Creating Your Right Life

inspiration & tools for empowered living

0305
2012

Revealing Ourselves: The Art of Self-Disclosure

Cindy was my own little JFK: A riddle wrapped in a question locked inside an enigma. She’d been my client for nearly three months, but I still had no idea what she thought or felt. Our conversations always went something like this:

Me: “So, Cindy, what’s going on in your life?”

Cindy: “Oh, you know. Like, my parents…[long pause]“

Me: “Yes?”

Cindy: “You know how they are.”

Me: “Um, not really. How are they?”

Cindy: “It’s like, well, anyway…I don’t know, they…like…[sigh]“

Me: “Like what?”

Cindy: “You know.”

As flattered as I was that Cindy seemed to consider me omniscient (she said “you know” approximately four thousand times per session), I eventually had to advise that she stop wasting money on a life coach who had no clue what to tell her. “But,” Cindy exclaimed with obvious dismay, “you’re the only person who really seems to understand me!” 

Until that moment, I’d assumed that Cindy didn’t trust me enough to talk about her inner life. Then I realized that she just didn’t know how. To some degree, most of us share her dilemma. We want desperately to be understood, and we think this will happen when we meet the Perfectly Understanding Person. The truth is that we lack the capacity to make ourselves understood, the ability to disclose our real selves in a way that connects us with others. Even if you’re as stuck as Cindy, you can—and if you want to live joyfully, you must—learn to do it. 

The Dance of the Seven Veils 

The ability to make yourself understood is a prosaic, practical skill, like swimming or telling time but more fundamental to your emotional health. In his poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” William Butler Yeats called it “the heart-revealing intimacy / that chooses right,” phrasing that emphasizes the importance of opening our feelings to others—but carefully. Most of us reveal ourselves about as gracefully as drunken ducklings until we’ve had a little experience. Like Cindy, we may spend years in inarticulate silence, then blurt out things that make us feel, well, like we’re exposing ourselves. 

The ability to disclose our true selves effectively is a bit like the famous dance of the seven veils, in which the dancer removes one veil at a time, with plenty of dancing in between, creating far more allure than if she just showed up buck naked. Relationships, even completely asexual ones, work the same way (one of my clients used the term falling in like to describe the happy dance of gradual disclosure involved in making friends). Our true selves are hidden behind innumerable veils. Each time we disclose a truth about ourselves—anything from our favorite color to our deepest feelings—we remove a layer. Pay attention the next time you do this. Notice the other person’s reaction. Does it make you feel understood, safe, glad you’ve unveiled a bit? If so, you’ll probably feel like shedding another layer sometime soon. If not, simply stop unveiling. By responding to your instincts, you’ll develop the skill of setting boundaries very precisely. This sets you free to bond with people who really understand you, while remaining cordially detached from those who don’t.

The Art of Self-Disclosure 

Cindy didn’t have any objection to shedding her veils, but she was tangled in knots of inarticulate shyness. She had to learn the art of self-disclosure from the ground up. I use the term art advisedly. I believe even if you’re a bullheaded truckdriver with the emotional range of a stump, developing an ability to disclose will require—at least temporarily—that you become a self-disclosing artist. There are several different ways to awaken the artist in yourself, starting with: 

1. Let your body talk. You could assemble a group of mothers from Zimbabwe, Greenland, and New York, have them describe what it was like to give birth, and rest assured that they would soon be weeping for one another’s pain and laughing at one another’s jokes without any need for interpreters. Lacking a common language, they would speak in Body, the communicative code of gesture, movement, and facial expression shared by all people. If you’re not able to articulate what you feel or believe, you can use this code to let your deep self talk to your conscious, verbal mind. 

Cindy and I started using this process shortly after she rejected my suggestion that she find another coach. I had her describe to me, in as much detail as possible, some of the best and worst experiences of her life. Her words were few and halting, but the more she tried to describe these events, the more Cindy’s body unconsciously began to express profound experiences: hands moving protectively toward her throat or opening into starbursts of excitement; eyes narrowing in anger, then widening in astonishment; shoulders hunching, drooping, squaring off for combat. Every so often I’d ask Cindy to freeze, and we’d talk about what we thought her body was trying to convey.

You can use a similar method alone or (better) with a buddy or counselor or (best) with a group of friends. As you talk about a problem or prospect you’re facing, ask yourself and your observers what your body is expressing. When I do this in seminars, I’m amazed by how much information people get from one another’s physical signals, how sensitively they can interpret nuances of feeling, and how much consensus exists, even in large groups, about what any given person’s body is expressing. If your mind isn’t sure what you’re feeling, you’ll be amazed what you can learn from and say with your body.

