Taking the full measure of life

Learning to Listen (a ‘for example’ or two from my last post)

February 7th, 2008 · 16 Comments

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I haven’t talked about it a lot with many people, but I’ve been going through a lot lately . . . mostly peripherally speaking. Does that sound odd?

In the last three weeks, I have had two people confide in me that they are leaving their husbands (coincidentally on the same day, actually); another friend discuss with me regularly whether to leave her husband (and how to deal with her husband, who is abusing drugs, is lying to her, and has not been gainfully employed for a year); one friend’s adolescent brother die suddenly; and one friend end up in the hospital with a scary medical condition that may require major surgery and will at least require hard life changes. Those are the major things, and of course there have been many other, smaller ones: a friend who is desperate to get out of her current job, my husband working to prepare for his thesis proposal, a couple of people dropping out of our simplicity group, etc. Oh, and I spent at least 10 of those days sick with a bad cold, my third illness in a month.

Now, let me state a couple of things clearly:

  • I would never mean to imply that my secondary experience of these things is as complex or grievous as it is for the people who are directly experiencing them, because of course it is not.
  • I would never mean to imply that I wish my friends would not confide in me or share things with me freely, as the closeness I share with them is one of the greatest satisfactions of my life.

However, I’ve also had these events/issues going on in my own life: considering the possibility of a move across the country in 10 months; deciding whether to apply to graduate school this year; gathering momentum to–and following through with–making changes at my job to make my work life more satisfactory; dealing with the food allergy sublingual drops I am taking which (since I started them recently) may be contributing to my ill health as of late; seeing my father for the first time in several years and having him meet my husband for the first time; grieving the distant relationships that have developed between me and two of my siblings, one relationship worse than the other; spending the weekends needing to clean up, cook, run errands, etc., since I haven’t gotten as much done as I need to during the week (being sick); and, well, a few other things, too. I’ve been busy and exhausted both emotionally and physically much of the time lately, and I’ve been an emotional sponge for what’s been happening around me in the meantime. I’ve found myself unable to fall asleep at night, sometimes even with the help of Lunesta; and when I do sleep, it’s restless.

I’ve tried to use better coping strategies than I used to. I am normally extremely social, and in the last few weeks, recognizing my exhaustion, I have cut way back on the amount of time I have spent with others to help keep my emotional self intact. I’ve exercised some of the stress off. I’ve taken the equivalent of 3 days off of work (have plenty of sick leave). I’ve gotten an hour-long massage. I’ve talked out these situations with other people. I’ve listened to cathartic music. I’ve tried, but I’ve still stayed at about 90% emotional/energy capacity lately. My husband is well aware of this, because I’ve snapped at him several times about truly miniscule things lately.

Yesterday, I was trying to catch up on some essential, boring paperwork that has been piling up on my desk. I should have known to shut down my work and personal email accounts while I did the paperwork, because I’m easily disrupted by the next thing to do while I’m working on the current one. But I didn’t close my email, and I started receiving emails about a particular situation: I started to write it out here, but it’s way too complex to explain, since I still don’t fully understand what happened. The short version (sorta) is that I upset or angered someone—someone who has been struggling mightily with her emotional/mental health— several years ago (without ever knowing it), and though she had never told me, she had told mutual friends; and it was coming up again now; and it was coming across a huge deal, whether or not it was. Bam–out of the blue sky.

In trying to understand what was going on, I grew confused, and upset, and angry, and then utterly exhausted. When this would happen earlier in my life, I would eventually just blow my top. And I probably would have eaten a giant brownie covered in caramel and ice cream and then internally beaten myself up for eating the giant brownie and feeling grotesquely full and what kind of loser am I that I can’t cope with things better than this?

But I shut down the negative talk before it gets anywhere near that point these days. I work regularly on treating myself with empathy, of treating myself like I would one of these awesome friends I have and love. And because I have trained myself to stop and think, What is it I really want? when I previously would have eaten, sometimes my mind fills me in on what I want/need without me even probing it these days.

