Melancholy: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause
That sounds about right for my state of mind this past week. I hesitate to call it depression, because it doesn’t feel that heavy, but there is definitely “pensive sadness” going on and it has no obvious cause.
When this familiar sense of melancholy comes at this time of year, I usually chalk it up to the end of winter, when I’m a little more sluggish from not taking as many long walks in the woods and not getting as much sunshine as I need. I get a little imbalanced when I lose my connection to the natural world. I’m pretty sure that it will pass soon (Spring always revives me), but for now, my creativity is low, my resilience isn’t what it normally is, my emotions are a little tender, and I feel disconnected. I stare at blank pages when I should be writing, I crawl into bed earlier than usual, I cry unexpectedly, and I watch too much Netflix.
A couple of things happened last week that were quite minor, but because of my state of mind, I took them more personally than I normally would. Though none of the people involved meant any harm, my tenderness left me feeling a little lonely and a little rejected. There was no true rejection involved (I still feel well loved by them), but in the middle of my fragility, it’s always easier to make up stories that align with how I’m experiencing the world. Feelings of disconnection often lead to greater disconnection.
Not long ago, I was on the other side of that story, inadvertently wounding someone who was going through her own state of tenderness. Unaware of her emotional state, I said something that normally would have been received with ease, but instead carried some wounding.
“At two, you’re at abstraction.” That’s a line from a Sara Groves song (that I think she borrowed from someone else, but I can’t find the source) that points to the impossibility of fully understanding another person’s reality. Another person’s pain, joy, love, trauma, history – they’re all just abstract concepts for us because we have never lived inside of them. We can never really “walk a mile in another person’s shoes”.
Despite our best efforts to be compassionate and understanding, our well-meaning words can land the wrong way and leave a person feeling wounded, lonely, misunderstood, defensive, angry, etc. That’s one of the reasons why, in our efforts to hold space for other people, we need to avoid falling into the trap of taking responsibility for their emotional response to our words or actions. Each of us is a sovereign individual with our own stories, our own interpretations, and our own emotions and when we take too much responsibility for another person, we diminish their sovereignty.
At a workshop a few weeks ago, Dr. Gabor Maté talked about how trauma can shape a person’s world and change the way they respond to stimuli. When a person grew up with trauma (either in the form of a traumatic event, or as a result of being raised by caregivers with unresolved trauma) their fight/flight/freeze instincts are heightened and they are inclined to over-react to stimuli that brings them back to their traumatic memories. Unresolved trauma, he said, makes it impossible for us to be in the present moment. “When we’re triggered, the emotions that show up are those of the abandoned child. We don’t react to what happened – we react to our interpretation of what happened based in our traumatic memory.”
Even compassionate people can inadvertently trigger someone’s trauma. Think about the last time you said something to another person that you thought was fairly innocuous and they reacted with defensiveness or anger that seemed out of proportion for the moment. There’s a good chance that there was something in what you said that triggered an old wound that they may not even know they still have. In that instant, that person was not the mature adult you thought you were talking to – they were a scared child relying on an instinctual response for their own protection. While they may need your empathy in that moment, and you might make a mental note to adjust your behaviour in the future to avoid triggering them further, you can’t take their autonomy away by trying to fix their problem for them.
When I used to teach a university-level course in communication, I would always start with the following diagram to help my students understand that, in every communication, there are complexities and potential pitfalls that we can’t fully anticipate or mitigate.
(Note: this is my version of a popular model used in communication training, but I don’t know the original source.)
Each of us lives within a unique field of experience that may overlap with other people’s experience, but is never exactly the same. When I want to communicate with you, my intended message is shaped and encoded by my field of experience, which includes factors such as my gender, race, culture, disabilities, lived experiences, language ability, emotional state, etc.
I choose the channel of communication to best offer the message (ie. will I make a phone call, wait until I can talk to you in person, or send an email?). If I am compassionate, I will consider your field of experience when choosing the channel (ie. if you are hearing impaired, a phone call might not be the best method), but I’m limited in how much I can understand your reality so I may make mistakes. On top of that, no matter how carefully I encode the message and how intentional I am about the channel of communication, there is always unexpected noise that can disrupt or distract us at any moment in the process (ie. a child needing attention in the middle of a personal phone call, a disturbing story on the news, a misunderstanding, etc.).
