For the last eight months, I’ve been a solo traveler, wandering around Europe and Central America while working as a digital nomad. Sometimes friends joined me for short periods, sometimes I stayed with friends in their homes, and sometimes I was facilitating workshops where I was surrounded by people. Mostly, though, I traveled alone.
“How do you deal with the loneliness?” That’s the question I heard most frequently when people learned I was traveling alone. Some of those people wanted to try solo travel but were afraid they’d be too lonely, some couldn’t imagine ever traveling alone and were incredulous that I had, and some were projecting their own fear of abandonment or isolation onto my story.
I understand the question, and have empathy even for those making projections, because I had some of those same fears when I set out on this journey. There’s also a part of me, though, that believes the question itself is worth interrogating for what’s under the surface.
The subtext I heard under the question was a belief that “together” is always better than “alone” – that “together” is the solution and “alone” is the problem. When we are together, we believe ourselves to have social capital, to be wanted, to be whole; when we are alone we believe ourselves to have less cultural value, to be rejected, to be less-than-whole.
It’s not true though – together and alone each have value, and I, for one, need a balance of both in my life. Though I value my relationships greatly, when I go through long stretches without any solitude, I don’t know how to listen to the deepest parts of myself and that’s when I tend to abandon myself the most.
Also, contrary to the assumption that many people make when they discover I travel alone, “alone” isn’t the same as “lonely”. “Alone” is a state of being. “Lonely” is a feeling that comes from a particular longing and feeling of lack, and that feeling can come whether you’re alone or surrounded by people. I’ve had some of my most lonely feelings when I’m the least alone, and some of my least lonely when I’m enjoying solitude.
As Maya Angelou says, “Many believe that they need company at any cost, and certainly if a thing is desired at any cost, it will be obtained at all costs. We need to remember and to teach our children that solitude can be a much-to-be-desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, at times it is positively to be wished for. It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves. In the silence we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God”
There was a time when I would have judged myself – based on the hierarchical value our culture places on relationships – to have less value as a single person, especially when I’m traveling alone, and that judgement would have caused me to experience more self-pity and self-criticism and therefore more loneliness. That’s no longer a yardstick on which I measure myself, however, so my trip was full of a lot of joyful, peaceful solitude – just the way I like it. Even when a few people very pointedly asked me where my husband was and why I didn’t have one, I was able to laugh it off and not get weighed down by people’s judgement. I am very fond of my primary relationships, and I was glad when I had companionship on this trip, but I also love myself and I can be quite content spending many days alone. I don’t need anyone else to affirm that that’s okay – I KNOW it is.
With all of that said, there were still, of course, some moments when I was lonely, especially when I would get up in my head with thoughts of unworthiness or self-doubt. Because this trip was partly about learning to know myself on an even deeper level and being tender with the most vulnerable parts of me, I paid attention to those moments to see what I could learn from them. Here are a few things I discovered:
– Almost every time I moved to a new location, the first day felt a little lonely as I learned to navigate my new surroundings. Once I knew how to navigate (i.e. where to buy groceries, where to catch the bus/water-taxi, etc.), the loneliness dissipated. In other words, loneliness was at least partially attached to feelings of incompetence or insecurity.
– I noticed my aloneness most when I was surrounded by other people who had family or friends with them and I was the only solo traveler (like when I’d go on an organized tour and was jealous of the parents who had their kids with them). In other words, loneliness was often about comparison and jealousy.
– I rarely felt lonely when I was in a location with great places to walk. That made me realize that loneliness was at least sometimes connected to boredom and/or restlessness and when I could get out and move my body, it would often go away.
– Similarly, I felt less lonely when I had access to good public transportation and knew that I could easily hop on a bus, train or boat to go exploring. In other words, loneliness was connected to feelings of isolation, restriction and lack of mobility.
– The least lonely locations were those that were near water or other large bodies of water. There’s something about water that soothes my nervous system and helps me feel connected to myself and to the natural world. In other words, loneliness is also about disconnection from nature and disconnection from what makes me feel most alive.
The shortened version of the above reflections is that loneliness is related to: incompetence, insecurity, comparison, jealousy, boredom, restlessness, isolation, restriction, lack of mobility, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from what brings me joy.
Here’s my even shorter conclusion: Loneliness isn’t about aloneness, it’s about disconnection.
Loneliness is a signpost, pointing toward the road ahead, and the words on it are “Make Deeper Connections”. Those connections don’t necessarily need to be with other people – often a deeper connection with myself (body, mind and spirit) or with the natural world will make the loneliness dissipate just as quickly as a connection with another person.
