Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Conversation Challenge

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 27, 2011

   Mortie, seventy-two, likes to come in and report to me how her week has been. She does not seem terribly interested in my thoughts, but she does seem to be interested in her stories, which I find interesting, most of the time.  My dilemma is how much I should listen, and how much I should interrupt and make a comment, either in the form of a question or an idea about why she is telling me this particular story. My timing is critical in that if I say something too soon, she will feel she is not being heard, and if I wait too long, we won’t have enough time to work together to explore a new way of seeing things. One session, I did interrupt early on, to which her rapid response was “I am paying you to listen to me.” I knew as soon as she said that, that we were now in a world of pain and struggle. In that moment, she exposed her vulnerability in a way which I felt was going to take a lot of time to mend. I could challenge her statement by explaining that she does not pay me to listen, but rather, she pays me to help her understand how her mind is working. I did not think it was a good idea for me to say that, because the emotional temperature was too high. Then, I thought I could continue to listen, but I did not want to do that, since I did not think it was helpful to continue on the train where she relates her stories and I passively listen. So, I chose a third option, and I said “wow, that must be hard for you to feel that you have to pay someone to listen to you.” She calmed down and said “you know what I mean. I come here and I expect you to listen.” “Well, I do listen, most of the time, but maybe there are other times, when I feel it is more appropriate for me to say something rather than to continue to  listen.” I said, hoping to keep the calmness, since the raw feelings a minute ago had been so palpable. Mortie begins to cry. She says,  “I just want to disappear from the planet. I don’t like myself. I can see why people don’t want to be my friend.” ” Wow, we went from talking about conversation skills to suicide, awfully quickly. How did we get there so fast?” I asked. “I just don’t like myself sometimes,” Mortie says, “and I am too old to change.” As hard as it was to hear her say that, I felt the hope that we could now enter into territory that was more meaningful; she presented her feelings which could lead to some internal change. “I can see how badly you feel about yourself and I am sorry you feel that way. I think we can work on those feelings in a way which might help,” I say, with confidence that a positive shift has taken place. We are on our journey.

2 Responses to “Conversation Challenge”

  1. Shelly said

    Perhaps Mortie feels that she has no friends with whom she can share things with, to listen to her, and for this reason, she comes to you….to be a “surrogate ear” if you will. Sometimes all people want is someone to listen to them and to care. Not to be cared for and to feel lonely and all alone makes one feel as if one doesn’t exist at all (as if she wanted to “disappear from the planet”). You are right that you and she should discuss these feelings and how she can overcome them. Can you blog some more about loneliness, what it means, and tools about overcoming those feelings (other than “keeping busy” or joining social groups)?

    • Yes, but I was trying to say that Mortie keeps herself lonely by not letting anyone, in this case, me, “in”.
      Loneliness is one of my favorite topics, so I will certainly give that some more thought. Thanks.

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