The message crosses over to you and is, in turn, shaped and decoded by your own field of experience and your current circumstance. As I mentioned above, for example, you might be going through a period of tenderness that I had no way of knowing about when I initiated the communication. Even the most well-intentioned communication can go astray, and by the time you’ve decoded it, it may have a very different shape than what I intended. Much of our encoding and decoding processes happen in mere seconds during the course of a conversation, so we aren’t aware of all of what has shaped and reshaped what’s passed between us.
If you choose to engage in two-way communication, you send your own message across the reverse path, back through our fields of experience, risking similar misinterpretation, triggering, etc.
Given the potential complexity of even the simplest conversation, and given the fact that only a small portion of the process is within our control or within our conscious understanding, what can we do to improve the process? How can we be better communicators who wound others less often and receive fewer messages as wounds?
When you are the sender of the message:
• Pay attention to how your message is being shaped by your field of experience.
• Be humble, recognizing the limitation of your understanding of the other person’s field of experience.
• Especially where the differences are vast and there may be power imbalances, do your best to learn about the other person’s field of experience instead of passing judgement (especially if you are the one who holds more power).
• Be aware of the other person’s emotional response and check in when something doesn’t seem to land well, but don’t judge or try to control the emotion.
• Take responsibility for what you’ve said and allow the other person to take responsibility for their response.
• Allow for processing time in the conversation. Pauses may help to alleviate misunderstanding.
When you are the receiver of the message:
• Recognize the limitations that are at play in the sender’s lack of understanding of your field of experience.
• If you trust that the person will honour your current state of mind (ie. if there’s grief, depression, etc. going on), let them know that you may be limited in your capacity to receive.
• If you have a strong emotional response to the message, pause for a moment to check in with yourself. Recognize that the first reaction may be your instinctual desire to protect yourself and may not be fully based in the current situation.
• Hold the other person accountable for their words (especially in the case of harsh or oppressive language) and recognize when it may be in your best interest to stand up for yourself and/or walk away.
• If there is a misunderstanding and the relationship is important to you, reflect back to the person what your interpretation of the message is, based on your field of experience, and offer them an opportunity to reframe it.
• Take the time you need before sending a message back.
• Remember that you have a right to set boundaries and protect yourself.
Each situation is different, and based on how valuable the relationship with the other person is, you may or may not want to invest in the effort it takes to work through misunderstanding. If, for example, you’ve been verbally assaulted by a stranger at a bus stop, you probably won’t have any interest in figuring out how to communicate across your differing fields of experience. If, on the other hand, you love and trust the other person and believe that the relationship will be strengthened by deeper understanding, you’ll want to invest more time and energy in cutting through the noise.
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Sometimes grief comes like a runaway truck. You can see it careening down the highway toward you, but you don’t have enough time to get out of the way before it flattens you.
Sometimes it’s a slow moving train, and you’re stuck at the crossing, impatiently waiting for it to pass so that you can get on with your life.
Sometimes grief is a stealth bomber, dropping missiles from the sky and leaving you with an unfamiliar and sinister landscape that you don’t know how to navigate.
This Christmas, grief came to me like a sailboat – not disruptive or forceful, but with a strong enough wake to rearrange the pebbles on the shore.
It came in the dark while I was driving down the highway, on the way home from a full day of Christmas merriment at my brother’s house. It came on the same road where, six years earlier, I told my husband that, unless something changed, I couldn’t stay in the marriage any longer. It came while my daughters were peacefully sleeping in the van behind me. I was glad for the cover of darkness to hide the tears streaming down my face.
There is a unique grief that becomes part of your narrative when you’ve lost both parents and the partner you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with. It feels untethered – like there is nobody holding you to the ground anymore and you have to figure out how to do your own holding. It comes with a unique loneliness – a feeling of separateness – when you’ve lost those relationships at the first level of intimacy and the best that you now have is second-level intimacy. Those people care that you’re there and they love you dearly, but their eyes won’t light up when you walk into the room, and their hand won’t reach out to touch yours in a way that says either “you are my child” or “you are my beloved”.
I’d just spent the day with the people I adore (my siblings and their families), and my van was full of three girls whose love lights up my life, and yet I felt an undeniable sense of loneliness.
