How to Listen to Yourself—Especially If You’re Really Out of Practice
When was the last time you listened to yourself?
That is, when was the last time you checked in with your thoughts and feelings? When was the last time you expressed an opinion? When was the last time you considered your needs and actually met them?
When was the last time you said yes and actually meant it—you genuinely wanted to attend that get-together or take on that project or do that favor?
So many of us don’t listen to ourselves—and with good reason. Ignoring and dismissing our thoughts, feelings, and needs can be adaptive in certain situations—particularly in childhood. According to New York City psychologist Snehal Kumar, Ph.D, maybe you grew up in an authoritarian home, had to care for an unwell parent, or learned that maintaining peace meant minimizing your needs (and yourself).
“Over time, this way can become our default method of operating and perceiving the world, which perpetuates this cycle of not listening to ourselves,” she said.
You also might not listen to yourself because you’re afraid of what you’ll hear, said Kumar, who specializes in burnout recovery, diversity-related stress, mindfulness, and mental wellness. You’re afraid that you’ll be “disappointed, hurt, or angry…Sometimes the emotions and thoughts that come up when we try listen to ourselves can feel so utterly heartbreaking, overwhelming, and even chaotic, that we’d rather not listen to ourselves.”
We also might not listen to ourselves because we assume that everyone else knows better than we do. We assume that “everyone else is smarter, wiser, and has the answers,” said Kirsten Brunner, LPC, a therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health and relationship counseling at her private practice in Austin, Texas.
And sometimes we simply pick the easier option—at least in the short term. “There can be a lot of work, emotionally and sometimes physically, in trying to give ourselves what we need,” Kumar said.
But even if it’s been a while since you’ve listened to yourself—really listened—you can start at any time. In any moment. Because every moment is an opportunity to check in with yourself and honor what you hear. Below, you’ll learn eight tips for doing just that.
Look for clues. Figure out how you’re listening to yourself in the first place. One helpful strategy is to consider if your words match your actions, said Panthea Saidipour, LCSW, a Manhattan psychotherapist who helps people in their teens, 20s, and 30s better understand themselves and their relationships so that they can live more intentionally.
“For example, if you say yes to an invite, are you eager to show up or do you find yourself dragging your feet?”
Other clues that you’re not listening or honoring your own boundaries are feeling resentful, irritable, or uninterested, she said.
Something else to watch out for: physical aches and pains, such as headaches, chest discomfort, and gastrointestinal issues. Saidipour noted that when we’re not listening to our emotions, they can express themselves through various ailments. “This is the body’s way of getting the mind’s attention.” (Of course, it’s important to first get these checked out by a doctor.)
Journal. “Start a ‘tuning into myself’ journal in which you let your feelings and thoughts flow without fear of being corrected or influenced by anyone else,” said Brunner, co-author of the book The Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads: How to Support Your Partner Through Birth, Breastfeeding & Beyond. She noted that when we write down our words, our thoughts naturally slow down, “which helps you to hear your voice more clearly and tune out other distractions.”
Ease in. “If [we] begin our practice of listening to ourselves by trying to face the most traumatic thing, it can make us feel completely overwhelmed, scared, and more afraid to listen to ourselves,” Kumar said. Which is why she stressed the importance of reflecting on something that’s a level 3 or 4 on a 10-point distress scale: a movie you just watched, a recent conversation with a friend, or three experiences you’re grateful for.
Check in throughout the day. Listening to ourselves means “creating time and space every day to check in with ourselves, feel what we’re really feeling, and ask ourselves what really matters to us,” said Keely Clark, LCSW, a therapist who offers supportive counseling and coaching to moms as they navigate the transitions of motherhood at her private practice MotherBloom Wellness PLLC in Asheville, N.C.
One simple way to do that, she said, is to set a timer for 5 minutes and practice a gentle meditation or sensory scan (asking yourself: “what am I seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling?)
Clark suggested pairing your check-in with other routine parts of your day, such as taking bathroom breaks or getting into your car.
Put up reminders. This is a visual way to check in with yourself. Brunner suggested putting up Post-It notes around your house, office, and car with different phrases and questions, such as: “How are you feeling today? Your opinions and desires matter. What does your gut say? What do you want right now? What are you needing in this moment?”
Pick what comes naturally. Kumar noted that it’s important to choose practices that feel accessible and enjoyable to you—and have the “least barriers.” For instance, she’s found that athletes, yoga enthusiasts, and performers tend to gravitate toward dance, finding it a powerful way to express experiences through movement. She’s also found that people who prefer talking and reflecting through listening—versus writing out their thoughts—like to create audio notes. What self-reflective practices resonate with you?
Teach your kids. If you’re a parent, Brunner suggested encouraging your kids to listen to their inner voice—which, in turn, encourages you to do the same. What does this look like? When your kids approach you with a challenge they’re having with a friend or a question about the world, avoid giving your thoughts and opinions, she said. Instead, first “ask them how they feel about the situation, and ask them what they think.”
Work with a therapist. Therapy is a powerful place for learning to listen to yourself. Saidipour noted that therapy helps you “hear more of your own unfiltered thoughts without having them crowded out by other people.”
“Therapy is also wonderful because you can work with a non-judgmental and respectful trained professional, who’ll help you sort through and understand your experiences,” Kumar said. Plus, she said, therapists can “use their training to equip you with strategies that address your unique barriers.”
Whether you seek therapy or not, make it a habit to listen to yourself—a habit that’s as natural as brushing your teeth and getting to sleep. After all, it’s just as essential.
As Clark said, “when we learn to dial into ourselves more…we tend to feel happier, more balanced, and connected in our lives.”
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). How to Listen to Yourself—Especially If You’re Really Out of Practice. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-listen-to-yourself-especially-if-youre-really-out-of-practice/