2. Fumble for words. Despite the power of body language, we are ineluctably verbal creatures; words usually end up being our preferred means of self-disclosure. Most of us don’t realize that humans have barely begun using language to describe subjective experiences. Until a paltry few centuries ago, most people were far too busy surviving to spend time discussing thoughts and feelings. Many of the words we use to describe psychological phenomena (depression, excitement, humor) were originally used to refer to physical objects or actions (a concave surface, the initiation of motion, bodily fluid). These words were adapted almost fancifully to describe feelings or thoughts. They stuck because no better alternatives existed.

Since using words to capture and convey experience is so new, I think we should all consider ourselves verbal pioneers, pushing back the boundaries of the wild frontier, groping for the words to express things that may never have been expressed before. If you’re intimidated by the thought of saying the Wrong Thing, try deliberately playing fast and loose with words. Most of us censor and edit ourselves when the words that pop into our minds aren’t sensible. If Shakespeare had thought this way, he might have written, “That’s a hurtful thing to say,” instead of, “These words like daggers enter in mine ears.” The second sentence is less factual, but we can feel its meaning viscerally. When it comes to self-disclosure, choose guts over grammar. Say what comes up.

When Cindy began to experiment with voicing her first thoughts, rather than the “right” answer, I immediately began to understand her better. “I feel like my head is full of sand,” she said one day, “with a bird in it.” Then she blushed and apologized, “That makes no sense!” But it made perfect sense to me. I could feel the clogged thickness of Cindy’s brain in my own head, sense the fluttering, winged thing that was buried alive inside it. My inner life had connected with Cindy’s, and her emotional isolation began dissolving.

Try writing down the phrase “I feel like a ———” and then toss out the first ten nouns that come to mind: pizza, orchid, sword, whatever. Now read over what you’ve written and see what rings true. Do you really feel like an orchid? In what way? Be as irrational as you can be. The less you keep the rules, the more your mind will begin to use words as vehicles to convey the sense of your experience, rather than as rigid structures that limit your thoughts and feelings.

3. Use artists’ creations to describe how you feel. Great art, in my opinion, is simply a reflection of the artist’s ability to disclose his or her inner experience very directly and accurately. I know exactly how Edvard Munch was feeling when he painted The Scream, and so do you. A sequence of musical tones assembled by Bach, or a few words placed in a sparse line by e.e. cummings, can convey pure emotion or articulate truths I never knew about myself—I have no idea how this is possible, but it is. A wonderful way to disclose your own heart, then, is to get a little help from artists who communicate feelings similar to your own. I tend to play music for my family and friends (“Here! This is what I’m feeling!”) as a way of disclosing aspects of myself I can’t express. I also plague people with drawings, paintings, books, and movies that have touched me deeply. It always strikes me as miraculous that I—or you or even the noncommunicative Cindy—can borrow the genius of artists who lived in other times and places to build bridges across the voids that separate our hearts from each other. 

*****

As a matter of fact, Cindy the Silent gradually blossomed into one of the most expressive people I’ve ever coached. After learning to interpret her own feelings, speak freely, and ride piggyback on the self-disclosing genius of others, she decided to quit her dead-end job and enroll in film school. She recently sent me a still shot she’d taken of me sitting in my office with my dog, discussing the art of self-disclosure. Beneath the image Cindy had written, “This is a little underexposed, like me. But I’m working on it.” She didn’t need to say more. She knew I’d understand.

0226
2012

Making Time for Nothing

“So,” I said to Michelle during our first session together, “if you were living your ideal life, what would you do today?” It’s a standard opening I use with almost every client, and Michelle gave me the standard response. 

“Nothing.” 

“Really?” I asked. “Nothing at all?” 

“That’s right,” Michelle said, nodding wearily but emphatically. 

“Fantastic!” I said. “Let’s get started!” Then I shut my mouth, settled back into my chair, and surreptitiously looked at my watch. Michelle lasted longer than most. We enjoyed nearly 15 whole seconds of stillness before she became unbearably nervous. 

“What is this?” she asked. “What do you want me to do?” 

“Nothing,” I said. “We’re here to get you what you really want, and you want to do nothing. So…” I shrugged and fell silent again. 

Five seconds. Then Michelle protested in a voice halfway between exasperation and fear, “Well, I didn’t mean right now.” 