With this new awareness, I started to be more intentional about how I responded to loneliness when it appeared. First, I received it with tenderness, not judging myself for feeling it and not trying to chase it away. Sometimes that involved putting my hand on my heart, and sometimes it involved some tears (a good release is often the best “cure”). Then, when I was ready to make a move in the direction of connection, I tried one of the following:
– I pushed myself to have a conversation with a stranger. As an introvert, conversations with strangers don’t often happen naturally, so I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was always worth it though. I made quite a few short-term friendships, and some of them went surprisingly deep, nourishing my need for intimacy.
– I texted a daughter/sister/friend and sometimes asked for a Zoom chat.
– I did something that helped me feel connected to the natural world. Swimming, walking, bird watching, taking pictures of beautiful things – those almost always help to shift the ache.
– I did something that helped me feel more connected with myself. Journal writing, a massage, tenderness practice, a nap, listening to a podcast, reading a book, mindfulness, “hammocking”, etc.
– I went on social media to connect with my community. Of course, social media can have the opposite effect and make a person feel more lonely instead of less, but I try to pay attention to that and stay off when it’s not feeling healthy.
There might have been a time in my life when I thought I’d fix or transcend these human conditions like loneliness, self-doubt, and lack of self-worth, or that they’d at least shrink in size and no longer be a problem I’d have to face, but that day is long past. Now I realize that life isn’t about fixing ourselves or evolving into beings who don’t feel these emotions – it’s about acceptance, tenderness, self-love, forgiveness and grace. It’s about learning to hold space for ourselves and then turning around to offer that to other people as well. It’s also about rejecting the measuring sticks that our cultures impose and learning to love ourselves unconditionally.
Where does your mind go when you’re faced with frustration? Where does it go when all of your plans fall through and everything is outside of your control?
Years ago, I heard a mindfulness teacher say that mindfulness is about “learning to pay attention to your attention.” That’s all fine and good when you’re sitting on a cushion in a quiet room, but what about when you’re out in the chaotic world? What about when you’re in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language, you’re alone, and everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable and falling apart? How do you stay mindful and keep “paying attention to your attention” THEN?!
This past week, the universe provided me with a great opportunity to see just how mindful I could be under those circumstances. I’m in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, a beautiful and somewhat remote area of the country. There are seventeen villages around the volcanic lake (that’s surrounded by mountains), and though there is lots of tourism, the local culture is still very much alive. It’s the kind of place I love to spend time – off the beaten track, but not so far off that it doesn’t feel safe to be a solo female traveller who doesn’t speak the language.
I am working while I travel (I have a book to edit; classes to teach on Zoom; meetings with clients, my publishing team, and my teaching team; blog posts to write; etc.), so I always check to make sure the places I’m staying have wifi. I didn’t think to check whether or not they have HIGH SPEED wifi that’s good enough for Zoom, however. For the first week on the lake, I was taking a break from being online, so it didn’t matter that I had little wifi. I had just enough to stay in touch with my kids (if I walked down the steep hill to the common area of the place I was staying) and that was good enough. Then I moved ten minutes down the lake by boat, from San Marcos la Laguna to San Juan la Laguna, to stay in a quaint and inexpensive hotel, and discovered on the first night, when I tried to FaceTime with my daughter, that the wifi wasn’t good enough.
The next day, I started searching online for “coffee shops with the best wifi in Lake Atitlan” and soon discovered that there was very little high speed wifi in the entire region. I had a webinar scheduled for two days later and hundreds of people had already signed up and were expecting me to be there, so I was on a mission to find something. One cafe in San Pedro looked promising, so I headed there. A seven minute boat ride and a 1.5 km walk (almost entirely up a steep hill) later, I found a sweet little cafe that was quiet enough for a Zoom call. I tested it with another FaceTime call with another daughter and it was okay but not great. I was pretty sure on a Zoom call full of people, it wouldn’t hold up.
I had one more day to find something, so the next day I set out with a plan. I downloaded a speed test app on my phone, made a list of coffee shops that had been recommended on various travel and digital nomad sites and were within a ten minute boat ride, and set out. The first one, in the town where I was staying, was slower than the hotel. The next one, back in San Marcos where I’d stayed the week before, was also slower than the hotel. So was the third one, also in San Marcos. (By that point, I was running out of beverage options that I wanted to drink that wouldn’t pump me full of caffeine.)
Back on a boat, I headed to San Pedro again. This time I tried the trendiest coffee shop that attracted the trendiest tourists, thinking they would cater to more North American and European expectations and probably have good wifi, and sure enough, the wifi was good. It was also very noisy, with a loud thumping drumbeat bouncing off the walls. I knew it would be too distracting for a Zoom call.
