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"The more I give space in the conversation and prioritize listening over talking, the more Jen feels that I’m invested in understanding her particular struggle, as opposed to rehashing my own."
"The more I give space in the conversation and prioritize listening over talking, the more Jen feels that I’m invested in understanding her particular struggle, as opposed to rehashing my own."

"The more I give space in the conversation and prioritize listening over talking, the more Jen feels that I’m invested in understanding her particular struggle, as opposed to rehashing my own."

Be There Stories
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Emily Ower on how meaningful it is to hear someone out.

Jen and I are sisters and, in many ways, have supported one another for most of our lives. But at the same time, as we’ve grown up together to become the people we are today, we’ve also had to redefine what being there for each other looks like.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was a teenager and, at that time, the four-year age difference between Jen and I felt enormous. Add that age gap to the stigma surrounding mental illness in the early 2000s, and the result was that I shared very little about my lived experience with my own sister - a habit that persisted for almost a decade. My silence was due, in part, to my desire to protect her from my struggle, but a large piece of me also believed that she would never understand the way I was feeling.

Years later, Jen opened up to me about her own mental health struggles. I remember feeling relieved.. It felt like she’d opened a door and suddenly I could talk about the things that I wanted to share with her over the years (but never had). But when I think back to those first few conversations, I realize I was the one doing most of the talking. While I peppered her with advice and tips on how to navigate the mental health system with which I felt so familiar, Jen got quieter and quieter on the other end of the phone. Though I was trying to be there for her, I was actually dominating the conversation and overshadowing her experiences with my own. 

Luckily, through our sisterly bond of unconditional love, we managed to keep the conversation going since that first phone call and the mix of listening and talking has become more balanced. The more I give space in the conversation and prioritize listening over talking, the more Jen feels that I’m invested in understanding her particular struggle, as opposed to rehashing my own. While Jen has told me that offering my own anecdotes can make her feel less alone, I’ve found that sharing from my own experience is best received when it's integrated into the process of listening. Too often in conversation, we spend time planning for our turn to talk rather than listening to what’s being said. Be There’s Golden Rule #4 is about listening fully and deeply, and responding when it feels meaningful, as opposed to when you want to get something off your chest. 

As mental health becomes a more popular topic, I’ve noticed that many people are bursting with stories that they’ve felt forced to keep buried for so long. As a society, we’ve still got a long way to go. This urgent need to share our own stories makes sense, but it can be a real barrier to hearing each other out. My hope is that, as a society, we can make conversations about mental health so commonplace that this urgency subsides and we foster a culture of mutual support within our communities.

For Jen and I, the result of my effort to become a better listener is twofold. When she needs support, I’m now better able to be patient, present and ensure the conversation centers around what’s on her mind. As well though, through our mutual commitment to try to understand each other's experiences, we are able to talk about our ups and downs more regularly, more freely, and without fear, shame, or judgment.