This, too, was typical. My observation of people in general, not just my clients, is that we desperately want to take a break from our hectic, overscheduled lives—but not right now. Try it: Put down this magazine and do nothing at all for ten minutes. No planning, no worrying, no activity of any kind. Just ten minutes of empty time. 

Did you do it? 

I thought not. 

If I’m wrong, if you seized those few minutes and thoroughly enjoyed them, congratulations. If you’d rather undergo oral surgery, welcome to the vast majority of the human race. Empty time is a powerful medicine that can make us more joyful and resilient, but it’s strangely hard to swallow. In our culture, the very word empty has negative connotations: loss, need, desolation, hopelessness. Our ambivalence toward doing nothing creates what psychologists call an approach-avoidance response: We yearn for a powerful source of liberation that is right under our noses, and we’ll do almost anything to avoid it. 

Doing Everything, Accomplishing Nothing

The result of this unconscious psychological arm wrestling is that we fritter away our lives. We don’t do the things that would bring our dreams to fruition, but we don’t embrace emptiness, either. Instead, we play a hundred games of computer solitaire or stay on the phone with anyone—friends, family, wrong-number dialers—just to fill the time. 

Twenty-seven centuries ago, the philosopher Lao-tzu pointed out that while we join beams to make houses and mold clay into pots, the spaces inside are where we live and store our treasures. “We work with being,” Lao-tzu said, “but non-being is what we use.” The same is true of our daily schedules: They are most useful when they hold open stretches of time in which the joy of being can occur. When we don’t honor that perspective by spending time with emptiness, we tend to forget it altogether. Our lives become an exhausting sprint with no finish line, no real purpose, and no way to win.

Why We Don’t Empty Our Time

Generally speaking, a packed schedule is seen as the sign of a happenin’ life; empty time is for losers. We don’t say things like “That day won’t work for me, I’ve got a lot of empty time scheduled” or “Listen, Bob, I need to cancel. Some empty time just came up.” Part of the reason is our culture: According to the Western perspective, filling every moment with “value-added” activities is a sign of virtue and significance. 

There’s an even deeper reason we may avoid empty time: For us, it isn’t really empty. It’s full of demons—grief, rage, anxiety, guilt, regret. In fact, when someone like Michelle tells me she feels empty inside, I suspect her insides are actually overstuffed with unprocessed psychological pain. Those of us who feel most victimized by busy schedules are probably keeping our time full to distract ourselves from the demons. We have more immediate, pressing concerns, such as folding our towels in perfect thirds or reading every word in every day’s newspaper. That’s what any responsible person would do, right? 

Not in my book. Personal experience tells me that never emptying our time is like never emptying our garbage cans, our bladders, or our digestive tracts. Do those images disgust you? Good. I want them to. The archetype of the virtuously overbusy person is so ingrained in our societal mind-set that it takes strong language to knock it loose. 

Signs Of Empty-Time Deficiency Syndrome

Vile though the image is, I truly believe that constipation is the most accurate metaphor for perpetual overscheduling. When part of me starts lamenting about how stressed I am by my overflowing agenda, another part of me knows that I’m full of…

So anyway, the more we fill our time with tasks that aren’t real requirements of our best lives, the more blocked and uncomfortable we feel. If you have three or more of the following symptoms, you probably need to, um, flush: 

  1. Irritability, feeling “frayed”
  2. Boredom (oddly enough)
  3. Feeling disconnected even when in the company of others
  4. Being unable to unwind at night or on vacation
  5. A sense of not being, having, or doing enough

Clients who have these symptoms always tell me they “need to do something about it.” The truth is, they need to do nothing about it. To heal, they need to empty some time, then feel whatever arises. As these feelings are consciously experienced (a process that allows them to teach us necessary lessons), they go away. 

One caveat: Some emotions can’t be off-loaded without being told to at least one compassionate witness. Counseling of any sort is really just hiring someone to hold a stretch of empty time for a client, during which she can experience the pain she’s carrying and feel understood. If you can’t handle empty time, find someone—a friend, relative, professional—who can hear about your pain. Then feel it, express it, and watch it disappear. It will. No matter how frightening your demons may seem, their goal is never to hurt you. They only, always, want to leave. 

How To Get Empty Time

Key words: prioritizing, protecting, and promise keeping. 

Prioritizing 

Try this exercise: First contemplate the to-do list you’re carrying in your head or your planner this very day. Now imagine that you’re reading the list many years from now, moments before your own (peaceful) death. Which of the items on the list will you be glad you did? Which will mean nothing? 