It was getting late by this point, and the boats would only run for another half hour, so I headed back to my hotel, resigning myself to Plan B. All of my research had pointed toward a hostel in Panajachel, a half-hour boat ride across the lake, with the only coworking space in the region and the promise of good wifi. I’d already checked online and could book a week in the coworking space and a bed in a dorm. I’ve stayed in hostels on this trip before, but I’ve always booked private rooms. I feel a little too old for a dorm, but I was willing to do it for a few nights so that I could get my work done.
That evening, the electricity was out in the hotel (not something that surprises me when staying in rural areas with less-developed infrastructure). When it finally came back on, the only bulb in my small room burnt out. It was too late to get maintenance to deal with it, so I groped around in the dark. The next morning I woke up early, and the electricity was out again. This time I had to grope around in the bathroom too, and discovered, after it was too late, that I’d run out of toilet paper. By the time I figured out how to deal with that frustration, I was too wide-awake to fall back to sleep, I grabbed a blanket and went to lie in the hammock outside my room, listening to the village wake up and watching the sun start to touch the mountain in my line of sight.
I’d tried to cancel the rest of my nights in the hotel the night before but hadn’t been successful (due to language barriers and technical difficulties). I tried again after breakfast and was told to come back in an hour because the young woman at the desk wasn’t sure how to do it (juggling an archaic paper system with an online booking platform she wasn’t familiar with) without charging me for the nights I wasn’t using.
An hour later, I could finally check out, but only if I paid for one more night. Because I’d tried to check out the day before, I shouldn’t have had to pay for the extra night (according to the policy on the booking site I’d used), but I gave up trying to convince the young woman (and the older woman who appeared to be a supervisor but didn’t speak English) of that and just paid the bill.
Soon, I was back on a boat. Though there are often tourists on these boats, moving from one town to the next, the boats serve as the local transportation service, so it’s just as likely that there will be no other foreigners. This was one of those times. I was surrounded by mostly young men and nobody spoke English. I knew enough to communicate which town I was going to, but not enough to ask questions when the boat docked at another town and sat there for a long time, with no indication that it was going to carry on to Panajachel. Eventually it did.
Finally, I got to the hostel. It was too early to check in, but they let me store my luggage and I was given access to the coworking space. With only a couple of hours left until the webinar, I set up my computer and tried to get online. Nope. No wifi. I tried the coworking wifi and the hostel wifi, and both gave me only the spinning-wheel-of-death. I checked back in at the desk and the young man there assured me it was working and said to turn the wifi button on and off again on my devices, and to “forget this network” and sign on again… but nothing worked. I also couldn’t get onto the eSIM that I’d bought for emergency purposes. (Later I asked a couple of other people working at the desk and they told me the wifi was down and appeared to be down in the entire neighbourhood.)
At this point, I didn’t know what to do, but I’ve got a stubborn streak in me that doesn’t let me give up easily, so I headed down the street to find a restaurant or coffee shop. I stopped at the first restaurant that said it had wifi, ordered a salad, and got online to let my team know about my ongoing challenges and to say we might have to postpone the webinar. “I’ll try one more coffee shop down the street,” I said, and after my salad was done, I carried on.
I nearly burst out laughing when I got to the coffee shop and discovered that they had neither wifi nor plugs (to charge the devices that were, by now, nearly dead because of the lack of electricity the night before). I headed back down the street and stood outside the restaurant while I texted my team and said “I have no more options. We’ll have to cancel. Also – my phone’s about to die and I can’t stand here outside the restaurant indefinitely, so I’ll probably drop out of contact soon.”
Back at the hostel, I finally got onto the wifi, but only briefly and then it dropped off again. And then, for the rest of the day, it continued to function in weird ways. For awhile, I could get on with my phone but not my computer, then with my computer and not my phone, and whenever I went offline I couldn’t get back on. The weirdest was when my texts were going through to two of my daughters but not the third.
By now, there was a raging pool party going on, with lots of beer pong and loud, thumping dance music. I was more than twice the average age of the group (with nobody else in my age range), not in the mood for a party with young strangers, and could find no quiet space at the hostel. I moved my belongings into the dorm (which was close to the pool and therefore very loud), and headed out for a walk. If I couldn’t work or rest, I might as well enjoy the town. I bought a plastic cup full of sliced mangos and wandered toward the waterfront. It was peaceful there, the locals were out enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll with their families, small children were giggling by the water, my mango tasted delicious, and I felt my breathing slow and my heart swell with gratitude.
