When the laughter had subsided, and she duly apologised for her behaviour, I pointed out that it was likely to be an example of a defence mechanism: somewhere within, the subject made her deeply uncomfortable, and her outward display was an attempt to mask this inner feeling.
Later, practising my counselling skills, I managed to tap into an emotion that my partner in the practice was trying desperately to repress. The tears rolled down their face, and I asked if they wanted me to stop going down that rabbit hole, as it were. With the next partner, the same thing happened. I questioned why this kept happening, and how, even outside of my work supporting those in distress, so many people had stated that they told me things they had kept hidden for a long time.
Before I started using counselling skills in the voluntary sector, or studying the subject of counselling skills and theory, I got about half way through studying for a degree in psychology with The Open University. There are many reasons why that line of study came to an end when it did, but that's not important. What's important is that my study, up to that point, had a clear focus on the psychodynamic perspective of psychology. After my studies came to an end, I did further research into the psychodynamic approach, and became especially interested in the theories of Carl Jung.
Just as my early experience of Japanese martial arts has affected my study of every combat art in the time since, early exposure to the influential figures in the psychodynamic approach to psychological theory and practice have affected how I interact with those who come to me as a client, as a study partner, or as a friend. Special attention is given to the pace of speech, the terms used and the deeper feelings which may be exposed by these things. Add body language into the mix, when I'm able to observe the visual cues given by this non-verbal behaviour, and you have a situation where I am able to hear not only what is being said, but also what is not being said.
Maybe some people are not comfortable with me being able to see behind the mask they choose to wear. I don't know if the empathy I feel for others has always been there, or whether it developed over time, but it's there. Sometimes, I wish it was something I could switch off. Spending time with people, notably where there are a lot of people present, can be extremely tiring. Unconsciously picking up what people are feeling, even some of the feelings they are trying to hide from the world, sounds like a tremendous gift, and there are times when it can be. A lot of the time, however, it feels like a roller coaster ride that I desperately want to stop.
The dance connection
I started learning to dance a few months ago, and it's a style of dance that requires me, as a male, to lead a female partner. Some of the ladies have said I'm a good lead. I'm not sure how far I can agree with that suggestion, but I guess the ladies are in a better position to judge. What I can tell you is that I use a great deal of empathy, even when dancing. At every point of every movement, I'm concentrating on what I do, but the focus is on how it is affecting my partner's movement, and how she is feeling. Does it make me a good lead? I don't know. A considerate lead? Yeah, I guess that's accurate.
Even when dancing, I'm removing my partner's mask, in another way. As much as I'm supposed to lead, I also allow a lady the space to express herself. Some respond well to this; some seem to lack the confidence, at this point, to make the most of it. One of the things I love about dancing is that the experience of dancing with a certain partner will always be specific to them, and I have to mould the way I lead to each individual. If I get it right, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the routine, they seem to appreciate it, and it's a good experience for me too.
In essence, I try to let people know that it's okay to be themselves with me. There's no need to wear a mask.