by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
© June, 2018
Hearing, if you have a significant hearing loss, is not easy in many group situations. What is easy, is becoming a “wounded warrior” when what should have been a happy get together turns into a humiliating and painful experience because of our hearing losses.
For example, Tom explained, “I went to dinner with my girlfriend and another couple last night. We sat outside at the restaurant with some music playing in the background. I thought I could hear okay, but apparently several times I misunderstood some key words and I got laughed at for my troubles. I hid my real feelings and acted like it was funny, but in reality, I felt hurt.” Tom just became an invisible “wounded warrior”.
Joe also has had “wounded warrior” experiences. As he explains, “It’s especially hard for me to follow conversations if the group I am in are interrupters—i.e., if one person starts to speak while another one is drawing to a close—because by the time I have processed what the first person was saying, the second person is already a sentence or two ahead of me. The result? I don’t feel like I ever have a chance to speak.
I have lovely friends whose company I enjoy very much, but they are interrupters. Thus, when they are all together, I inadvertently get excluded from the conversation. I end up withdrawing because listening is hard and it’s boring to listen and never get a chance to speak.
Furthermore, I end up very sad because I’m in a room with all my friends, yet I feel totally ignored and alone.
To their credit, my friends don’t mock me, but sometimes they are very insensitive to my hearing needs. For example, my fiancée invited them over for “movie night”. I worked up the courage to watch the movies with them rather than hide in the bedroom like I normally do.
Unfortunately, the captions were terrible and I couldn’t understand what was going on. In any case, I stuck it out for a while because I was lonely. The last straw was when the second person complained about the captions and asked to turn them off. I left my own house in tears and trudged around the neighborhood until they all went home.” Joe, too, became a “wounded warrior”.
Hearing people typically don’t deliberately set out to hurt their hard of hearing friends. It’s just that as the conversational “football” rockets from one person to another, when the hard of hearing person can’t keep up, he becomes “invisible” and is thus simply left out.
This happens to Michele too. She explained, “I’m often lost in a group. By the time I’ve figured out what was said, and can respond or interject, they’ve moved on to the next few sentences and I never catch up enough to get a word in edgewise. It does sometimes make me sad and I have to withdraw. When I do that, I’m seen as anti-social or uninterested. It is boring and also it tends to make me develop a bit of an attitude since no one seems to care enough to accommodate my needs. They all know I struggle, but yeah, they forget. It feels like you can never be who you are in a crowd of talkers. You’re always on the periphery.” And there goes another “wounded warrior”.
When you get left out, you need to deal with the situation properly. However, we often wimp out and don’t do the right thing. This just make matters worse. After Joe had been left out and stormed off, one of his friends tried to make amends. He continues, “I think my friends had forgotten that I can’t hear. One apologized afterwards. I felt bad for making her feel bad for hurting me, so I lied and told her it was fine and that I handled it badly and that I needed to learn how to deal with that sort of situation better. This just made me feel even worse.”
By not being forthright about his hearing needs, and how being left out made him feel, he just compounded his “wounded warrior” feelings.
Another aspect of communication that often is hurtful to hard of hearing people is laughing at us when we make an “off the wall” remark because we misunderstood what was said. There is a great difference between laughing at us and laughing with us.
As Joe explained, “Sometimes I misunderstand something in a funny way and then we all laugh together. But that’s different because everybody else is laughing with me, not at me.”
At other times people laugh at us. When that happens, it’s hard not to take it personally. Sometimes they laugh at us because they are embarrassed for us for our faux pas. In such cases, they laugh to cover their embarrassment. That’s bad enough, but more often, they laugh because they think it’s funny and worth a laugh (at our expense). They assume that we are also laughing (or at least they are hoping we are laughing) with them.
I’ve had this happen to me and when I speak up, they say, “We’re not laughing at you. We’re laughing with you.” I retort, “Maybe you didn’t notice, but I wasn’t laughing” and I add under my breath, “I was hurting.” And there goes yet another “wounded warrior”.
We need to learn how to properly and effectively deal with such situations so we don’t end up as “wounded warriors” all the time.
One strategy is to develop a “thick skin” and not let it bother us, but this is hard to do. An even better strategy is to speak up and explain how it makes us feel. Here’s some words of wisdom from Joe. He suggests, “The next time people laugh at you for misunderstanding something, tell them that it hurts you and explain why. If they’re good people, they’ll apologize and try to stop. If they aren’t, then it’s time to cut them out of your life sooner rather than later.”
Furthermore, don’t apologize and say you are sorry all the time. Joe further explains, “I’m trying to ditch the habit of saying ‘sorry’ when I don’t hear somebody because I’m not sorry. I didn’t do anything wrong. If anything, they are the ones who made the mistake because they continued mumbling despite my having told them I can’t hear them at least a bajillion times! Now I try to say, ‘I don’t hear very well. Could you repeat that please?’ or ‘What was that?’ No more ‘sorry’.”
