Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Unconscious Living

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 20, 2012

Arthur, fifty-eight, goes to work every day. He works in the financial industry and he helps people build wealth. He is single, never married, and profoundly self-centered, as his “friends” report to him. Arthur’s closest relationship is to his mother, an elderly woman who is cognitively intact, but physically frail. Arthur’s father is in a skilled nursing facility, dying from Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia. Arthur reports to me that he is “desperate” for a girlfriend and yet, he feels completely clueless as to why he can’t find a mate. “Maybe it is hard for you to listen to other people,” I say, pointing out that communication skills are important for human connection. “I do listen,” Arthur protests loudly and angrily. “Well, sometimes I notice that you have a hard time listening to me. I begin to speak and you interrupt and change the subject back to how hard your life is given that you are so lonely.” I say, trying to gently point out that he may think he is listening, but the point that he hears for a few minutes and then changes the topic to his own concerns, demonstrates that it is hard for him to stay present with the other person’s thoughts or feelings.

Arthur is not aware that he has poor listening skills, even though he has been told this by multiple important people in his life. Arthur believes that he does listen, so he is confused as to why he is getting this feedback. “Maybe unconsciously listening to others makes you anxious, so in a deep way, you have to refer the subject back to yourself in order to calm yourself down. Maybe all of this is happening at such a deep level that you are not aware of being so self-referential.” I say, trying to talk about how unconscious anxiety can lead to behaviors that one is not aware of. “You are confusing me,” Arthur says. “Yea, I can see that, but maybe if you mull it over, you will begin to understand how one’s mind can work on such deep levels that some parts of communication become outside of your awareness. “I don’t know if that is interesting, or I am just not getting it, but it seems way too abstract for me.” Arthur says with a tone of deep frustration and anger. “Maybe you need to relax a bit so that you can allow yourself to consider these ideas. Your anger may be getting in the way of your understanding.” I say, noting that his low frustration tolerance is another barrier to working deeply. Considering unconscious processes requires a frustration tolerance, since these ideas are uncertain and fuzzy. Arthur leaves abruptly, showing me his discontent. “See ya tomorrow,” I say. “Yep,” he responds without a smile. His anger is conscious. His anxiety is deeper.

2 Responses to “Unconscious Living”

  1. Shelly said

    Can you tell me more about people becoming anxious when they have to listen to others? Why does it raise their anxiety level? Why do people constantly speak about themselves and have poor listening skills? Are they narcissistic? Why do they become so distracted when others speak but not distracted when they are speaking? What causes some people to speak non-stop so that others cannot get in a word edge-wise and cannot break into a conversation (and cannot get away)?

    • These are very interesting questions-as usual. Yes, it is a form of narcissism which makes people poor listeners. Essentially, they are stimulated by their own stories and they become anxious when listening to others. Speaking over people, or dominating a conversation is often a defense against the anxiety of not knowing what the other person will say, and hence not knowing what feelings will come up when the other person speaks their mind. Most people enjoy hearing themselves speak. Fewer people really enjoy listening to what others have to say. Finding the common ground is the art of relationships. Sometimes, particularly when life gets more challenging, the search for common ground can seem impossible, since one needs to be listened to attentively, whereas the other person lacks the skills to do this. This creates tension, and oftentimes relationships end as a result. Thanks again for your comments.

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