There is a lot to be said for being deliberate. For making decisions from a calm, collected place. So many times we (or at least I) make the most critical choices from a place of panic and stress and heightened emotion, whether it’s warranted or not. But I’ve realized this: Aside from snap decisions made in an emergency, there’s next to nothing that can’t wait for you to gather yourself, consider, and then decide rationally.
I find that I can trust my instincts better if I first take some time to listen to them.
Most of the time when I just react, it turns out to be a mistake. We all have those moments etched in our mind, those situations we think back on and wish we’d waited — a day, an hour, even a second — before we acted a certain way or said a certain thing. There can be a lot of regret and guilt associated with reacting without thinking first.
My mother, a new widow, is feeling overwhelmed by all the things she’s had to do since my father passed away, only about six weeks ago. All the paperwork, thank-you notes, visits to the social security office. Then there are the larger decisions she has yet to make, actions she has yet to take, such as packing up his things, deciding whether she’ll move out of our house, deciding whether she’ll move out of the Chicago area. She can’t bring herself to go there yet, which I completely understand and support. She shouldn’t, yet. But I do keep reminding her that even the littler things (like the thank-you notes) don’t all need to happen right this minute.
Of course, the details keep her occupied, which obviously helps her right now, so there’s that. But to address that overwhelmed-ness a bit, at least, I always suggest to her that she slow down and take her time.
This is easier said than done, I realize. I used to be horrible at it. I was one big ball of reaction. It wasn’t always a total disaster, but I often felt like I hadn’t reacted in the best way I could, or the way I truly wanted to. It takes practice to take the time you need — and to let others know you need it, sometimes. It’s like learning to say no when you’re a “yes” girl. Ultimately, though, creating these boundaries for yourself gives you the space to make the choices that are right for you, and you’ll be more satisfied with the outcomes and even with your interactions.
This works on not completely critical moments too — on annoying little snafus, problems and disagreements that crop up in your daily activities. Recently a small setback in a project had me lying awake at night stressing out. I was trying to think of alternatives, and none of them seemed right. The issue wasn’t a big deal, but it was sort of the icing on a project I’d worked hard on and that I’m proud of. I wanted it to be great, not just good enough.
There wasn’t much I could do, so I didn’t really do anything but stew a bit — and then it all worked out. A friend’s brother had the solution, fixed the file, and just like that, the problem evaporated.
Sometimes, if you don’t do anything, obstacles just give up on their own.
It’s pretty great to think there’s power in slowing things down, in taking time and space. In actually doing nothing. If you enjoy being in control, you could actually look at this as a way of maintaining control, instead of feeling out of control in your premature reaction. By doing nothing, you are doing something.
It’s also a relief to realize you don’t have to instantly know the right answer or have the right comeback or have an inside line on exactly which action is right. I used to consider it my own personal failing that I couldn’t do that. But now I know I don’t have to. Really, that I shouldn’t.
As my “fun” reading this past week, while I slogged through Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl (as exhausting as I always find him, I loved it — but I’ll tell you about my love-hate relationship with Mr. James another time), I enjoyed Jane Austen’s Heroines: Intimacy in Human Relationships, written by an academic named John Hardy. I picked up this lovely little tome at the South Orange dump. I know, hard to believe someone was throwing it away!
Seriously, though, I adore Jane Austen. Everyone gets what they deserve in her books, good or bad. And I love her clever, heartfelt heroines, especially Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice — she’s such a badass, and she really knows how to handle that Mr. Darcy. The sweet orphan Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, which may be my favorite Austen novel. And Emma Woodhouse from Emma, the most adorable and sympathetic busybody you ever met. The scene where she finally gets together with Mr. Knightley is one of my favorites in any book.
I hadn’t ever thought as much of Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility until I read the essay about her in Jane Austen’s Heroines. The adjectives in the title have to do with Elinor — who uses her “sense,” in this context her reserve and her intellect, over her feelings — and her younger sister, Marianne — who uses her “sensibility,” or raw emotion — to operate in the world. As an open wound-type emotional person myself, I always related more to Marianne, even though she’s kind of clueless and screws a lot of things up. I viewed Elinor’s reserve as coldness, or a lack of ability to truly feel. Poor her.
But as the essay helped me to see, Elinor is no cold fish. She may not be in everyone’s face emotionally; she may even hide her more intense feelings from most of those around her. But she’s quite self-aware. She interacts with people carefully, from a position of comfort and ease in who she is and what she wants out of her relationships. Her “sense” translates into self-possession, versus the self-absorption of her little sis, who indulges her every emotion and rushes into “intimacy” with a man who isn’t really appropriate or able.
According to Hardy, “Elinor realizes that intimacy can only result from a privacy capable of being shared.” Elinor isn’t incapable of intimacy; she simply takes time to deliberate when it comes to her emotions and interactions. She’s discriminating, and that’s not a bad thing. Her experience of intimacy is more refined for it. It’s more valuable. In the end, she’s the one who enters into a successful, lasting relationship.
As much as I appreciate rules, plans and structure, it only recently occurred to me that emotional structure might be useful to me as a feeling person. Setting boundaries for your children is an act of love, so it follows that setting some for yourself would be loving as well. Like creating structure and foundation in yoga (you knew I was going to bring this back to yoga) allows you more freedom, creating emotional structure actually allows you to be more genuinely intimate.
Perhaps this is one reason I often felt frustrated with my emotional connections, or believed that others couldn’t go as deeply as I could. I held that as a point of pride, even though it didn’t necessarily bring me much satisfaction.
I think at some point, when I felt really emotionally burned, I thought that protecting myself was actually going to mean shutting down, closing myself off. And I didn’t have any idea how to do that. So I figured I was just destined to go through life as an emotional mess. What a relief to find that creating boundaries and becoming more self-possessed has actually opened me up.