So as I was typing, and working on paperwork, and growing more and more exasperated, I stretched to ease the back pain I was feeling, and I thought, I want to go home and go to sleep. I paused in my stretch. Really? Yes. But it’s only 2:30, and work doesn’t end for 2 hours? I am so exhausted. I feel sick and worn out, and I can’t catch a break. Please let me go to sleep. Well, okay then. I just gave myself permission to leave work. I went home, took off my clothes, pulled down the shades, petted my two kitties, climbed under the covers, and closed my tired eyes. Ahh, but sleep would not come, no, it wouldn’t—only thoughts and emotions in deep, disturbing swirls. I thought about crying, and then I realized that over the last two weeks, I had not let myself cry. It was a self-protective measure; when you have been blowing your nose for 10 days and have been unable to sleep because of a stuffed-up nose from a cold, you don’t want to recreate those conditions if you don’t have to. But I needed it; I needed to cry. So I lay there and let myself formulate the emotions, images, and thoughts in my head into actual words: I am so sad and so sorry that loss and grief are inevitable. I am so upset that sometimes my best intentions go awry. I am so sad that some of life’s problems and some of the world’s problems seem intractable, that the efforts we make may not be enough. I am so sorry that I do not have the capability to fix things for other people, for everyone. I started with a few tears and then let myself plummet into them. I shook with loud sobs and repeated my thoughts to myself to let myself feel them. I dove to the bottom of my grief—there was a bottom down there—and let myself touch the murky bottom. Then I came up for air. And finally, I calmed down, and I was able to take a nap.

I wish I could say I awoke entirely refreshed—wouldn’t that be such a pat little post ending?—but of course it wasn’t so. I was, however, able to relieve some of the intensity of the emotions and feel more peaceful and rested.

Today, I came back to work and pounded my way through that paperwork. Whew. Done with that for a week. I cooked my lunch and checked a few blogs while I ate. Then I came across this post by Meg Wolff, and as I read the first few sentences, it was like I was suddenly breathing fresher, colder air than I had been the moment before:

I’ve decided to let go of other people’s stuff too… like fears … feelings that I can appreciate, but that aren’t mine. Not taking on (or in) STUFF that isn’t mine. Listening but … letting it go, instead of feeling sad, mad or churning it around in my head for days. Which is not to suggest that I’m not going to be there for my friends and family — it’s just that I won’t allow myself internalize and take on other people’s “work.” My new mantra is, “Let Go, Let Go, Let Go.”

I thought it was interesting and funny that Meg then went on to mention my last post, the one about not wearing heels anymore, and how it had encouraged to write her post, because, well, I needed her post. I’ve been letting myself deal with the smaller aspects of my empathizing with people to the point of adopting their emotions, but I haven’t put myself into the position of learning to listen and be present but then let it go afterward. And it doesn’t do them, or me, any good when I don’t let it go, because as I repeated to myself yesterday, though it upsets me that it’s so, I can’t fix it. (And it’s not even that I think I can fix it or that they are incapable of fixing it; it’s just that I so very badly wish I could fix it.) I think I’ve been working under the subconscious assumptions that a) I show a care by adopting the problem, b) If I don’t adopt the problem, I don’t care enough, and c) If I care enough and think about it enough, I can at least help fix it. There’s a new lesson for me (or a good reminder of one of my life’s repeat lessons), and I have a new tool to put in my belt for my journey: the mantra of Let go, let go, let go. It’s going to be a learning experience to try to adopt this new way of acting. I have to learn to let go for my own health and to be able to be present (and not overwhelmed) for the people I love, too. I’m off now to check out the post on the Oprah show that Meg mentions to maybe add another tool or two to my collection.

Tags: gratitude

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ricki // Feb 7, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    So sorry to hear you’ve been having a hard time lately. This is a wonderful post, and it sounds as if you are well on your way to a happier place (that nap sounded heavenly, by the way–made me realize how much I could use one!).

    Have you ever tried meditation? The year I studied nutrition and was a full-time student, I managed to do it just about every day. I can’t tell you how much calmer and just, well, EASY my life seemed, even though of course it wasn’t.