It was not unhealthy, this loneliness, nor was it even particularly painful. When it came, I felt no desire to banish it or even to resolve it in any hurry. There is no gaping hole in the centre of my heart; there is only a gentle gap that offers possibility for more fullness in the future.
I simply felt the longing in the loneliness and let it keep me company as I drove.
Longing is not something to be banished or feared. Longing is a friend, a messenger that points us in the direction of our hearts. Like a treasure map, it gives us clues that help us figure out where to dig.
Longing is what helps us make connections – with ourselves, with each other, with the sacred, and with the earth. We are meant for connection, to be in relationships that help us thrive and grow. If we didn’t ever feel longing, we would never seek each other out. We would live in isolation, never building communities, never taking the kinds of risks that result in intimacy, passion and aliveness.
Longing and love go hand in hand. Love grows in the world when we respond to our longing and reach out in connection and community.
My longing pointed me toward intimacy, touch, and deep soul connection.
There are many beautiful connections in my life, and for that I am grateful. But there’s a level of intimacy – both physical and emotional – that’s missing, and that is what my longing asks me to open my heart to.
There are other clues on this treasure map as well – clues that tell me that, in order to find the treasure of intimacy, more excavation will be required. I will need to continue to clear out the emotional clutter – old stories and attachments – that don’t serve me anymore. I will need to continue to heal the wounded parts of me that fear the deep vulnerability that comes with intimacy. I will need to soften the parts of me that keep me guarded and protected.
This past year has included a lot of excavation, a lot of decluttering, and a lot of dismantling of old stories. Now, at the end of it, I feel ready to sit with the empty spaces in my heart – the longing and hunger that comes when the old has been removed and the new has not yet come to fill its place. I feel ready to sit at the centre of the labyrinth – emptied of what I needed to release on the journey inward and ready to receive what has yet to arrive.
With this writing, I am suddenly aware of what my word for 2017 will be. My longing pointed the way to it.
My word for 2017 is intimacy.
What about you? Do you feel a deep longing right now? An ache in your heart that won’t go away? If so, what is it trying to teach you, what connection is it telling you to seek out?
Don’t chase it away and don’t fear it. Let it enter you, let it teach you, and let it point you toward the treasure you have yet to uncover.
If you’re interested in exploring your own longing and want to pick a word for 2017, A Soulful Year may be a useful resource.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.
I wrote a very personal post recently for The Helpers’ Circle about how much I struggle with The Fear of Letting People Down (and how I’ve learned to talk myself out of it). Here’s a quote from that post…
“My Fear of Letting People Down started at a young age. I became very practiced at being The Good Girl, the one who didn’t show her anger, who took responsibility for her work and did it well, who didn’t rock the boat and who could be depended on at all costs. I needed people to be happy with me – to notice my good work and to not get angry. When people were pleased with me and nobody was angry, my world felt safe.”
After writing it, I was thinking about how many things get in the way of our quest for authenticity – fear, shame, duty, etc.. In almost every conversation I have, whether in coaching sessions or workshops, I hear a deep longing for greater authenticity, and almost always a deep sadness that the path to authenticity seems so treacherous and never-ending. And the fear always keeps us company… the fear of letting people down, the fear of embarrassing ourselves, the fear of rejection, the fear of judgement, the fear of falling flat on our faces, and the fear of being alone.
We want to be real. We want to be true to ourselves. We want to be bold in being who we truly are. And yet… so much gets in the way that sometimes it seems impossible. There are bills to pay, people to please, rules to follow, wounds to protect, and shame to hide.
Why is that the case? Why have we found ourselves in a culture that is so hell-bent on making people live inauthentic lives?
I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that question. It’s probably a nature+nurture thing. At least some of it can be connected to the materialistic lifestyles we’ve adopted – a function of living in a production-oriented, economy-driven world. Shiny things are the most desirable, and so we make ourselves more shiny.
But there’s also something else, and it’s about love.
Not long after I wrote the piece for The Helpers’ Circle, I interviewed my friend Lianne Raymond (who knows a great deal about psychology and child development) for one of the monthly interviews I’m sharing in the circle and Lianne said something quite profound that cracked open something new for me in this regard.
