By Ms Lucia Hu (LMFT) – ECE & Primary School Counselor & Child Protection Officer at YCIS Shanghai, Pudong
Do you remember a time before you were in an intimate relationship and only hearing about others’ romantic experiences? Or a time before you got married and hearing about others’ marital bliss or strife? Or a time before you had a baby and only witnessed others’ family dynamics? If we’re being honest, whether it is relationships, family dynamics, raising children, or making career decisions, we have probably all had a time in our lives when our internal voice has judged others’ experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘smart’ or not, and thinking whether we would have done the same thing ourselves or would have navigated the situation differently or ‘better’. If we find ourselves under those same circumstances later, we enter our own ‘bootcamp’ and start understanding things from a different perspective. Many of us will eventually realize that we may have been a little naïve.
The spread of the coronavirus has seemingly polarized pockets of our Shanghai community between those who left and chose to stay outside of China and those who remained in the city. For those in and out of the city, across the world, life behind closed doors has become a reality. Like never before, enforced isolation and health recommendations are pulling us in different directions. On the one hand, we are being told to disconnect from people physically, but on the other, we are encouraged to connect more than usual, mentally and emotionally, with family and friends. For a significant number of us, we are drawn to share our felt experiences. Yet, as much as we would like to connect, some of us are struggling and feeling more disconnected than before. Experiencing our burdens may sometimes cause us to dismiss other people’s struggles as “not a big deal” in comparison. If you find yourself hearing another person’s story of suffering — friend or not — and feeling disbelieving, disengaged, or dismissive, below are some points to consider.
This person is not me
We all see life through our own unique lens, and sometimes it’s difficult to understand another person’s perspective. We often think that our way makes better sense. The possibility exists that if we were in their shoes, we could do better, however, the reality is that no matter how we expect ourselves to behave in any given situation, we do not know what we would do or how we would feel until we are experiencing it for ourselves.
It is easy to forget that we don’t share the same genetic makeup, present circumstances, family and life experiences as each other, but these all impact how prepared or unprepared we are to deal with unexpected challenges. Furthermore, each person’s unique background may also trigger responses or emotions that may surprise or upset them and affect how they react to certain situations.
The amount of stress, fear, or other emotions we experience are often not related to the circumstances themselves but, rather, how different the reality is from our expectations. For example, expecting and being prepared for the amenities of a low-budget hotel is very different from discovering the same lower standard of amenities when expecting a 5-star luxury hotel.
For many of us living in the international community in Shanghai, we are used to changes in lifestyle compared to what we experience back in our home countries, but as time goes by, all of these changes form part of an accepted reality and routine and now we find that the stability that we have built in the city has suddenly been disrupted. These very routines and expectations are why someone who recently returned to Shanghai might have felt traumatized being stuck in a hotel awaiting test results for 30 hours, without updates, when they expected to only wait 18. Or how compound gates being closed and food deliveries directly to your door suddenly cutoff could feel like the end of the world for someone who had remained in Shanghai. Although they might appear inconsequential in the greater context of the outbreak, some of these changes can be truly distressing if we were counting on those “immutable” realities to support a fragile sense of control and safety amid uncertainty and confusing viral news. People whose daily reality does not align with ours and include compound gates or food deliveries to the door would, very understandably, not necessarily understand the emotional impact of these changes to our daily lives. After all, they always had to drive out to go get their own food and staying in a hotel for a little longer isn’t so bad, so what’s the big deal?
How can I practice listening without judgment?
- Try to remember this person needs to share and feel heard. They would like to connect with you and are not looking for you to give a ‘grit’ score on how they deal with their distress.
- You should treat others as you would wish to be treated and remember that you may also like to share your experiences and feel heard and understood without being judged.
- You can affirm the person’s experience as a true experience: this happened to them and it caused them to feel a certain way.
- You can acknowledge the person’s feelings regardless of how they came about. Always remember that it is not pleasant to feel stressed, scared, lost, forgotten, dismissed, discriminated against, judged, etc.
What if I am feeling judged or dismissed?
Chances are you may not be in control of your reaction when blindsided by judgment or dismissal of your suffering, especially from those close to you or whom you’ve trusted. You may want to consider these steps:
- Be authentic without lashing back. Tell the person how you felt judged or dismissed by their words or tone. Reparation can start happening if this was not intentional.
- If the other person continues to hold their judgmental view, you can choose to tell them how sad or disappointed you feel from their behavior.
- You can consider this conversation a gift that highlighted whether or not this is a relationship to keep. How much you want to salvage this relationship would determine whether you are prepared for a debate with this person.
- You can try to find another person or family member to connect with.
Despite the differences in experienced suffering, one thing that can reconnect us is choosing to figure out creative ways to weather this crisis together, so rather than knocking each other down, we can focus on building each other up.