The Need To Be Seen

I’ve written before about how narcissistic it is to communicate. I don’t really believe that anymore (to the extent I ever did), but I think it’s interesting. What’s interesting about it is that there’s a tiny sliver of truth behind it. That sliver is this: all humans have an intense need to be seen and understood by each other.

This is one of those truths that psychologists seem to know and understand deeply but which did not come naturally to me. For me, the conflicting desire to be allowed to pass by unremarked upon was always stronger. I’m sure some psychologists would love to psychoanalyze that, but for now let’s let it lie.

I’m told from respected sources that the child’s need to be seen by their parents is one of the most fundamental. This is the theory behind the classic dysfunction of the child ignored by a parent — think the classic distant father and eager son — who spends their whole life desperately trying to impress that parent.

Where the most interesting learning has occurred for me is in the fact that simply being seen can cure most of our psychological neuroses. When someone is just feeling sad or overwhelmed or angry, a person coming along and acknowledging and accepting that they are feeling those feelings is one of the quickest ways that those feelings can dissipate. There is no need to for the other person to change the situation (in fact in most cases that’s not wanted), they just need to really understand it. It can feel like such a relief to finally have someone understand and acknowledge that you feel the way you feel.

It turns out, as I’ve been slowly learning, you can do this for yourself. You can see yourself feeling your feelings, you can acknowledge that you are feeling your feelings, and your feelings can then naturally dissipate as they do when recognized by someone else. This is magical mental jujitsu that I would never have believed if I hadn’t caught glimpses of it in myself. But back on track.

Whether or not you have any desire to be able to soothe yourself by seeing, simply knowing the need and value to others of being seen and understood is a great way to become better as a communicator. You’re more empathic, patient, and easy to be around if you know how to see without jumping to change. To the action-oriented person it feels like you’ll go crazy when you just see the situation and don’t try to change it, but for most people, with most modern problems, most of the time, it is the single best thing you can offer.


Living in Retrospect

“In retrospect, it was a bad idea.” “One day we’ll look back at this and laugh.” We all understand that our views on things are not fixed forever. That looking back on things with some critical distance from our actions we’ll likely see more clearly what was going on and what the wiser course of action would have been.

I think the best way we can hope to live is to always see events as we would see them with the critical distance of a few years. The goal of a mindfulness practice, I believe, is simply to see all things with the critical distance that time naturally provides for us much too late. Such that we can use our clear vision of how things really are to act wisely, rather than on to react to what we misunderstand to be unfolding.

This is both one of simplest ideas anyone ever had, and the most difficult. It’s simple. I pretty much captured all that I can about it in two paragraphs. And yet it’s difficulty is real. Even people who’ve dedicated 20 years to mindfulness, or living in retrospect, find themselves undertaking unwise actions from time to time. Actions that they later see quite clearly were inappropriate, and could have been handled better.

Experience and wisdom are shorthand for knowing what is right to do in a given situation. They’re generally born of an ability to see parallels to a previously encountered situation from which it is understood what is likely to work in this situation. But contrary to popular belief, I’m confident you don’t really need either age or experience to know how do something well. What you need instead is a clear vision of all the factors unfolding in a situation and all the outcomes that could occur. If one, even as a beginner, can see these thing clearly they have the potential to do as well as even the most experienced experts to take the best course of action.

When one makes no effort to accurately percieve what is unfolding and what would be a wise way to respond, they only ever come to an adequate understanding through time. But inattentive centuries will hardly make you better at creating intelligent solutions to hard problems than a few weeks of careful attention from someone truly dedicated to seeing clearly and acting wisely.

I am not here to promise that you can be an instant expert in everything if you just learn to use this magical skill I’m trying to tell you about. You can’t, and it would be idiotic for me to try to convince you. But I do know that you’ll learn a lot more if you place yourself mindfully in the situation you find yourself than if you merely move through the routines of your life as if you’re anxiously awaiting some destination you’ll never arrive at.

We have so many stories, jokes, and morality plays as a culture about coming to the end of your life and realizing something about the way you lived it. But we have the capicity, rigt now in the very moment, to have the same insight and clarity that we’re so often told only death provides. Most of us are simply so pre-occupied with other things to see that we’re really not treating our family fairly. That we really don’t care all that much about our job. That there’s nothing more important than the people we choose to spend time with. This is the value of mindfulness. The value of striving to live in retrospect.