Nothing had worked the way I’d wanted it to, I felt disconnected from the world and couldn’t chat with anyone I loved, I had no language to speak with anyone on the street, I felt out of place at the hostel where I was staying and regretted leaving the quiet hotel across the lake with the hammock overlooking the water, and yet, overwhelmingly, it was joy that I felt at the end of the day. Joy, gratitude, and connection with the people whose language I couldn’t speak but who understood a shared smile.
This brings me back to the place where I started this post – with mindfulness and “paying attention to my attention”. While all of these things were going wrong, I made a special point to try to stay present in the moment, to witness my thoughts as they were happening and release those that weren’t helpful, to still be in awe of my beautiful surroundings, and to remember the commitment I wrote about in my last blog post – to orient myself toward joy.
Where did my mind want to go in the midst of all of these frustrations? Here are some of the thoughts I witnessed popping into my head: I am unsafe here. I have made a mistake coming to this area. This is all my fault. Why did I have this ridiculous idea that I could work remotely while travelling? Why am I not satisfied with staying home like other people? I should be in a place where I have more control over things. Why do I create so many challenges for myself? Why can’t I find anyone to talk to? I must be unlikeable. People must think I’m foolish for choosing to live this way. All the people who signed up for the webinar will be disappointed with me and are probably judging me. My team will be frustrated with me. This kind of travel is for people younger than I am. I’m letting people down. No, wait – other people are letting ME down. There must be someone else I can blame. Perhaps I can blame the people at the hotel or hostel. Or maybe it’s the wifi providers’ fault. This boat system is ridiculous and disorganized. Those people are looking at me funny – perhaps they want to steal my bags. Why do they have to play such loud music at this hostel? Kids these days!
That’s just scratching the surface of what popped into my mind, especially in those moments when my nervous system was the most activated. But all of those thoughts evaporated quickly when I noticed and intentionally released them. I’m happy to report that I never got stuck in any loops of rumination, blame, or self-flagellation. I held onto my intention to stay present and mindful throughout, and that’s what allowed me to end the day quite peacefully once the webinar was postponed. After wandering around with my cup of mango, I came back to the hostel, found an empty lounge chair, sat down with my e-reader, and watched the young party-goers enjoy each other’s company. Much like I used to enjoy watching my daughters with their friends, when they’d gather in our backyard when we still had a house in Winnipeg, I found pleasure in watching these young people, so full of life and joy and yet so clearly holding their own insecurities and need for belonging.
There have been many, many times in my life when I wouldn’t have been able to end the day as well as I did. There have been many times when I would have tumbled into victim mode or self-blaming mode and gotten stuck there. There have been many times when I would have curled up in my bed, resentful that there was a stranger sleeping in the bed next to me, and cried myself to sleep. None of those things happened though – I slept peacefully even though there was a young Danish man just a few feet away.
Here are some of the things that helped:
Practising mindfulness. Although I’m not the kind of mindfulness practitioner who’s spent many hours on the cushion, I try to bring mindfulness into my life in every way that I can. “Notice, label, get curious, release” is what my practice looks like. I notice the feeling, thought or sensation, try to label it as best I can, get curious about its origin or what it’s attached to, and then release it. I’ve found that my learning around things like trauma and Internal Family Systems has been immensely helpful in my mindfulness practice because it gives me more clarity about where my thoughts or feelings are coming from and helps me become less attached to them.
Opening to joy. When my mind starts to fixate on all of the things going wrong, it takes a special effort to open myself to joy… and yet it is possible. There are little joyful moments available even in the most frustrating days. When I was feeling the most exasperated, on the way back from the restaurant to the hostel with a nearly-dead phone and no connection, a man on the street started raving about the mango ice cream he was eating and INSISTED I needed to go try some myself. He was so joyful about his ice cream that it was infectious and I started to laugh with him right there in the middle of the street. I promised I would look for the little shop by the boat dock and try some of that amazing ice cream (a promise I intend to keep before I leave this village).
Being in awe. I was sitting in the boat, surrounded by young Guatemalan men, and we were going nowhere. I needed to get to the hostel in time to prepare for the webinar, but had no control over the fact that we were just sitting there, bobbing up and down in the boat. My mind started to hook into anxiety and impatience, and then I turned my head and looked at a boat not far from where we were sitting. On the side of the boat was the most mesmerising light pattern, reflected from the rippling water. My breath slowed and my anxiety eased as I sat watching, drawn into the magic of the dancing lights. I don’t know how much more time passed before the boat started to move, but I didn’t care anymore. I was in awe and nothing else mattered. The world was a beautiful place and would continue to be a beautiful place even if I didn’t make it to the webinar.
