Setting Boundaries in Evangelical Listening
Even though attentive listening is essential to evangelization and discipleship, there are times when you need to set hard boundaries.
Today’s message is simple: In your mission as an evangelist, you do not have to listen to every single thing everybody has to say all the time.
When you know how central attentive listening is to effective evangelization and discipleship, it is easy to get sucked into feeling guilty if you set limits on that listening. This is especially true when the speaker is clearly suffering and deserving of your compassion.
Still. Set boundaries on your time and your attention if the situation is wrecking your ability to live out your vocation. Such as:
You are neglecting your primary vocation (to your family, your parish, your personal ministry, etc.) because your attention is being distracted and scattered.
You are becoming less merciful and compassionate the more you continue to allow the speaker to flood your life.
You are being drawn into sin as you start making excuses for inexcusable behavior.
You are being drawn into sin because frankly your patience is exhausted and you’re becoming not a nice person.
You can think of other consequences of over-listening as well. The core fact is that the good kind of listening draws you and others closer to God. You live your vocation more fully, your heart is opened up, and you are able to do more with and for Jesus.
This discernment requires work. You need to constantly form and reform your conscience so that you can clearly identify right from wrong and good from bad. You need to be firm with yourself about where your vocation lies, and what kinds of excuses you tend to tell yourself in order to avoid that vocation. You need to accept that we tend to do this badly and just have to keep on attempting to improve.
That’s today’s talk. Listen, but listen wisely. Set boundaries around who, what, where, and when you listen.
Related: As All Souls is upon us, reminder that here is my review of Living Memento Mori by my good friend Emily DeArdo. I have fixed the many, many, oh it hurts me so many times I misspelled the title of that book in the original review. Sigh. Remember, oh man, that thou art dust and thine editing isn’t that great either.
For those hanging around for a personal update from me: Holding steady, neither worse nor better. Appreciate your prayers. Thank you!
This is the spot where some of you need to draw a line and slice this post in half.
If you are receiving this in your inbox (if you aren’t, the “about” page tells you how to do that), and you know someone who needs the mini-talk above, you have my permission to delete everything that follows and forward just the top.
What follows is a discussion specifically of what some people call “trauma dumping.” I’m going to keep it clean, so there shouldn’t be anything triggering below, but also I know that it’s a loaded topic and not everyone is up for it. If you see the word “trauma” and immediately think: No, not this again, that’s your cue to move on.
(Some of you just have other things to do right now, and want to bookmark this one to finish later. Good! Go do the other things. Please.)
Here’s a link to artist Daniel Mitsui, whose style is nothing if not seasonal. Enjoy and have a blessed eve of all things saintly and suffering.
Okay, let’s talk about a specific kind of conversation that you need to draw boundaries around, but which is heavily laden with guilt and recriminations if you dare to step away from the speaker, even just a little.
The going expression is “trauma dumping” because the guilty parties dig into their massive pile of genuine past hurts in order to bury the listener into submission. I don’t like this term, for two reasons:
Many, many people are suffering immensely and they deserve to be heard. The term “trauma dumping” can be used to callously dismiss anyone who complains about the least little thing. There is no excuse for ignoring those whose voices you need to hear in order to accurately understand how the world actually is and your God-given role in it.
“Dumping” is misleading. Quite often someone who isn’t weaponizing their suffering will indeed “dump” a whole lot of pain into the conversation in one cathartic moment of release. That’s normal and fine. And, in contrast, sometimes the toxic forms of “trauma-sharing” come in just a single short comment, or even a reproving glance — not so much a truckload as a carefully-aimed arrow.
So weaponized suffering is what I am going to talk about. This is the practice of taking what is (usually) very real, often significant and undeniable pain, and using it not to engage in good-faith discussions of serious matters, nor to seek out consolation and much-needed help, but rather to control other people.
Public Service Announcement before we continue: Suffering people behave badly.
That’s just life. When someone is reeling from an enormous shock, expect that person to not handle things with grace.
Sure, yeah, sometimes someone blows you away with just how clear-headed and virtuous they remain in the face of unspeakable horror, but most people don’t have that gift. We muddle through and screw things up. That’s the nature of getting the rug pulled out from under you.
Bystanders can thus both issue a suffering-pass and acknowledge that no, not everything our friend is doing is quite right just now.
Another PSA: Actually, no, there isn’t “getting over it.”