Michele adds, “As for saying “sorry”, I’ve given it up, with one exception. If someone is speaking to me and I’m unaware of it, I will say: ‘I’m sorry, if you were speaking to me and I didn’t respond, it’s because I’m deaf. I have to be looking at you in order to read your lips.’ I no longer apologize for not hearing as it was not my choice to have a hearing loss.”
Another thing that hurts is when hearing people get impatient with us if we don’t respond right away. Hearing people don’t realize that it takes our brains longer to process what we hear (with all the missed words) and what we speechread (with all its ambiguous mouth movements) and try to combine both and make sense out of what they just said. This all takes time.
Joe related, “I once had a girlfriend who would get angry with me when I didn’t tell her immediately when I didn’t understand her. I was never able to get through to her that when we are hard of hearing, understanding isn’t immediate, Rather, I’m constantly guessing what was said. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle. Often I’m lagging a few sentences behind. Sometimes I think I understood what she said, but I didn’t. Keeping her informed about what I did or did not understand was really hard.”
Nor is Joe alone. “I get this all of the time”, says Michele. “People can’t be patient enough to give me time to work out what they said. I get this when I’m doing something like ordering in a restaurant or talking with business people. I’ve thought about how I used to handle it (not very well) and how I handle it now. I can usually see on someone’s face that they are confused when I’m not quick enough to respond, so the minute I see that look, I say: ‘You’ll have to give me a moment. It takes me a bit longer to understand what you’re saying through lipreading.’ It’s a teaching moment, but we don’t always have the energy to teach, especially when we’re continually needing to teach those closest to us.”
As hard of hearing people, we need to learn how to pick and choose the situations we are prepared to participate in. As Michele explains, “There are some situations where you’re never going to be able to contribute and participate, and knowing your capabilities and where to apply them is key. It’s not ideal, but it’s what you have to do in order to thrive as a person with hearing loss.” When you do this, you don’t have to end up as a “wounded warrior”.
In contrast to becoming “wounded warriors” when hearing people don’t meet our hearing needs, when people do remember, and meet, our needs, it gives us a fantastic feeling. We instantly become “happy campers”.
Let me give you an example. Amy was bubbling over as she explained, “Being around people who make an effort to communicate is an incredible experience! Until tonight, I’d only experienced that at special hard of hearing conventions.
Here’s what happened. My youngest (hard of hearing) daughter is in a play. I normally stand back and observe a lot. I miss the chit-chat with the cast and other parents. I sit alone with my book feeling kind of isolated, but I’m used to it [“wounded warrior” in disguise].
Tonight my daughter pushed me to go to the after-party. I dreaded going but sucked it up and went. I’m so glad I did. The lead actor has a hearing loss and doesn’t talk about it much, but doesn’t hide it either. We were at a big table and signed back and forth a bit. Another member of the cast jumped in–he’d taken American Sign Language in high school. Then another person joined us who didn’t sign but works with older people and knew how to face us and speak clearly. Then came a family member who is an interpreter.
We communicated by whatever means worked at the moment—we wrote on napkins, lipread, signed, typed on our phones. By the end of the evening, we were all high on our ability to be included.
Never in million years, in my little rural town would I have imagined an enjoyable evening out with relative strangers!” Notice, no more “wounded warrior” feelings. That’s what happens when hearing people meet our hearing needs.
It may not be all the time, but even meeting our needs as much as possible is wonderful. Sometimes it’s just in the little things.
For example, in one church I attended, I mentioned to one of the ladies that often sang solos that I couldn’t follow the words she was singing unless I already knew that song. Guess what? After that, whenever Debbie would sing, (she sat a few pews behind me), as she walked up to the front, since I sat on the aisle, she’d slip me a paper with the song all neatly typed out so I could understand the words as she sang them. That really touched me. (Thanks Debbie.)
Another lady in the same church played their new electric piano. I once shared with her that because of my rare kind of hearing loss, I couldn’t understand/enjoy music much unless a person only played one note at a time—no chords, no bass—just the melody note played by one finger on the right hand. Not only that, but that I heard best in a particular octave (in my case, the octave of high C).
Guess what? Without saying anything to me, each Sunday after that, somewhere in the service, she’d play one verse of a hymn with just one finger and in the octave I could hear best. She worked it in so skillfully that everyone else just thought she was showing what the electric piano could do—but I knew differently. She specifically played it that way so I could also enjoy the music—at least some of the time! (Thanks Ruth. You’re a gem!) No “wounded warrior” feelings there either. Instead my spirit soared!
That’s all it takes—a bit of effort—to change us from “wounded warriors” to “happy campers” in spite of our hearing losses.