Assuming no blame. This is a tough one, but one of the most important. When things go wrong, my mind wants to find some place to attach blame – either with other people or with myself. There is some comfort in knowing that someone is responsible and can be the target of my rage and frustration. (In the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, the author talks about how some of us are internalizers who blame primarily ourselves, and others are externalizers who look for others to blame. I tend toward internalisation.) But blame keeps us trapped in a victim narrative and that’s not a pleasant place to live, nor does it serve our growth or healing. There is much more ease and joy when we can let go of blame and assume that everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances. When I stood in front of the young woman at the hotel, wanting to blame her for the expense of an extra night in the hotel, I released that thought and instead saw her humanity and the effort she was making to do her job well. I thanked her for her effort and paid the bill. As I left, she called out to me that she could arrange for a boat to pick me up closer so that I didn’t have to take a tuktuk back to the main dock. I thanked her for the extra kindness and we both smiled.
Practising tenderness. I cannot overstate how much my tenderness practice has changed the way I treat myself. Whenever my thoughts turn toward self-flagellation, I remember to extend tenderness to myself and to soothe the part of me that’s feeling threatened in that moment. I listen to the voices of my inner wounded child, who wants to belong, wants to feel safe, and wants someone to protect her, and I assure her that she is in good hands and I will look out for her. When my emotions start to overwhelm me, I hold space for what comes and extend an extra dose of tenderness to my body (often with a hand on my heart, soothing touch on my face, or a little crossed-arms self-hug). When I can, like I’ve done several times since having to postpone the webinar, I sit with my journal and tenderly allow myself to pour everything onto the page. Often I end my journal time with a message from Tenderness showing up on the page.
You can learn more about these practices (and much more) in my upcoming course, Know Yourself Free Yourself, which starts the week of March 13th. I hope you’ll join me, and the global community of people who are also seeking to live more free and joyful lives.
In the movie, Sound of Metal, Ruben, a drummer in a heavy metal band, begins to lose his hearing. Fearing that he might slip back into addiction because of it, his girlfriend helps him check in to a facility for deaf recovering addicts. Joe, the man who runs the facility, encourages Ruben to find his way to stillness and acceptance, but Ruben is resistant, and much of the movie is about his determination to find his way back to his old life. In one scene, when he’s meant to be sitting alone, writing his thoughts in a journal, he smashes a donut as a distraction. Near the end of the movie, there’s a powerful moment in which Ruben finally surrenders to stillness and acceptance.
I am neither a rockstar nor in recovery, but I do have some things in common with Ruben and can understand some of his resistance. Here, for example, is a recent conversation that went on in my brain on a recent morning when I was sitting on the dock with my journal:
Voice 1: Oooo… look at the waves in the water! The way they reflect the light and sparkle! And the way they break up into pieces when they hit the dock and then bounce back to meet the oncoming waves!
Voice 2: It’s lovely! And… I can think of a blog post I could write, using the waves as a metaphor…
Voice 1: Can’t we just stay with the waves right now? A blog post can wait. Just look! And enjoy!
Voice 2: But if I don’t write something down, I might miss a valuable insight and… (grabs journal)
Voice 1: Stay with the waves. Put your journal down and just be present.
Voice 2: I should probably take a picture of it for social media, to go along with the blog post… (grabs camera)
Voice 1: STAY WITH THE WAVES!
Voice 2: Look! There’s a duck. Maybe the metaphor could expand to include what it’s like to be floating on the waves.
Voice 1: Take a deep breath. Maybe we can stay with the breath AND the waves? Please? At least try?
Voice 3: Oooo… I should write a blog post about how my brain works when I’m trying to stay with the waves! (grabs journal again.)
Voice 1: Seriously? Like we needed ANOTHER distraction? Can’t we just stay with the waves?
Voice 4: What a big waste of time THIS was!
Yup – that’s how hard it is for me to settle into stillness, even though I’ve been trying to be intentional about it for years and I try at least once a day to be in a place (like the dock) where stillness is hard to resist. If there is a spectrum for ADHD, then my busy distractible brain is definitely on it. I may not be an addict, but like an addict, my brain craves the dopamine hits it gets from creative ideas and shiny things and it’s hard to resist giving in to the cravings.
A few days later, I arrived back at the dock to find the water perfectly still. It was so still that you couldn’t tell the river was flowing at all except for those spots where there was something floating on the surface of the water. When I stepped onto the floating dock, the dock’s movement was the only thing that made ripples. After I’d settled down on the dock with my journal, the following conversation happened in my brain.