There is no world in which “good” sufferers “just move on” and “go back to how things were.” The nature of serious suffering is that it changes you and it changes your life.
If you cut a hole in a piece of paper, no matter how you patch it, it will never be the same again. It will always be a piece of paper that had a hole cut into it.
You might come to find good uses for that hole. You might like the paper better because the hole cut out some part of yourself that wasn’t doing you any favors anyhow. You might fill that hole with something wonderful and good. You may get to where mostly you don’t notice so much that someone cut a hole in you. But cut they did, and nothing will undo that fact. You are permanently changed.
So when we talk about weaponized suffering, we aren’t saying that the sufferer needs to “get over it.” That’s an impossibility, and demanding the impossible is a serious sin against charity.
For both of these reasons, it is a bad idea to sit in judgment on the person who is weaponizing their suffering.
It doesn’t matter whether the person is knowingly engaging in terrible discourse or if they are just freaking out because they have a whole lot to freak out about.
In either case, you the charitable listener draw a line. You recognize that the conversation has taken a toxic turn, and you step back. Disengage. Live to be a better friend a different day.
But, to know when and where to draw that line (and to distinguish when it’s actually you who don’t want to hear someone else’s point of view or who can’t bear to be told you are wrong), you need to know what weaponized-suffering is.
Here are some of the signs that the person you are listening to is weaponizing their suffering:
They’ve started a suffering contest. Well yes, you the listener may have experienced _________________, but that hardly compares to what I the speaker went through with _________________.
This is different from a good-faith “I don’t think you fully understand what I’m going through.” Often when we want to show our sympathy, we attempt to bring forward whatever similar experience we have on offer. As a result we may idiotically offer some example that is not, at all, of the same order or degree. We’re trying our best, but frankly the speaker is correct to stare at us in disbelief and then perhaps attempt to verbally slap us out of our silliness.
With weaponized suffering, it’s not a correction to get the conversation back on track, it is a shutting down of conversation altogether. The price of entry into the conversation isn’t your good faith desire to understand and be of help. Even if you do manage to have suffered enough that the speaker can’t win the contest after all, the speaker will try to find some reason that your suffering is disqualified on a technicality.
Boundaries and alternate points of view are criminalized. Disagreement is not allowed. Likewise, you are accused of lacking compassion (or worse) if you do not give all that the speaker asks of you. No one else has a prior right to your time, attention, or other resources, because the speaker’s suffering outweighs those rights. The only acceptable response is unwavering obedience.
The answer to your objections is pain. You and the speaker are ostensibly attempting to problem-solve a situation that deserves solving. The speaker, who is indeed in a position to know more and better some aspects of that situation, has produced an answer.
The answer could relate to a theoretical framework, it could be a public policy solution, it could be a practical decision about what to build or where to get dinner, it could be a theological question.
Whatever the question, supposedly you are in dialogue about the answer, in a quest to uncover truth of some nature. (Even if it’s just: Yes, barbecue sounds great.)
However, in the case of weaponized suffering, actually anything you say that the speaker disagrees with is going to be wrong. If your idea can’t be found wrong on its merits, then you will be shut down with: But I suffer, so you are wrong.
Again, this is different from: Please listen to my experience, I have something valuable to say here. (“I am allergic to barbecue. Burgers maybe?”) This is different from getting emotional or over-heated (“Lord have mercy, why is it always barbecue with you??”). This is different from an honest admission that frankly the speaker is not ready to engage in discussion.
The situation here is that the speaker has expressed a desire to dialog, but then shuts down any attempt at dialog by weaponizing his or her suffering.
There is no need for you the listener to judge why this is happening, nor whether the speaker’s motives are nefarious. We are not obliged to make excuses for the speaker, either. We just observe that the speaker wants something other than dialog, and then we respond as charitably as we can.
This doesn’t mean you must stop listening.
If you can do so charitably, then being the person who affirms what is true and real in the sufferer’s experience can be healing.
Furthermore, it is important that we learn from people who have been pushed over the edge. We do this to both find ways to help them back up into a place of healing, and in order to learn how to prevent other people from becoming ensnared in the same disastrous situation that created this pain in the first place.
However, you may need to draw some boundaries. You are attempting to do a work of mercy, but there are times when you simply do not have the ability to carry out the work. And that’s where the list at the top of this post comes from.