"Thank you so much for letting me tell you all this," she said, reaching over and patting my sleeve. "I feel like I've been talking for hours, but this really helped me. You're too kind."
Well, yes. And no.
Contrary to popular belief, we who struggle with low self-esteem can actually be very desirable companions. Among other reasons for this—such as our willingness to let you always win—is a double-edged sword of a trait that comes with the territory: Some of us are very good listeners.
This is one of the curious "upsides" to low self-esteem. It fills us with passionate curiosity about other people—simply because they are not us. It makes us keenly empathic—because we've suffered too, so we know. We're good listeners—largely because we don't want to listen to ourselves.
We don't want to listen to that part of ourselves that we mistake for the authentic part: the daily self on whom we pour endless invective. We also don't want to hear that invective. And we've walled up our true selves— those innocent, pre-self-loathing selves we wouldn't hate—having been traumatized, lied to or tricked, long ago, into doing so.
We've learned to use others to help us silence ourselves—without their knowledge, much less will. As any epiphanies or cries for help or rescue sirens rise in our hearts and minds, we chant La la la la I can't hear you, then we turn to others and ask: How are YOU?!
Not listening to ourselves lends us more time to spend listening to you.
In principle, this is noble. Being there for others, validating others by letting them speak their minds, giving others shoulders to cry on—those are virtues, right?
Of course they are—in principle.
But low self-esteem makes us enact certain behaviors based on very different motivations than the ones that usually spur those behaviors in people with healthy self-esteem. We harbor ulterior motives—not toward others, but toward ourselves. For us, being good listeners is not always a selfless act of kindness. For us, it is often a dodge, a willful disappearing act.
Please talk, we think but do not say, to fill the silences that scare and bore and menace me. Talk, because your words— whatever they are—will drown out my dark thoughts and save me from myself.
Acts of compassion driven by self-loathing often go awry. At some level, we know exactly what we're up to—and our awareness of our own duplicitous deceptions makes us hate ourselves yet more.
On the road to recovery from self-loathing, we owe it to ourselves to learn to listen to ourselves. Mindfulness meditation is a basic yet powerful tool that mandates making silence, occupying silence, undergoing the hard test of silence and granting ourselves the lustrous gift of silence. And when others expect and demand that we listen to them, we must learn to discern our motivations for obliging them. And, having done so, we must build the courage to sometimes say no, firmly but graciously—or at least to say not right now.
On the road to recovery, we must welcome ourselves to re-enter those silences we knew and loved before we lost our self-esteem. We will celebrate then these silences that are not really silences, because our true selves yearn to fill them with epiphanies, with cries for help and rescue sirens and whatever campfire songs we would sing, basking in the warmth of our own hearts.
That's how we can become really good listeners.