Oxygen

Some people get anxious when they talk about something important to them. Their speech becomes pressured, coming out in a laser-focused stream of affect instead of the usual ebbs and flows of conversation. Why?

I think it has to do with "emotional oxygen". We all know the feeling when you meet a friend and can't get a word in edgewise, pressure building in your chest as if you're the one feeling panicked, not them (they may not even realize they feel panicked). We all know the feeling of loved ones who dump and vent as if they're stuck at the bottom of the ocean and they want you to be stuck there, too. I've stopped seeing such people as burdens, or as needing to "do their work"; I now see them as drowning, desperately searching for a moment of respite while simultaneously believing they will never get it.

We say someone "sucks all the air out of the room". But what exactly does that mean? It might mean that they are too invested in shining and dazzling, refusing to allow conversation that isn't somehow about them. It might mean that they mope and complain -- once again disallowing conversation about them, but in the other direction. Ultimately I think the phrase means exactly what it says: someone who sucks the air out of the room doesn't allow anyone else to breathe their own emotional oxygen. Everyone's attention needs to be focused on them. They're so desperate for air that they'll subtly demand that everyone provide them with everything they've got.

You can tell when someone is breathing or not by how they listen and how they speak. People who breath can listen. They can put their material down, focusing the conversation on the other person and their reality. They ask insightful questions and thoughtfully reflect back what you're saying. The quintessential example is a therapist, though I know plenty of therapists who are not good at this and many non-mental-health-professionals who are incredible at it. Someone who isn't desperate for oxygen is skilled at giving it away.

People who can breathe also speak in a particular way. Put simply, they expect to be listened to -- not in an arrogant way, but rather in a way that tells you that they expect some oxygen from you. They're used to people who love and respect them and who want to hear what they're saying. The irony is that calmly expecting the listener to provide some conversational oxygen as a matter of course makes the listener want to provide it.

If you start listening for it, you can tell when someone isn't breathing enough. Sometimes when they're speaking it's as if they're reading from a script in their head, trying to get all the words out as quickly as possible. Sometimes they become overly theatrical, feeling the need to be entertaining every single second that they're speaking, for fear of losing the listener. Almost always, they struggle to relinquish control of the conversation. And when they're trying to listen they will often unintentionally turn the conversation back to themselves; in some extreme cases, they literally cannot conceive of a listening modality that doesn't involve injecting their own material into the conversation.

Accepting that I can create enough oxygen for myself and still have some left over for others was a big turning point for me. I had spent the majority of my life desperately looking for small pockets of air (a holdover from a particular sort of childhood). Coming to terms with the fact that I could have been providing my own scuba tank all along was a painful challenge. How much time had I wasted looking for something I had within me? How many relationships had I soured by unknowingly trying to extract something? In the end I feel grateful to have reached this point at all.

If I have no other purpose in life, I can at least provide some oxygen to the people I love.