your previous correspondent said, one has learned to try to be useful or interesting rather than just expressing oneself. I do think the failure to listen is a deep but subtle form of abuse – it leaves no visible marks and it is so legitimised by the prevailing culture that it is invisible to even its victims and all one is left with is a deep, abiding sense of unworthiness and emptiness.
I am deeply appreciative of your work on child abuse but I have had some difficulty relating to the theme of overt, physical abuse as it did not figure in my childhood even though I recognised myself as damaged by some kind of abuse. Now I see the core of it as the invalidation of never being listened to. What do we value in our friends, in the people we choose to spend time with ? – above all I think it is being listened to – its so precious but, if one was never listened to its so hard to speak openly in the expectation that one will be heard.
With best wishes, JM

AM: Not to be listened to can be a matter of life and death for a human being. Right from the start. Imagine a newborn or a small baby whose only one language is crying. Only in this way he can say: I am hungry, I feel lonely, I need to be touched etc. If his parents think that letting him cry should teach him to behave, his existence may be in mortal danger. As an adult, he may have a very rich language but he may still be afraid that nobody is interested in knowing what he has to say. Unless he has realized that there DO exist people on this planet who are not exactly like his parents. Without therapy parents rarely change in their 80 ties.