    I haven’t managed to keep it up quite so regularly (though just signed up for a course to keep it going), but one thing I have managed is to “let go” of guilt where my family is concerned (no guilt, no holding on to past grievances or grief–how liberating!). I still hold on to other stuff I should let go, but, like you, I’m working on it. And I’m going to adopt your new mantra, too ;).

    More than anything else necessary for success in this realm, I’ve come to believe, is the persistence to KEEP TRYING. And you’ve got that in spades.

  • 2 Meg Wolff // Feb 7, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    I like this post and the last comment too … meditation seems to be highly recommended to “letting go”. Thanks.

  • 3 Annie // Feb 7, 2008 at 10:39 pm


    Simply a wonderful post and offers sage advice about just letting go. That is one aspect of getting healthy that I am working on as well.

    I definitely agree with Ricki and Meg regarding meditation. I also have a beginning yoga program that incorporates meditation which has been very beneficial to me.

    Thanks so much for sharing as it was a gentle reminder to me that I still have work to do regarding letting go as well.

  • 4 Sunydazy // Feb 8, 2008 at 7:16 am

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog last night and again this morning. What an inspiration you are! It’s interesting because a lot of what you have shared and or demonstrated are things I also have been learning the past 2 years. When I care for myself I become more able to care for myself. You probably know what I mean. It’s really an eye opener to a mom who has had teens, toddlers and infants all at once…Oh !the emotional roller coaster can drain one in a hurry! I’ve been learning to rest, eat well, exercise (by playing outside with the children) and more. Thanks for sharing your journey with the rest of us!

  • 5 Lori W. // Feb 8, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Sally, this is really a breakthrough for you and for me to read. Yesterday I was on the phone with someone discussing my fears and anxieties and you did EXACTLY what she said to do: allow yourself to feel those feelings, sit down and breath again and gain some control.

    Letting go is hard.

    I’m sorry that you and your friends are going through so much and that you got sideswiped by that email. You really took care of yourself without rewarding yourself with food. I’m really proud of you.

  • 6 Ginger // Feb 8, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for sharing this post, I am sure it wasn’t easy to write and is much harder to live. I hope today is better for you in letting go. I can have a hard time with that to and always want to fix everyone else’s problems and make it right. Good luck and I hope you can relax and enjoy your weekend!

  • 7 Grumpy Chair // Feb 8, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Absolutely wonderful post. I had to read it twice.

    I’m trying to meditate. I bought an instructional DVD and have been practicing it after my son gets home from school.

    Hope you begin to get some peaceful sleep.

  • 8 Helen // Feb 8, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    I’m sorry things have been tough for you and your friends lately, but I am REALLY happy for you that it has led to this breakthrough of understanding of YOU. 🙂 Unfortunately, I think the old adage that pain helps us grow and change is true…otherwise we’d be so evolved that we wouldn’t need our lessons here on earth, right? Your perspective expressed here is very yogic…which, for me, is a beautiful and true thing. Hope you and your friends all have things easier soon…and, in the meantime, I hope you all are able to appreciate at least a little how much you are learning in your processes…good for you!!!!!

  • 9 michelle // Feb 8, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Hi Sally, I wanted to comment on here yesterday, but didn’t have time to write it out before I had to go home. Strangely enough, this theme of letting go keeps appearing in my own life too, and coming to your blog and finding it written here so eloquently gave me an amazing sense of comfort. Just by recognizing where you are right now and what you need for yourself is a huge accomplishment. I’m so sorry that things are difficult right now, but I think all of the things that have been said here already are so true. Helen’s comment too reminded me of a quote by Kahil Gilbran from “The Prophet,” where he said ‘the deeper that sorrow carves into us, the more joy we can contain’. Have you ever read The Little Prince or The Alchemist? Both books are full of wisdom and I think would speak volumnes to you with the kinds of things you’re dealing with now. Eat, Pray, Love is another great one I read recently and loved – and has loads of funny lines and sage advice about mediation, yoga, love and seeking what you need. Again, you’re such an inspiration…even in your difficult times…because even though we all experience and think about things in our own way, human experience and emotions have so many threads in common between us all. Many hugs to you…

  • 10 Greenman2001 // Feb 9, 2008 at 10:11 am

    There they are: feelings. Painful, inconvenient, too much, too many, ugly, messy, unresolvable. They fill up the container where you hold them — your heart — and then it overflows, and there you are, sobbing in your bed, alone, soaked with feeling.

