The Trouble With Sitting Still
The trouble with sitting still is that my mind won’t shut up. The feelings, the judgements, the fears, the expectations that I’ve been distracting myself from — all rush in once I stop doing. If I sit still, I risk being completely flooded by my ever chattering stream of consciousness — which can often be overwhelming, panicked, and depressive. I operate on the belief that taking action with solve my ever-present anxiety. Unfortunately, it only seems to work until I stop moving.
I recently spent two weeks sharing a fairly spacious, empty house, in the dead of winter, with my mother. As I’m sure you can imagine, that was a specialkind of sitting still. I read four novels and knitted a whole Fair Isle hat in ten days because I was so hellbent on distracting myself from the constant onslaught of my thoughts. When I actually did slow down, breathe, get present, and start communicating what was really going on inside (namely when my mother and I would sit down for dinner together) — it all came out in a torrential downpour. Tears and shame and fears and self judgements all cascading down in a sloppy blubbering mess. What a joy.
At one point she even said to me:
“Leigh, you seem like you’re really suffering. Are you sure therapy is working?”
Clearly, we have very different definitions of what therapy should accomplish. I was able to collect myself enough to respond with, “I think so, you know, because I’m actually able to share all of this with you, and I couldn’t before.” This whole — hold onto everything until I just physically can’t is all well and good until it, well — isn’t. I know I’m getting better at honoring my state of mind — at sitting still — and paying attention to what my body is telling me, but it’s consistently an uphill battle.
Certainty is the perfect antithesis to my anxiety.
If I can catch myself before I fall — if I can always have something planned or a project I’m working on — if I can only divine the future — I will be safe. Uncertainty is the devil. Literally. Not knowing, or the “fear of the unknown,” can be positively paralyzing. Because obviously, there a million possible eventualities playing out in my mind, spinning up into fear fantasies and worst-case scenarios that I never saw coming. What could be more terrifying than not knowing? The problem, of course, is that nothing is ever certain until it has already happened, and even then — history is shaped by who is telling it.
After my father passed away about two years ago, I picked up a couple of Pema Chodron’s books, such as When Things Fall Apart. This whole Buddhist idea of understanding that life is change, and that suffering is bred from the inability to accept that constant flow of change….doesn’t quite do it for me. Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for things like meditation, taking walks, phoning a friend, or taking an epsom salt bath. These are all successful tactics I’ve identified to ease the “Screaming Mimis” in my brain (when I remember that those options are available to me). But they don’t change the fact that TRANSITION IS HARD. CHANGE IS SCARY. Intellectually, I understand the concept of sitting still, getting present, and accepting my lack of control. In the past, this illusion of control has kept me safe from my own trauma. Why would I ever want to break it?
The trouble with sitting still is that then we have to listen
If I believe I am in control, then everything is my responsibility, my fault, or my triumph.
It means that if something bad happens, then I could have prevented it by doing something differently. Instead of accepting that sometimes, bad things happen, whether or not we ask for them, contribute to them, or deserve them — this facade of control sets me up to always default to “something must be wrong with me.” If something is wrong with me, then I always reserve the power to change my fate. What happens to me is under my control, even if I believe that the worst things that come my way are warranted, and the most critical voices inside my head are telling the truth. If this story that I’ve made up about myself is true, I may not be O.K., but I will always be able to rationalize whatever comes my way. I will always be safe.
It is not intellectually rational to believe that by shedding light on those judgements, fears, memories, and stories that are spinning around in my head —they will get quieter. WHAT?! No, that’s like, the worst idea EVER! If I give them a voice they’ll just TAKE OVER! Maybe…temporarily. But then they’ll be out in the open, and less likely to devour me from the inside out. Especially when I actually remember that I can make the bad stuff quieter and the good stuff louder by engaging in conversation with someone I trust.
I know what you’re thinking — “but if I share this stuff, won’t I be seen as a burden?” “It’s too much for someone else to handle.” “Better to just try and deal with it alone when I’m ready.” “I don’t want to alienate anyone, after all…” And yes, some people might tell you that you’re too much, that they don’t have the emotional bandwidth to listen to you, that this is a conversation better had with your therapist. But I just see that as valuable information — don’t call that person the next time you need help.
If someone has good boundaries of their own, and has a basic idea of how to protect themselves and ensure their own wellbeing, they can listen to you and support you without compromising themselves. This also depends on your own ability to ask for what you need and receive the “yummies” these lovely friends might bestow upon you. At the end of the day, I truly believe that receiving is the magic ingredient that will make the biggest difference in addressing my anxiety.
The trouble with sitting still is that then we have to listen:
To whatever part of ourselves is showing up in that moment, and we may not like what we hear. The challenge then, is to practice that sitting still, that being quiet, that being present, that receiving. And believe me, it is challenging. I also believe that this practice is like working a muscle. If I can get myself to sit still enough, if I can get myself to be curious, and question whether or not what I’m thinking or feeling is logical — helpful — or even true, then maybe…just maybe, I can begin to receive the good things that other people say about me. And then, hopefully, the nice things I’m able to say about myself. If I can take in and begin to believe the nurturing, helpful, clear voices over the judgmental, mean, and fearful ones, maybe I can be more than O.K. Maybe I can be better than safe.
Ideally, I will become comfortable with a new normal. Where I don’t have to worry about those moments when I’m brought to my knees and forced to sit still. When those chances to unplug and get present with my feelings aren’t feared but embraced. This new normal still seems like a long way away, but I know that if I focus on being gentle with myself and receiving — just a little bit, day after day — it will make a noticeable difference over time.
Here’s to a new year, with new intentions, and the goal of being comfortable sitting with myself in stillness.