“Given a choice between authenticity and love, a child will always choose love.”
Wow. She’s right! That’s where it all begins! From the very first time we open our eyes and seek out our mothers’ smiles, our primary quest is for love. Love is the foundation – the ground we learn to walk on. From the moment we slipped out of the womb (and before), we needed it nearly as much as we needed the air we breathed. We did everything we could to get that love, even if it meant gradually giving up pieces of ourselves to please the person whose love we sought.
A world in which we were loved is a world in which we are safe.
Even good parents and guardians can unintentionally attach behaviour to love. I remember my own mother (who did so many things right) used to say things like “if you love me, you’ll wash the dishes”. And though I haven’t used those same words, I know there are moments I unintentionally make it clear to my daughters that it’s easier to love them when I see certain behaviour. We are all flawed in this effort to love each other.
Whether it was to please our parents, our teachers, or our peers, we quickly learned, as children, what behaviour brought us the most love and what behaviour resulted in that love being withheld. We adapted, we conformed, and we sacrificed. Some of us never really got the love we were seeking, and so the world became a very unsafe place. We didn’t know how to behave because nothing we did brought us the love we so badly needed.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot what it meant to be real. We only knew what pleased or displeased the people whose affections we craved. And some of us, raised in volatile or unstable environments, knew how to run for cover or to morph ourselves into whatever shapes would best protect us.
Then one day we grew up and didn’t recognize ourselves anymore. We saw only strangers looking back in the mirror at us. We realized that, instead of being authentic, we had become composites of all of the behaviours that other people expected of us.
To reveal the real work of art, hidden under the collage of other people’s expectations, takes a lot of courageous effort. Every layer we peel away reveals a tenderness, a shame, a wound. Every step we take to recovering our authenticity puts us at risk. We may be shamed for it, we may be rejected, we may not be loved. The little child in us shrieks “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! You’re breaking the rules! You need to be loved! You need to be safe!”
But “safe” begins to feel like “stuck” and we long for more. We long for truth. We long for freedom. We long for ourselves.
Gradually, those of us who finally decide that authenticity is the only way we can truly live, realize that we have no choice but to break the rules. We have no choice but to risk being unloved. We have no choice but to give up the safety we worked so hard to find.
After much agony, fear, and faltering, those of us who find the courage come back to ourselves. Many of us lose people along the way – we lose those people who only know how to love us when we behave in a certain way. But we find other people. We find people who are on similar paths to authenticity and we realize that we can cobble together new families and new communities that hold space for us no matter how we behave.
Finally, we find a new kind of safety – one that is rooted in real love, not conditional love – and in that place of safety, we unfurl into whoever we are meant to be.
It may never be perfect (even now I sometimes find myself hiding parts of myself from those whose love I value most because I don’t want them to reject me), but it feels a little closer to being Real.
* * * * * *
p.s. To see the interview with Lianne or to read the post I mentioned, about The Fear of Letting People Down, you’ll have to become part of The Helpers’ Circle.
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“But it hurts if I open it too much.”
That’s what I hear, in some form or another, every time I teach my Openhearted Writing Circle or host openhearted sharing circles.
People show up in those places hopeful and longing for openness, yet wounded and weary and unsure they have what it takes to follow through. They want to pour their hearts onto the page, to share their stories with openness and not fear, to live vulnerably and not guarded, and yet… they’re afraid. They’re afraid to be judged, to be shamed, to be told they’re not worthy, to be told they’re too big for their britches. They’ve been hurt before and they’re not sure they can face it again.
And every time, I tell them some variation of the following…
An open heart is not an unprotected heart.
You have a right, and even a responsibility, to protect yourself from being wounded. You have a right to heal your own wounds before you share them with anyone. You have a right to guard yourself from people who don’t have your best interests at heart. You have a right to keep what’s tender close to your heart.
Only you can choose how exposed you want to make your tender, open heart. Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you.
Yes, I advocate openhearted living, because I believe that when we let ourselves be cracked open – when we risk being wounded – our lives will be bigger and more beautiful than when we remain forever guarded. As Brene Brown says, our vulnerability creates resilience.
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that we throw caution to the wind and expose ourselves unnecessarily to wounding.
Our open hearts need protection.
Our vulnerability needs to be paired with intentionality.
