Society tells us in a lot of subtle and overt ways not to talk about abuse. It is uncomfortable to hear. There is no easy response. It challenges the dominant narrative that abuse only happens far away, to “them”, not “us.”
Need to be heard
At the same time, there is internal pressure to talk about our abuse history. We want to share important truths rather than hide behind a bland facade. We want to be visible. We need validation, acknowledgment, and support. We hope friends or professionals will come through, listening sympathetically, speaking kindly, and holding space for our stories.
Clear distress signals
There is an additional pressure to be heard after abuse: the burning memory of not being heard during abuse. People give clear distress signals when something hurts or is unwanted. An abuser intentionally overrides those signals or blocks them out. After abuse, something inside says, “Hear me. Tell me I didn’t deserve that.” Something else says, “I have to keep it a secret because maybe I did deserve that.”
When the abuser is a parent, partner, or other trusted figure in our lives, we experience their ignoring our distress as a fundamental betrayal from someone who should protect us. We try to be louder and clearer, desperate to be understood. We wonder why this person believes that we deserve abuse. We begin to believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with us.
Not our fault
People “helpfully” tell us that the problem is our communication skills, or our boundaries, or our choice of parents, or our passivity, or our assertiveness. We twist ourselves into knots trying to fix ourselves, when the problem is not in us at all.
In truth, no one deserves abuse for any reason. We all deserve to have our distress heard and heeded.
We all make mistakes and cause pain. We get wrapped up in our own concerns and goals, and forget to be mindful of the people around us. We go on auto-pilot, or dissociate, or get overwhelmed by emotion. When we realize we hurt someone, we can apologize and reaffirm our commitment to stay aware.
Those mistakes are different from systematically believing that others are unimportant, or denying that our actions will cause pain. We are socialized to listen carefully to people with more power and privilege, and disregard those with less.
When someone with less power becomes loud, angry, or demanding about not being heard, we invoke the Tone Argument and say we would listen if only they were more quiet and polite. We demand the same impossible tight-rope walk from ourselves, trying to find a polite way to be heard by people with more power.
How can we productively handle a situation where our distress is not being heard?
Start with self-care:
- Acknowledge to yourself, “I am not being heard.” This may be a painful pattern in your life.
- Remind yourself that it is not your fault. You deserve to be heard.
- Find allies who hear you with caring. Ask for support.
- Listen inside. Hear your truth, even if no one else will hear you. Listen for what your Inner Critic is afraid of, and listen for the voices underneath that.
- Notice the quality of your inner listening. If we were parented brusquely, impatiently, resentfully, we tend to parent ourselves the same way. Seek out models for kind, compassionate listening.
- Anchor in the present. Take an inventory of your adult skills and choices. Check whether feelings of being powerless or trapped are partly flashbacks to past trauma.
Sadly, there is no single tool to open the ears and heart of someone who is not listening. Some people might need a brief reminder, while others are unreachable. Here are some strategies to consider.
- Most people react defensively to being told directly they are not listening. “I don’t feel heard” might work better.
- A question in a neutral tone might get through. For example, “Do you believe you are hearing what I said?” or “Is there something in the way of hearing me?” or “What would help you hear me better?”
- You could try modeling good listening in hopes that the person will feel heard and then be able to reciprocate.
- Stating concrete needs might help. “I need you to stop interrupting me.” “I need you to repeat back what I just said.” “It’s really important to me that you hear this.”
- You could ask a more powerful ally to support your message. Imagine how this would feel, even if you do not have someone to ask. You could bring in a more powerful voice yourself. “How would you respond if [more powerful person] said what I just said?”
- Being vulnerable is an option. “This really hurts!” You deserve to be heard whether you show vulnerability or not. You should not need to get upset or emotional before someone will listen.
- Showing anger is also an option. “Listen up!” You should not need to yell before someone will listen, either.
- Make natural consequences clear. “When you don’t hear my distress, I don’t want to be around you.”
- Walk away. Take a break. Ask the person to think it over.
- Consider ways to get your needs met that do not require this person to hear you. Find the smallest set of statements you need to get across, and focus on those.
Your needs matter
Not being heard can be exhausting and triggering. It erodes trust. It generates a gaslighting effect where the person is so oblivious to our reality that we doubt ourselves. “Maybe I’m asking for too much. Why should my needs be a priority, anyway?” When caring is mixed with unwillingness to hear, it creates painfully confusing mixed messages.
Relief at being heard
It can be a huge relief to spend time with people who matter-of-factly listen to your words and take your well-being into account. How does it feel in your body when you remember or imagine being heard? Seek that out, and celebrate when it happens.
We can lavish that same care on ourselves, paying careful attention to our needs throughout the day. The old pain of being treated as if we were unimportant heals little by little when we spend time in environments where everyone’s well-being is a priority.
- French translation of this article “Ne pas être entendu, un sentiment de trahison” at Association Internationale des Victimes de l’Inceste, kindly translated by Armelle Pernet.
- Your Body Knows the Answer by David I. Rome has practical step by step techniques for hearing ourselves and others with kindness.