A few years ago, I wanted to escape from my life. I craved vacations to faraway places. I wanted time away from work, my kids, my spouse and my friends. I often felt I couldn’t get a deep enough breath. I woke up at two or three in the morning and couldn’t fall back to sleep. My mind raced with the obligations of the day ahead of me — duties I felt I couldn’t say “no” to. My brain felt like a loud, crowded room of people telling me what I should be doing. There was a time in my life when I could meditate, but quieting my mind wasn’t something I wanted to do anymore. It made my heart race to sit still and try to quiet the screams of frustration in my head.
Deep down, I knew what my problems were. I hated the idea of anyone disliking me. I not only kept my opinions to myself, I never even allowed myself to think on an issue long enough to have an opinion about it. That felt much safer; without an opinion I couldn’t offend anyone. I also had a difficult time telling people “no.” It led to burnout in my work. I was afraid I’d be deemed difficult to work with if I said “no” to meeting times, projects and ideas. I didn’t allow myself to have any defining edges in relationships, either. The fear of abandonment was strong, and I didn’t want to risk losing people important to me by having boundaries with them. I did not know how to be any different.
I was anxious and depressed. I felt lonely, let down and fed up in my marriage. I felt stuck in my responses to the stresses I encountered, and I needed help figuring out how to change. I made an appointment with a psychologist. I was either going to change so I enjoyed the life I created, or feel emotionally strong enough to create a new one. After several visits of sharing my life experience, I asked my therapist what I needed to do to change. She said, “You’re doing it.” It wasn’t the answer I wanted, and it didn’t make sense to me. Venting to friends about my stress and trauma didn’t change my life, so I didn’t see how talking to a therapist about it would, either. But it did.
Expressing myself to my therapist wasn’t like venting to my friends at all, it turns out. My therapist modeled a healthy relationship; not just one I could be having with others, but one I could be having with myself. That felt like a breakthrough. I was judgmental and held unrealistic expectations for myself. I didn’t allow myself to feel emotions like anger, sadness or grief. I was impatient with myself and believed the negative self-talk that went on in my mind.
The way I changed was offering myself compassion. Instead of dismissing my thoughts, emotions and opinions, I gave myself the space and time to explore my responses to my daily life. I got to know my preferences that way, and discovered the boundaries I needed to establish to keep myself healthy, both physically and emotionally. The internal muscle tension I carried close to my bones seemed to soften. I felt more laid back and easy going with myself. My entire body felt like I was smiling, not to please others, but from being pleased.
I had conversations with my spouse about my needs, hopes and dreams for our marriage. He shared his, too. The difficulties we’d been having in our communication eased off. Establishing boundaries was scary for me. I pushed through anxious feelings when I told people “no.” But on the other side was a feeling of expansion. I started sleeping through the night. I could breathe again.
Compassion is my starting place to change now. When I feel stressed, overwhelmed, angry or fearful, it’s compassion that softens the grip life has on me. In its loving space I get to explore my needs and let solutions present themselves. Quieting my mind isn’t a scary prospect anymore. It’s what I’m eager to do whenever I feel a problem arise.