We, and we alone, can decide who is worthy of our vulnerability.
We choose to live with an open heart only in those relationships that help us keep our hearts open. Some people – coming from a place of their own fear, weakness, jealousy, insecurity, projection, woundedness, etc. – cannot handle our vulnerability and so they will take it upon themselves to close our hearts or wound them or hide from them. They are not the right people. They are the people we choose to protect ourselves from.
Each of us needs to choose our own circles of trust. Here’s what that looks like:
In the inner circle, closest to our tender hearts, are those people who are worthy of high intimacy and trust. These are the select few – those who have proven themselves to be supportive enough, emotionally mature enough, and strong enough to hold our most intimate secrets. They do not back down from woundedness. They do not judge us or try to fix us. They understand what it means to hold space for us.
In the second circle, a little further from our tender hearts, are those people who are only worthy of moderate intimacy and trust. These are the people who are important to us, but who haven’t fully proven themselves worthy of our deepest vulnerability. Sometimes these are our family members – we love them and want to share our lives with them, but they may be afraid of how we’re changing or how we’ve been wounded and so they try to fix us or they judge us. We trust them with some things, but not that which is most tender.
In the third circle are those who have earned only low levels of intimacy and trust. These are our acquaintances, the people we work with or rub shoulders with regularly and who we have reasonably good relationships with, but who haven’t earned a place closer to our hearts. We can choose to be friendly with these people, but we don’t let them into the inner circles.
On the outside are those people who have earned no intimacy or trust. They may be there because we just don’t know them yet, or they may be there because we don’t feel safe with them. These are the people we protect ourselves from, particularly when we’re feeling raw and wounded.
People can move in and out of these circles of trust, but it is US and ONLY us who can choose where they belong. WE decide what boundaries to erect and who to protect ourselves from. WE decide when to allow them a little closer in or when to move them further out.
How do we make these decisions? We learn to trust our own intuition. If someone doesn’t feel safe, we ask ourselves why and we trust that gut feeling. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, and sometimes people will let us down, but with time and experience, we get better at discerning who is safe and who is not.
We also have to decide what to share in each level of the circle, but that’s a longer discussion for another blog post. For now I’ll simply say…
Trust your intuition. Don’t share what is vulnerable in a situation that feels unsafe. Erect the boundaries you need to erect to keep your tender heart safe. Let people in who have your best interest at heart.
This article has been voluntarily translated into Farsi.
If you want to explore your own open heart, you’re welcome to join an Openhearted Writing Circle, or consider booking a coaching session. For a self-guided journey to your own heart, consider The Spiral Path, which remains open until the end of February.
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In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As the founder of the Greenbelt Movement, she mobilized thousands of women to plant millions of trees across Kenya. Besides planting trees, she was instrumental in freeing political prisoners, protecting women’s rights, and creating a more democratic election process.
I knew some of these things about Wangari Maathai, but before I read her biography, Unbowed, I had no idea just how much she’d had to struggle through nearly every step of her journey. For starters, her husband divorced her because she was “too strong-minded for a woman” and he was “unable to control her”. From then on, in a patriarchal society, she was forever branded as obstinate divorced woman who didn’t know her place and shouldn’t be trusted.
That didn’t stop her, though. She felt strongly compelled to work for the environment and for women’s rights and so she stuck with it through multiple imprisonments, repeated death threats, and almost every obstacle possible. For most of her adult life, she was fighting a corrupt government that wanted to silence her. When nobody would rent office space to her organization because they’d become too controversial, she opened her small home to a staff of eighty. When the death threats became too plentiful, she went into hiding but refused to stay silent. When mothers were protesting the unjust imprisonment of their sons, she slept with them in a church for months on end. When the government was fostering conflict between tribes, she met with them in secret to try to bring them back to peace.
What compelled her to do all of that? She had a PhD and a professorship – she could have chosen to live out her days as a mild-mannered professor. Why did she risk her life again and again for what she believed in?
She simply couldn’t see any other way to live.
“Many people assume that I must have been inordinately brave to face down the thugs and police during the campaign for Karura Forest. The truth is that I simply did not understand why anyone would want to violate the rights of others or to ruin the environment… What people see as fearlessness is really persistence. Because I am focused on the solution, I don’t see danger. Because I don’t see danger, I don’t allow my mind to imagine what might happen to me, which is my definition of fear. If you don’t foresee the danger and see only the solution, then you can defy anyone and appear strong and fearless.”
