This post was very different when I first wrote it. You might not be too interested in this detail, but it does illustrate my point. My intention was to write about softness, but the text turned into something that wasn’t very kind to me. Which nicely shows that being kind to ourselves can be very difficult. We may not even notice we are being harsh. Thankfully someone reminded me that I am warm and caring, and that I can turn this quality towards myself as well as others.
So I started thinking. Who do I like to read and why? That’s a really big question and I can’t answer it completely. But. I really love to read things that are kind to humans, including their own authors. That doesn’t mean they should only talk about nice things. I’m bored of super happy super perfect super nice things. I like interesting things that are different, weird and honest in their imperfection. But there is a way, a quality of approaching creatures and humans that is caring and kind. That’s the shit! And I thought: that’s what I want to do too! Let’s practice.
So why is it good to loosen up. First of all I have come to the realisation that if I expect something to come out perfect in its first form, I will keep standing, nervous, unable to move and I will never let myself do anything. For example. One massive Fear happened to me during an exam. Contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t an exam that I was very scared of, in fact it was on my then-favourite subject; Psychobiology of resilience in adolescence (I know, to each their own). And I have studied so much for it. I was really prepared! I would even go as far as saying that I was looking forward to it (which wasn’t usually the case with me and exams, really). So the exam started and the questions were ones I expected. So far so good. Until suddenly it wasn’t. As I was about to start writing, a big heavy thought unexpectedly occurred and clouded my brain. I suddenly realised the magnitude of what I’m trying to do; to write down all those things I’ve been learning for months – in 2 hours. I had a lot to say! And I wanted it to be perfect! I think I actually physically felt the pressure of what I wanted to say crushing my head from the inside. It was impossible. I will never be able to write all of it down in such a short time. I can’t be sure why this thought seemed so entirely terrifying to me then, but the ‘why’ didn’t really matter at that point. The Fear has awakened. I was completely blocked. Paralysed. Nothing I could’ve written was going to come out perfect so I wasn’t able to write anything. Not even a word. I just sat there, my heart trying to force itself out of my chest, not being very successful at breathing, my head spinning. In a matter of minutes the only thing I could think of is that I needed to run away. Immediately. And the longer I sat there not writing, the bigger the Fear grew, feeding on each valuable minute I have lost.
I didn’t run away. I forced myself to remain in my seat (mostly out of embarrassment and because I was frozen, more than any kind of courage, just so you know). I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was a panic attack, and I didn’t know that what followed would happen naturally, which is that gradually my heart slowed, breathing became steady and I could start thinking about what to write rather than how to escape from that horrible windowless room. Another interesting thing happened. I gave up. I realised that with the time I’ve lost there was no way that I could produce the most brilliant answers ever written. I told myself that whatever I’ll get down at this point will be better than handing in an empty paper, or not handing in anything at all as I’d be halfway home by the time the test finished. I started writing. Imperfect words and sentences and bullet points. I handed in some pages that weren’t completely blank. I did actually pass the exam! But beyond that my victory was this: I managed to stay sitting in that chair, mortifying Fear washing over me and stay with it until it slowly eased.
More recently I have learnt to describe similar experiences in complicated, fancy-sounding words like panic attack, exposure therapy and habituation to anxiety. But that’s not so important. The key idea still holds; we can practice facing even our deepest darkest Fear and it can gradually ease. If we can manage to tolerate it and stay with the unpleasantness, it will gradually become less and less severe each time we find ourselves in a similar situation. There is a way. I’ve seen it in myself and I’ve helped others do it too. The tricky part is that you have to really embrace the scary feeling; paying all your attention to it and let it happen, otherwise it doesn’t work. You have to open yourself up to the Fear. Softness is key.
Trying to get inspired by successful people is tricky. I’m listening to Mø on my headphones and she is telling me I should dance to the beat of my own drum. I appreciate the advice, but it’s so hard for me though! I have all the problems all of the time, don’t you? And nothing ever looks right. I’d just really like it if someone could finally convince me that my drum is really great and it’s really worth dancing to, cause I can never be sure. But I guess that would be beside the point, because other people have their own drums to reckon with. I think I might just need to get on with it and accept that I have crooked blue veins in my legs. Tiny teeth that are ground down by nighttime fears (and tbh also nail-biting, but let’s not even go there). Super-wide frog feet, asthma, astigmatism and a tendency to astral project myself out of unpleasant situations. These are some of my things that I really struggle to be soft about. When I think about these things of mine, or when I’m reminded of them, I feel resistance, aversion, rejection, tension. My muscles quite literally tense up, and my mind follows. The feeling is incredibly similar to Fear. I think this happens because these are the things about me that I would preferably change, or even more preferably dispose of completely. But that is for one reason or another not actually possible.
So I guess it comes down to 2 options. Either I:
- put a lot of effort into resistance and learn to be really good at astral projection and running away (both physically and figuratively), or
- follow my own advice from earlier, trusting that the remedy is acceptance and kindness.
If I use what I know about overcoming fearful situations (i.e. me in that exam), I can apply this to help me accept the Fear triggered by my own imperfections. Mø says so, psychology says so, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki says so and I’m pretty sure Beyonce and Mariah said so too at some point. We’re in wise company guys. It has to work.
So I made a new plan. I will not ignore my legs and instead I’ll try to be nice to them. They are good legs. I will remember how they carry me everywhere. I will not stop wearing shorts in hot weather just to hide the crooked veins. I will appreciate my semi-webbed wide feet because they make me swim fast and therefore I get to experience the closest sensation to flying that’s possible without actually growing wings. I’m training my jaw to soften every time I notice I’m clenching it (in regards to the nail-biting, honestly, I can’t even… I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I need to get professional help.) I got glasses that I actually like and made them a part of my (heaven forbid!) ‘look’. These might seem like small, easy things to do, but they are actually complicated because they are tangled up in feelings and discomfort.
Try just trying. Create your own version of softness and see how it feels. Take as many takes as you need.