Voice 1: It’s so peaceful. Let’s just soak this in for a moment and be present.
Voice 2: But… I should take a picture of the water. And the clouds reflecting on the water. I could post it on Instagram. (grabs camera)
Voice 1: Look… every time you move on this floating dock, you’re causing ripples on the surface of the water. What if we try to sit so quietly that we cause no ripples?
Voice 2: But… I need a picture. And I should write in my journal about how peaceful it is. And…
Voice 1: Maybe you should first EXPERIENCE the stillness before you decide to write about it? Take long slow breaths and don’t move any muscles – let’s see if the ripples disappear.
Voice 2: Ooo… the metaphor! When there’s no movement on the water, you get a clearer reflection of the clouds! It’s like a mirror! You can see yourself more clearly when you’re still!
Voice 1: Not that you would know, since you apparently don’t know how to BE still!
Voice 2: Okay, have it your way. I won’t write or take pictures until we’ve stopped moving enough to let the water settle into stillness.
Voice 1: (closes her eyes and takes slow breaths)
Voice 2: (opens her eyes) Oooo…. Look! We did it! The water is like glass again!
Voice 1: Maybe don’t be TOO proud of yourself. That kinda ruins the point of the whole exercise.
Voice 3: Hmmmm… you’re both giving me great material for my blog post about how my brain works!
Voice 2: I just thought of another metaphor!! The water in a river is only calm like this when the pressure on the higher end of the river decreases. When there’s been too much rain or melting snow, the river needs to move faster to try to get to equilibrium. So if you want stillness, you need to decrease input and wait for the water to settle!
Voice 1: I give up.
Voice 4: I knew it all along. You suck at stillness.
Does this internal dialogue sound familiar to anyone else or is it just me? This is why I have to WORK at stillness – it doesn’t happen naturally! It’s also why I sometimes disappear from social media for a week and hide out in a cabin in the woods when I really need to focus on an important project. I love my distractible, creative brain, but I need to give it some guardrails and point it in the direction of the right things.
This year has been especially taxing for my overly active brain. While building a business, launching a book, and creating several new programs has been fun for the part of my brain that craves dopamine, it’s also been exhausting to do it all in the unfamiliar landscape of a pandemic. My brain needs a break! And so does my body. And my heart.
So I’m taking a couple of months off, and I’m going to do my best to listen to Voice 1 and STAY WITH THE WAVES! I’m going to see if my body and mind can stay still long enough to smooth the surface of the water. And I’m going to reduce input and output so that equilibrium feels more like a possibility and the waves can settle for awhile before the next big rainstorm comes.
Before I go, though, I wanted to let you know that I will not be leaving you without content for the next two months! (In fact, it seems something about the upcoming sabbatical prompted my creative brain to go into a frenzy and I’ve created more content than ever!) Here’s what you can expect in the next 8 weeks:
1. I’ve written a series of short posts that will go out to my list (and appear on my blog) every Monday for eight weeks.
2. I’m sharing a daily poem on my author page on Facebook. (I have an extensive collection of poems I like to read as openers when I host conversations and retreats – these are some of my favourites.)
4. Though I’ll be mostly away from social media, I might occasionally post a photo or video of my summer wanderings on my own Instagram, likely with the hashtag #pauseandbenourished.
5. My business partner, Krista, has been creating fun daily Tiktok videos that are worth checking out. One of the things she’s doing is pulling a daily card from our Holding Space Card Deck. (@centre_for_holding_space)
Fear. It shows up in nearly every coaching conversation I have. Sometimes it’s bold and in-your-face and can’t be denied, and sometimes it’s sneaky and disguised as anger or laziness and has to be coaxed out into the light.
Fear fills a lot of pages in self-help books. Everyone’s trying to master it. Some tell you to befriend it, others tell you ignore it, and still others tell you to stare it in the face. Do an image search of fear quotes (see above image) and you’ll find endless memes about how you can conquer, befriend, embrace, or ignore fear. Or, if you’d rather, you can dance with it, kick it to the curb, or pray it out of existence.
The problem with much of what is written about fear in self-help books is that it is oversimplified. Diminish fear into only one dimension and it’s easier to give you a meme-worthy quote about it.
But fear is a multi-dimensional creature that requires a multi-dimensional response. It can’t be contained to a simple meme or a singular response.
Diminishing the complexity of fear can have devastating results for those who read self-help books. Sometimes clients come to me even more beaten down than they were before they read the books. Now, not only do they still have the fear, they have accompanying shame that they weren’t able to address their fears the way the self-help books told them to.
