Reading the Bubbles – and with Care

June 2024 Newsletter – Volume 24, No 6

A while ago, I was listening to a friend ranting about his job, specifically his boss. I heard the same word used at least four times during his complaint: “disrespect.” The term made sense to me from the various examples he gave. But that he repeated the term several times, with emphasis, took me somewhere else. I knew this word had a significant history—and it was a Trigger Word from some unresolved history.

So, in my imagination, I put the word “Disrespect” in a bubble over his head to mark my special ‘reading’ of my friend.

Then 1) I went into my Contacts app and added to his name “Trigger: disrespect.”  2) I wished I had the opportunity / permission / occasion to speak to his boss myself and explain that “this employee has a trigger word that you probably used the other day accidentally, that seems to have sent him to some place either painful or ‘crazy.’ I know it upset him. Would you be willing to tell him using that word was a mistake on your part, you hadn’t meant to upset him – and find a more useful term to invite him to listen and cooperate?”

As a (better) alternative, I could advise my friend himself to approach his boss, apologizing for being triggered by a term he used, that after thinking about it, you realized he probably didn’t mean it in the particular way you heard it (giving him the benefit of the doubt).

More ‘Bubbles’

Recently, I met a new client couple virtually (by computer) in their living room. I’ve become used to doing this, and they seemed pretty comfortable with our conversation.  Then, all at once, I saw on my computer a white hand arise from one of them in a bubble, which then disappeared.  Then, the same thing happened from the head of the other. Then again and again – there seemed to be two different bubbles, one of a hand waving and one of an upraised finger (as if OK).  I commented on it; they didn’t see the bubbles – then a short time later, they saw a white hand bubble arising from my head on their screen. They decided it was some new Emoji phenomenon. Unfortunately, I was too surprised to pay attention to the fact that perhaps some AI phenomenon was telling me or us to pay particular attention to what was being said (or not said).

But I somehow knew it was a signal—“Bill, pay attention here.”  Learn to read the Bubbles. Actually, in my profession as a mental health counselor, it’s expected that I know how to listen—how to perceive their messages, conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious. Sometimes, I call them “anxiety bubbles” – because they can be clues to anxiety patterns and even anxiety sources.

Sometimes, this gives too much information.

This is part of the therapists’ art. Many years ago, I had occasion to meet with a clergyman whose church was also the landlord of my office. I needed to inquire about their plans for my building so I could plan my future tenancy. It was an awkward meeting, for he would parrot my questions. I would say, “I’m considering future options for office space,”  And he would respond, “You’re considering future options for office space.” He parroted my comments and generally refused to give me any answers or commitments. I considered he’d been taught this parroting as an immature counseling technique. But now, from an awareness of ‘anxiety bubbles,’ I’m aware he was more likely afraid of me, and this was a defense mechanism to protect himself from having to be open and honest with me.

Being able to see ‘Anxiety Bubbles’ can be a threat to the more anxious party.

How to respond

A particular client was getting anxious and preachy – yet he knows my specific views can be different than his, even though I often give him space to rant, and I am willing to listen. But on this particular occasion, his rants also involved the necessity to solve specific problems, which his growing (political) anger would not benefit. So I calmly noted his increasing anger (his long-standing ‘anxiety bubble’) and said, “If you were to let go of your anger in speaking of these things, what would happen to your ability to come up with useful problem-solving? It took some dancing around, but eventually, he came to a point where he had to ask,” But how do I do that?”

At that point, I came up with a phrase many of my clients have heard from me:  “My father would say to me, ”Despise nothing, honor everything.” That stopped him in his tracks. He knew I had been listening to him, and now he was listening to me.

Be gentle in listening and responding to people’s “Bubbles,” mainly because they can be rooted deeply in problematic and toxic soil.

The Good Book itself will advise (Romans 12:17ff)

“Never pay back evil with evil, but bear in mind the ideals that all regard with respect. As much as possible and to the utmost of your ability, be at peace with everyone. Never try to get revenge:… Do not be mastered by evil but master evil with good.”   TNJB

These are often difficult teachings. Be gentle with them.

Pay Attention

Perhaps today, the survival of our people depends on it.