I was thinking about Wangari Maathai this week as I coached my clients. Many of my clients also feel compelled to do hard things. One is preparing to run for politics, even though she knows it will be the hardest thing she’s ever done and she will get beaten up along the way for being an idealistic woman. Another is studying to go into the ministry, even though she’s already butted her head repeatedly against the patriarchal church and faces a double whammy of discrimination as a disabled woman. A third is determined to finish a book that’s taken her twenty years to write, even though she’s over seventy and has every right to take the easy road at this stage of her life. Still others are advocating for human rights, following non-conformist paths into work that nobody understands, and daring to heal from abusive pasts.
What makes these women do what they do even though they know it will be hard? When I ask them this question, they usually just shrug and say “I just feel like I have to. It doesn’t feel like I’ll have a fulfilled life if I don’t at least try.”
For those of us following a path to authenticity and our own calling, there will invariably come a time when we find ourselves compelled to do really hard things. When that time comes, we know that if we don’t make the choice to go through, something inside us will die.
It might be the risk of quitting a job or ending a relationship or walking away from an opportunity or standing up for justice or caring for an autistic child or giving up our material goods or fighting a broken system or protecting the oceans or planting vegetables or writing a book or becoming a poet. The hard things in our lives might not seem like hard things for others, but for us it takes all of our courage to stay the course and face the fallout.
Why do we do it? Because we have no other choice. Because something inside us compels us. Because we don’t want to die unlived lives. Because, like Wangari, we choose to focus on the solution and not the obstacles.
It’s a little like natural childbirth. Once your body decides it’s time to go into labour, you have no choice but to go through. When my second daughter was born, close on the heals of the first, the first labour pain brought back a rush of memory of how hard it had been the first time, and I said out loud “I change my mind. I’m not having this baby!” But I really didn’t have a choice. This baby wanted to be born and my body knew it had to let that happen, no matter how hard it was going to be. And when the labouring has done the work of opening the cervix, and the compulsion to push comes on, there is nothing our minds can do but follow along on the course the body feels compelled to take.
And sometimes we feel that compulsion to do the hard thing even when we know the outcome is almost certain failure. We still have to do what we have to do, or we die. When I was told that my third baby had died in utero, I didn’t know how I’d find the strength to go through what my body had to go through to birth him. How can one go through excruciating pain without knowing there is a hopeful outcome?
And yet… I found the strength. I had to. My body gave me no other choice. And it turned out that what the social worker had told me was right… “The birth will be hard, but there will come a day when you won’t regret going through it, because at least then you will know that that this baby is real and you have a right to grief him.”
Sometimes we do hard things even though we’re pretty sure they’re doomed for failure. Wangari Maathai has been instrumental in planting millions of trees, but in the time those trees were being planted, just as many were being cut down. One might wonder whether the end game was worth the struggle. And yet, she simply knew she had to do it. Because it was the right thing to do.
Another woman who does that in our country is Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party. She knows that, every time she gathers a slate of candidates to run for election, there’s an almost guaranteed certainty that all but one or two will fail. And yet she keeps doing it. Because it’s the right thing to do.
In her book, So Far From Home, Margaret Wheatley talks about those people who just keep doing hard things, even though they know the pain of repeated failure.
“My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it.”
And so, we strap on our boots and prepare to do the hard work. Because it is right for us to be doing it. And we know that even a painful joy is better than no joy at all.
Note: If you are seeking your path through the hard things, you might find some support in The Spiral Path which starts on Monday.
“Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. ‘It depends,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.’”
That’s a quote from the beginning of this article by Parker Palmer, when he’s about to spend a week alone in the winter woods. He goes on to share the pages from his journal during that week and it’s clear from what he shares that the quote is true. (I highly recommend you take the time to read it.)
I’ve become convinced that learning to be alone is one of the most important lessons of any spiritual journey.
If you want to be an exceptional artist or articulate writer, you will benefit from learning to be alone. Even if your work is primarily with other people and you want to be a powerful leader, impactful teacher, or compassionate healer, you will benefit from being alone. In fact, for almost any path you care to take, learning to be alone will be of benefit.