There are at least four kinds of fear that I have encountered in many conversations and much research. (I suspect it’s even more complex, but this is at least a start in understanding it.)
Warning fear. This is the legitimate fear that shows up to tell us that a course correction is necessary in order to avoid injury or harm. It’s the kind of fear that makes sure we don’t climb into the lion’s cage at the zoo, and it’s the quick-reaction fear that tells us to swerve out of the way when a car is headed straight at us. It’s also the fear that nudges us out of bad relationships or bad business deals. This fear serves as a valuable protector and shouldn’t just be “kicked to the curb.”
Ego fear. This is the kind of fear whose job is to keep our fragile egos safe at all costs. It’s the fear that tells us to stay small, to not ask for too much, to avoid shaming ourselves. It’s also the fear that tells us to protect ourselves from people who don’t look like us or who don’t share our belief systems. (Sadly, it’s the kind of fear that seems to be making far too many political decisions these days.) This is the most slippery of the fears. It’s hard to pin down and it’s got a million ways to lie to us. It’s the kind of fear that many of the self-help books are talking about when they tell us to befriend our fear or let it take the passenger seat in the car. This fear needs to be examined and deconstructed so that it doesn’t control us.
Invitational fear. Sometimes, what feels like fear, is actually a message from our bodies that we are on the right track, that we are about to step into something important and life-changing. It’s an invitation rather than a warning. I often refer to this kind of fear as “the trembling” because, for me, it’s often accompanied by a physical vibration in my body. This is the kind of fear we befriend, because it leads us into our right work, art, relationships, etc..
Trauma fear. Trauma has a way of embedding fear so deeply into our bodies that we can barely understand it or control it, let alone conquer it with a few tips from a self-help book. Trauma changes us so fundamentally, that it’s been known to alter not only our DNA, but the DNA we pass down to our children. Some of our trauma fear has, unbeknownst to us, been inherited from generations before us. Trauma fears are often irrational and can flare up at the slightest trigger, causing a fight, flight, or freeze reaction that nobody who’s witnessing it can understand. To treat this kind of fear with a simple self-help book approach is to do an egregious disservice to the person who’s suffered from the trauma. That’s like giving an aspirin to a cancer patient and telling them to go home and think good thoughts. Instead, you need to seek out the right expert who can provide support, tools, body exercises, etc. to help you understand and cope with the long-term impact of the trauma.
So… how can you tell which kind of fear is showing up for you? There is no simple answer to that. Instead, there’s a life-long practice of mindfulness, discernment, and experimentation.
Here’s a place to start…
Be quiet. Unless the fear demands an instantaneous response (ie. swerving out of the path of a car), give yourself a time-out when fear shows up and be quiet with it. Go out into nature or sit on a meditation cushion and let your fear know that you are willing to listen. Noise and/or the wrong person’s advice can intensify the fears, so find a place to be quiet and honest with yourself. Be alone or with someone who knows how to hold space for you.
Pay attention to your body. Where are you feeling the fear in your body? What is your body asking of you? What do you need to do to be kind to your body in that moment of intensity? When I feel fear in the pit of my stomach, for example, I like to place my hands gently over my belly and hold the fear like I would a frightened child. Your body often understands things your brain doesn’t know how to process, so you need to learn to pay attention. (You may want to explore body-related practices such as yoga, reiki, or something more specifically related to trauma, such as TRE.)
Ask what the fear is trying to protect you from. An honest inquiry can help you discern whether the fear is rational or irrational, a warning or an invitation. This is something I often do in my journal, by starting with a few prompts such as “I feel fear about… This fear is trying to protect me from…” Keep writing until the fears beneath the surface start to tell you their truth.
Ask whether you can and/or should survive whatever your fear is trying to protect you from. If it’s a warning fear, then just because you CAN survive it doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Act accordingly. If it’s an ego fear, then what it’s trying to protect you from is probably worth surviving because it will mean you’ll move into greater freedom and/or authenticity. Again, act accordingly.
Consider whether you need outside help addressing the fear. If you can’t understand or address the fear by doing the above-mentioned practices, it may be time to seek professional help. If the fear seems irrational and easily triggered, look for a therapist with expertise in trauma. (I would especially recommend someone who takes a wholistic, body-centred approach and who understands that trauma can’t simply be treated with talk-therapy.) If it doesn’t seem to be trauma-related but is instead connected to some old stories you’ve been telling yourself, coaching might help, but be discerning about who you choose for a coach. Someone who glosses over the complexity of fear will not be the right person.