    This is life. This is what it means to be a human being, alive: feeling.

    Of course, it’s not just the unpleasant feelings: happy, relieved, ecstatic, intrigued, turned on, giddy, silly, grateful. We feel those too, but we don’t give them a second thought, because they don’t hurt. Unfortunately, we think that pleasant feelings are “healthy” but unpleasant feelings are “bad,” as though our hearts made those kinds of distinctions. The heart doesn’t discriminate: it just feels. Over and over again, relentlessly feeling.

    One of the things I love about this tremendous post is that you found your way through this by yourself. You led yourself, step by step, to a safe place where you could let yourself completely feel these painful, frightening, upsetting feelings. This is an extraordinary life skill: you have what it takes to survive and flourish.

    There’s a difference between “letting go” and “not feeling.” I find that many white-knuckled practitioners of meditation are deeply afraid to let themselves feel unpleasant feelings. Feelings are the monster under the bed, and “just let go” is the song they sing to themselves to ward the big bad monster off. I’ll take your approach any day of the week.

    But the secret is: once you learn to let yourself feel, those feelings lose their power over you. You can let yourself feel while breathing in, breathing out, without turning the well-armed battleship of your defenses (“blowing your top”) to face your enemy, the poor soul who’s “making you feel bad.” Your friend, your former friend, your father, your husband, your boss. You just feel, then go about your business: living. Maybe you meditate, maybe you don’t. It’s helpful to have distractions while you’re feeling (meditate, exercise, blog), but the fact is that, in a minute, an hour, a day, a week, this particular feeling you’re feeling is going to transition into some other feeling. Your happy feeling is going to go away, and be replaced by sadness. Your sadness is going to go away, and be replaced by excitement. Your excitement with fear, your fear with joy, and so on. Miraculous, isn’t it?

    This was a deeply profound post. Thanks!

  • 11 K Renee // Feb 9, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Letting go. . . I could learn a thing or two about this, too.

  • 12 alexsandra // Feb 10, 2008 at 3:44 am

    It is so wonderful that you worked through the emotions and feelings…and even more wonderful that you shared them. Just as your previous post inspired someone else, we can all be inspired by your experience. This is what is so excellent about your blog. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • 13 Amanda // Feb 10, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    A very eloquent post. I think emotionally intelligent people are often the most tortured, because they frequently take on the woes of others.
    Letting go is so important, because life is hard enough, yet we often make it harder for ourselves.

  • 14 Katie // Feb 10, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    You’ve been tagged! Check out my page for details 🙂

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  • 16 Still Life in Buenos Aires // Sep 20, 2008 at 12:32 pm


    Thanks for sharing this incredibly personal post. I, too, internalize my grief, shames, worries, and the darknesses of others. I let them stew and ruminate together until I’m immersed in self loathing.

    Many themes resonated from your post, but I was most struck by, “I dove to the bottom of my grief—there was a bottom down there—and let myself touch the murky bottom. Then I came up for air. And finally, I calmed down, and I was able to take a nap.”

    I read excerpts of a book on self esteem a few months ago where the author encourages people to face fears and shames head on–like monsters–and breathe into the grief–then move on. He provided the analogy of taking a deep breath and breathing into a doctor’s shot. I am trying to learn this. As you did at the bottom of your grief, I try to acknowledge the monster, perhaps a present or past failing, acknowledge that I am a good person in my core, and then move on and try to peel back those demons that keep shrieking up.

    Why do we allow these demons to humilate us over and over again? I’m also learning to let go.

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