|Posted by Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. on October 19, 2016 at 3:35 AM|
I recently started spending every Thursday with my soul (AKA my true self). This means that I do everything in my power to keep my To Do list as empty as possible on Thursdays. This new routine is terrifying for my false self, which tends to be an overachieving workaholic. In fact, when I first started celebrating soul days my false self created huge To Do lists full of self-help activities like reading motivational books, watching inspirational videos, and going for walks in nature.
But there was something about this process that didn't feel quite right. It felt over-scheduled and forced - like I was pressuring myself to feel good. So I decided to take a different approach that involves leaving my Thursdays wide open. Every Thursday morning I sit in meditation for 15 minutes and gently ask my soul what it feels called to do that day.
And guess what my soul's answer usually is?
That's right. My soul seems to feel like doing absolutely nothing.
This baffled and irritated me at first (and to be honest, it still kind of does). It also causes my my inner overachiever to totally freak out. During these moments, overachiever Bethany chimes in with thoughts like, "Come on, soul, pull yourself together! Let's do some super awesome personal development shit so that Bethany can learn and grow and transcend and serve the world! I mean, really, you want to do nothing? What does that even mean? Do you expect us to just sit here and stare out the window?"
To which my soul replies, "Yes. I want you to wrap yourself in that blanket, sit in a comfy chair, and stare out the window."
So I do it. And I find it absolutely excruciating.
But, being the good soul student that I am, I've kept doing nothing when that's what my soul wants to do.
Then, right on cue, two resources came into my world. One was a video interview by Gabrielle Bernstein, and the other was a song by the band Daughter. Both resources talk about our tendencies to numb ourselves from feeling what we need to feel. Most of us are relatively familiar with the concept of numbing out through drugs or alcohol or sex. We've all been in situations of heartbreak when we have sex with someone as a way to numb ourselves instead of feeling an emotional connection, or we drink too much in an effort to forget about our stress.
I've used these not-so-healthy coping mechanisms many times in my life - but my soul days have made me realize something very important:
I also sometimes use healthy habits as a way to numb out from feeling what I need to feel.
As Gabby mentioned in her video, a huge habit for me is numbing out through work. Here are a few examples. As an undergraduate student I got into regular arguments with my long-term boyfriend. I vividly remember hanging up the phone in tears and then immediately grabbing my textbooks and heading to the study hall in my residence. I rarely gave myself an opportunity to cry it out or process my emotions. Similarly, during the last year of my PhD, my stepfather died tragically and unexpectedly from an oxycontin overdose. I took the requisite week off from my studies, but I kept myself busy instead of letting myself feel. After my week was up, I plunged myself back into my work with a vengeance - rarely talking about or acknowledging what happened. I finished my PhD with perfect timing and even won a national award for my research. Even now, when I get into arguments with my husband, I feel an almost irresistible pull toward my work. I sit at my desk, take a deep breath, and jump headfirst into the most difficult project that I can.
In other words, I use work to avoid life.
In my twenties I spent 7 years in therapy, and not a single therapist ever called me out on this numbing behavior. Why? Because achievement and productivity are so valued in our culture that most of us don't realize when we're using work to numb ourselves. In fact, we're praised and given awards for our overwork.
But overwork isn't the only strategy that we use to numb out. I've realized that many of us also use "healthy habits" like yoga, meditation, and personal development to avoid our feelings. I'm not saying that these techniques are bad - I'm a yoga teacher and I've spent years researching the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation. However I've noticed that there is a fine line between using these techniques for our well-being versus using them to avoid feeling.
Here's an example. I've noticed that there are times when I force myself to do yoga or meditate in an attempt to make myself "feel better." In the same way that someone might have a few too may drinks or smoke a cigarette when they're stressed - I turn to contemplative practices. During these times I notice myself trying to "force away" whatever I'm feeling. I sometimes use stretching and breathing techniques to get rid of my sadness or anxiety, instead of allowing myself to fully experience these emotions.
