“As the listener,” said Edgington, “there’s a second reason for not reflecting your own experience back to them: doing so implies that you’ve got the same resources, the same tools, the same trajectory. And that may not be the case.”
Armstrong and Edgington also caution us against the harms of toxic positivity. “Telling someone it’s going to be OK isn’t a panacea. In fact, it can do more harm than good. We might have lived through something, and we might want to reassure them that they’ll overcome this dark time, but it’s not inherently helpful. Sometimes, it can make them feel worse,” Edgington explained.
The gift of listening
For Ryan Murphy, the MHCC program manager for Prevention and Promotion Initiatives, who also volunteers with Ottawa Victim Services and Kids Help Phone, the satisfaction that comes from supporting others goes beyond listening well.
“Yes, you’re validating feelings. Yes, you’re creating a safe space free from judgment. But you’re reminding people of their own problem-solving skills. You’re reaffirming their resourcefulness and, maybe above all, you’re letting them see their own worth. That doesn’t feel like a passive activity.”
This was certainly the case when, during one of his volunteer shifts, he found himself texting with a girl on her 10th birthday.
Clearly emotional, Murphy recalled the text coming in like it was yesterday. “She messaged and said her birthday had gone completely unnoticed. She felt she didn’t have any friends, and her family gave her no acknowledgment whatsoever.”
So, he said, they “celebrated” together. And what comprised that celebration was Murphy reaffirming to a lost and lonely child that she was deserving. “I was able to tell her, I hear you, I’m with you, and you are a worthy human being.”
Armstrong, tearing up herself, said to Murphy, “Think about that for a second. Think about what a gift you were able to give her. And think about how lucky she was that her text landed in your lap. For all the negative, she is going to look back on that day and know that someone — someone as special and empathetic as you — cared.”
While all three affirm that volunteering in this way is deeply meaningful, they also admit that the pandemic is diminishing everyone’s capacity for giving — including those we rely on to pick up the phone or answer the texts.
“I feel incredibly energized after these interactions,” Murphy said, “but I don’t have the stamina to do as many sessions as I did before COVID-19.”
Armstrong understands that feeling. “Even as someone who derives tremendous satisfaction from this work, you have to know your limits, and you have to give yourself permission to set boundaries.”
That advice spills over into personal life as well.
“When acting as supports for others, we can’t neglect our own health and wellness, and it’s important to not only listen to others, but also to ourselves,” said Murphy.
For more information on how to get involved in supporting those in need, visit Kids Help Phone and Ottawa Victim Services.