There is nothing wrong with turning to self-help books (I’ve read quite a few myself), but if you find that those books make you feel worse about yourself instead of better, they might not be the right books for you. You have the right to toss them in the recycling bin, even if everyone else in your social media feed seems to be eating them up.
Seek out what’s best for you and do the work that heals you and makes you stronger.
Note: If you’re looking for a coach, perhaps I can help. Check out my coaching page and book an informal conversation (for free) if you’d like to explore what our relationship might look like. I will be happy to work with you AND I promise that if your fears are beyond my capacity to support (ie. trauma fears), I will help you seek out the right kind of therapeutic support.
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Last week, I was elbow deep in paint and knee deep in clutter. I was continuing the redecorating work I started in the summer (when I painted and decorated my daughters’ three bedrooms), and at the same time was de-cluttering nearly 17 years worth of accumulated stuff in my bedroom and the two bathrooms in the house.
Inspired by the KonMari method, I was asking myself, each time I pulled something out of a closet or cupboard, “does this spark joy?” Only when the answer was a clear yes did it make it back onto the shelf. There were 6 huge bags full of giveaways and an equal number full of garbage in the three rooms.
I am still a little dumbfounded by how much I carried out of those rooms. I don’t actually like shopping (especially for clothes), so how could I possibly have accumulated so many things that I don’t really enjoy wearing? I’ve always told myself that I’m at least being an ethical consumer by buying mostly second-hand clothes, but that doesn’t justify having so much!
Now that its done…. OH MY! I am SO in love with this spaciousness! I feel lighter, more free, and more agile (kind of like that pelican I just hung on the wall). I can look into my closet or dresser drawer and see instantly what I’m looking for. No more digging for treasures and forgetting what’s hidden at the back of the closet. I want to spend more time in my own spaces and have been working less often in coffee shops. And at the end of the day, it’s so easy to find a space for what needs to be put away because there is no clutter in the way. (Now I just have to tackle the rest of the house and put in the effort to keep it this way!)
I keep asking myself – if this much spaciousness feels so good, then WHY do I keep burying myself in clutter that doesn’t bring me any joy?
In fact, why has clutter become an epidemic in so many places where people have access to privilege and affluence? Just look around you (if you live in such a place) and you’ll see, sprouting all over our cities, football-field-sized yards full of storage rental spaces. And then look on the internet and you’ll see a myriad of courses and books on decluttering and organizing. There are huge, multi-million dollar industries whose sole purpose in the world is to manage all of the excess stuff we have.
There’s a similar pattern in our calendars as in our closets. We fill every space until things are bulging out and we’re too overwhelmed to enjoy any of it. We tell ourselves that if we’re busy, we must be valuable, and so we pack things into our agendas. And we do even worse where our children are concerned – making sure they have a sporting event or music lesson every night of the week.
Why? What is this all about?
What I came up with, as I lugged garbage bags out of my house, is this…
We have bought into a collective story that tells us there is no value in emptiness.
When we feel empty, we try to fill the emptiness with things and activities and vices. When there is too much spaciousness in our lives, we doubt our value and feel uncomfortable, and we go seeking that which fills up the spaces.
We forget that spaciousness actually feels good.
Think about the last time you had nothing to do on a Saturday night. Didn’t it feel kind of luxurious to curl up with a good book?
What about the time you cleaned your fridge and those empty shelves looked so clean that you just stood there and stared for awhile?
And even when the emptiness feels uncomfortable – like when your friends all have active social calendars and you don’t – aren’t you at least a little aware that time alone is good for you because you’re learning to appreciate your own company more?
Spaciousness – in our calendars, in our closets, and in our lives – can be a very good thing. Spaciousness creates opportunities for reflection, for prayer, for art-making, for deep breathing, for meaningful conversation, for healing, for self-awareness, for wandering, for healthy grieving, and for simply staring out the window at the leaves fluttering on the trees.
When we have spaciousness in our relationships, we listen more intently, we don’t rush to fix, and we allow for richness and depth and hours of meaningful conversation. In the spaciousness, connection happens.
When we have spaciousness in our calendars, we become more aware of what we truly love to do, we learn to say no to that which distracts us from our purpose, and we take more time for reverence and mindfulness. In the spaciousness, joy happens.
When we have spaciousness in our homes, we don’t let our possessions control us, we find greater value in the things we truly love, and we create less stress in our lives. In the spaciousness, peacefulness happens.
When we have spaciousness in our lives, we learn to listen to the voice of Spirit within us, we create room for personal discovery, and we feel a deep sense of freedom. In the spaciousness, growth happens.
Make it a daily intention to create spaciousness in your life, and watch what happens when you do.