I've realized that I don't enjoy feeling my emotions, and I try to avoid them at all costs. I've noticed that I'm afraid to be vulnerable. I'm afraid to be human. It takes a heck of a lot for me to cry in front of anyone - even my husband. When I do cry, it usually means that I'm so upset that my avoidance tactics simply aren't working anymore. When I cry, people who know me well know that I mean business.
This doesn't mean that I'm numbing out every time I use a contemplative practice. What I've realized is that I need to use laser-sharp discernment to identify when I'm numbing versus when my body and mind actually need these practices.
I've noticed that if I get still and tune into my body this process becomes relatively straightforward. For example, let's say I'm feeling anxious about work and I get an urge to do some yoga. Before starting to practice, I'll close my eyes and notice how my body feels about doing yoga. Sometimes, my body feels like, "Yes! We've been sitting at a desk all day and we really need to move." Other times, my body says, "I'm actually exhausted. The last thing I feel like doing is yoga. Maybe you can roll out your yoga mat, get a blanket, and lay there for awhile. It would really help if we could feel through and process this anxiety instead of avoiding it."
I was trained in mindfulness meditation, which involves bringing your attention into the present moment by focusing on some sort of mantra or sensation, such as the breath. I'll be the first to say that I think mindfulness is amazing - but for me personally, sometimes it feels like a form of avoidance. For example, I might be feeling sad, so I force myself to sit and pay attention to the feeling of the breath coming in and out of my nose. The whole time there's this sadness sinking deep into the pit of my stomach - but I try to ignore the sadness and focus on my breath. Or "watch the sadness pass by like clouds in the sky."
The same goes for repeating positive affirmations. How many of us have plastered post-its all over our homes with messages like "I am abundant" and "All is well" when we actually feel like crap and don't believe a word we're reading?
As you start paying attention to your own body you might notice similar patterns. Perhaps you start being able to tell the difference between times when you listen to music as a form of genuine release versus times when you put on a happy tune to force yourself out of a bad mood. Or maybe you notice that instead of meditating you really just need to have a good cry or punch your pillow.
These days I've taken up a practice that I believe is one of the most difficult I've ever tried: doing nothing. I've dabbled in doing nothing before, but this time I'm committing to doing nothing regularly. For me, "doing nothing" means that when I feel a deep sense of longing, sadness, anger, or anxiety, I don't immediately run to my yoga mat or watch an inspirational video. Instead, I sit with the feeling. Sometimes I close my eyes, other times I literally stare at a wall. I make no effort to try to make myself feel better. Instead, I allow myself to feel the emotion in my body. I feel the longing as an ache deep in my chest or the anxiety as a knot in my stomach. I notice how the emotion morphs over time. Sometimes the feeling gets stronger, sometimes it decreases. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I get angry. In all cases, I resist the urge to numb.
(Side note: If you've been through serious trauma like sexual abuse or war, feeling into your body and emotions can be a very intense process that's probably best done under the supervision of a professional. Click here for a listing of psychologists in the United States and Canada).
Personally, I see this new practice as a radical form of self-love and self-acceptance. I see it as my soul's way of fully embodying me as a human. My soul is here to feel what it's like to be in this human body - both in ecstasy and in sorrow.
The past year of my life has involved a lot of work with discernment. Discerning when to speak my truth versus hold back. Discerning when to act versus remain still. Discerning my truth, regardless of others' opinions or beliefs.
Feeling into my body and fully experiencing my emotions is leading me to a deeper level of truth than my logical mind has ever revealed.
I invite you to notice which healthy habits you might be using to numb yourself. Maybe you keep yourself so busy with sports that you don't have time to feel how stressed you are. Maybe you run marathons obsessively because you're unhappy. Maybe you're hyper-focused on caring for your child because you don't want to face the issues in your relationship. Maybe you spend tons of time preparing healthy meals because it helps you avoid dealing with a childhood eating disorder. All of these behaviors look healthy on the surface - but they might actually be forms of avoidance. It's all about discerning - for yourself - whether your behaviors are true for you or not.
Have you ever noticed a tendency to numb out using healthy habits? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!