I’m not talking about the kind of alone where you have an empty house for an evening so you pour a drink, pop some popcorn, and curl up on the couch with your favourite movie. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of aloneness (I enjoy it regularly), but what I’m talking about is solitude – the kind of aloneness where you let go of anything that will distract you (especially electronics) and are truly present for yourself.
In solitude, you choose to be present for your own thoughts, whether they’re good or bad. You don’t reach for your smartphone to distract you when the gremlins in your head start reminding you of all of your flaws. You don’t turn on the television when the fear rises up in your belly. You don’t reach for a drink or call a friend or busy yourself with the distractions of household duties when you start to feel the ache of loneliness.
Solitude like that can be scary, especially if you’re new to it. It’s really, really tempting to shut down all of those emotions and thoughts that show up in those moments of stillness. But if you do that, you miss the beauty of solitude. You miss the opportunity to really listen to the whispers of your own heart. You miss the chance to fall in love with your own company. And you miss the beauty you might overlook when the distractions get in the way.
It took me a long time to learn to be alone and to truly enjoy it. In early adulthood, I avoided it, assuming that someone who hangs out with herself must be a loser. In early parenthood, I started to crave it, but told myself it was selfish and I should sacrifice for my kids.
Luckily, I started taking business trips when my kids were young and they afforded me the opportunity to practice being alone. Even there, though, I resisted solitude at first. I told myself I had to make productive use of my paid-for travel, or I told myself I would draw too much unwanted attention and sympathy if I were to eat alone in a restaurant. So I’d order room service and eat my meals in front of the TV in my room and would barely venture out of the hotel.
It didn’t take long, though, before I got sick of room service meals and corporate hotels. I wanted to explore the cities I was in, even if I had nobody to do it with. So I started small, going down to the hotel restaurant for a quick meal, arming myself with a magazine to keep me from looking foolish just staring around the room. It didn’t take long, though, and I was branching out, going for long walks in the evenings and finding more and more interesting restaurants where I’d order a glass of wine and savour my time with myself, not caring about whether people were noticing and feeling sorry for me. I also started staying in bed and breakfasts where solitude feels more like a comforting blanket than it does in a corporate hotel.
Once I learned to be alone on my business trips, I started looking for more and more opportunities for solitude. I added an extra day onto a business trip when I could afford the time, or I booked an overnight for a silent retreat in a local monastery. It became not only a guilty pleasure but a necessity. I realized I was a better leader, a more compassionate mother, and a more creative writer when I found regular opportunities for solitude.
As much as I enjoy my friends and family and like to surround myself with community, regular solitude is no longer optional for me, it’s essential.
Here’s what I learned about the benefits of learning to be alone:
- When you learn to enjoy your own company, loneliness no longer feels threatening.
- You have more spaciousness to work through your own emotions, so you don’t take them out on those around you as often.
- You don’t feel the need to do everything it takes to surround yourself with other people, so you don’t end up in or stay in bad relationships. You realize it’s better to be alone than to be with someone who’s not healthy for you.
- You have more opportunities for adventure because you don’t have to wait for someone else to join you.
- The spaciousness in your life and in your mind allows for more creative ideas to show up. Your muse takes delight in an undistracted mind.
- You notice more of the beauty around you and can pause in reverence and reflection when there is nobody placing expectations on you or rushing you along.
- You have more confidence going to conferences and parties because you don’t have as much fear of what people will think if you’re sitting in the corner alone. (Ironically, this confidence is attractive and you’ll draw interesting people to you.)
- You practice taking greater risks because you discover that the only person you need to please is yourself.
- You get better and better at hearing the whispers of your own heart and you begin to live a more authentic and fulfilled life.
- You will find yourself in greater ownership of your own life, not swaying to the whims of others, not as easily influenced by what everyone else thinks is right.
If you’re afraid of solitude and have a tendency to fill your life with distractions and noise, try it just for a little while. Go for a walk in the woods without your smartphone. Stop in at the local coffee shop and sit for fifteen minutes with a good cup of coffee. Turn off the TV and pick up your journal instead.
Be present for yourself and listen to what your heart is whispering.
“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people – it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.” – Parker Palmer