If you’re not sure, recall a few incidents in your life when you felt loved and loving: the glance that told you a friendship was becoming something deeper or a time of great grief or joy when you sensed something infinitely powerful and benevolent at work in the universe. Compare those memories with your to-do list. If nothing on today’s schedule offers the soulful nourishment you recall, write in some empty time. Add just a few minutes of nothing to your daily schedule, and empty time will begin to work its magic. It will reconnect you with your core self, the source of pure joy you felt in your sweetest memories. 

You’ll have to take my word for this until you begin to feel it, but soon the restorative power of empty time will become self-evident. You’ll make it a high priority for the same reason you make breathing a high priority: It keeps you alive. The little dribs and drabs of sustenance you get during your “frittering” activities are nothing compared to the crisp, clean oxygen of really empty time. I give my daily minutes of empty time an even higher priority than sleep, because I know I need them more. I can feel this. You will, too.

Protecting 

In our obsessively busy society, you may be hard-pressed to convince family and acquaintances you need empty time. My advice is, don’t bother. Don’t explain to the refrigerator repairman that he can’t come at ten because you’ll be doing absolutely nothing. Just excuse yourself, firmly, unapologetically, with minimum information. Say, “I’m sorry, I have an appointment at that time” or “Nope, I’m booked” or “I need 15 minutes alone.” Even when my kids were toddlers, even with needy clients, even when I’m pushing a deadline, I’ve gotten excellent results with these simple, straightforward statements. Memorize them (or write your own versions), and practice saying them out loud. They’ll roll off your tongue more easily in real-life situations. 

Promise Keeping 

Once you’ve given empty time its rightful priority and practiced protecting your boundaries, make a daily, ten-minute appointment with empty time. Write it down. Give your core self this brief period of attention, and it will connect you with your real thoughts and feelings, your passion and purpose, the life you are supposed to live—but only if you keep your promise! Finding yourself doesn’t require that you fly to Tibet, join a convent, or build a meditation room. Just consistently keep a minimal commitment to empty time. 

Of course, if you want the help and have the money, you may want to hire an adviser: a yoga teacher, a headshrinker, or a coach (comme moi). Michelle did. Despite our prickly first session, she kept returning, slowly learning to tolerate empty time in my office and at home. One day in the middle of a session, she fell silent. I checked my watch. Ten seconds…20…30. Finally, I gave her a nudge. 

“We still have a few minutes,” I said. “Is there anything you want to do? Anything you want to talk about?” 

Michelle sat quietly for a beat, then gave me a peaceful smile and an answer that let me know our work was finished. 

“I suppose,” she said. “But not now.” 


Got a Minute?

When we’re not prepared to use empty time, finding ourselves in the midst of it — waiting at the dentist’s office, snowed in my a blizzard, stranded by a canceled flight — is frustrating and boring. Preparing to use these experiences wisely can make them delightful, like finding a room littered with paper, then realizing the scraps are thousand-dollar bills. Here are some ideas that can turn enexpected free time into treasure rather than trash.

If you have one minute…

Go limp. Settle into the most comfortable position possible. Inhale deeply, hopd your breath a second or two, then relax your body — especially the muscles in your face — as you exhale. Become aware of any physical sensation you’re feeling. Your body will repay the gift of oxygen and relaxation by becoming calmer and more energetic.

If you have five minutes…

Forget everything. Jot down a quick to-do list, and let it be your “task memory” so you can let your mind roam free, like a toddler exploring a room. Patiently and non-judgementally, watch where you mind goes, what it says. Then go back to your to-do list. You’ll find that you feel as if you’ve had a brief but refreshing vacation.

If you have an hour…

Find a reason to laugh. Read a funny book; call your silliest friend. If you’re too stressed or sad to laugh, let yourself cry. Both behaviors release physical and emotional tension, connecting your mind, body, and circumstances. Laughter, in particular, has been shown to improve immune function, strengthen relationships, and brighten your mood in almost any situation.

If you have a free afternoon…

Disappear. Don’t call on the people you “should” visit. Don’t do the cleaning project that would make you the perfect homemaker. There will be time later for doing; this afternoon is for being. Roam your favorite places: shops, libraries, parks, country roads. Drink in all the beauty you find. Tell no one.

If you have a whole day…

Live it on purpose. Start by reminding yourself what you want your life to mean. Take one small step in the service of your purpose. Then give yourself a gift (a wind chime, a lipstick, a dance to your favorite song). This will remind you that receiving and giving are inseparable and put you in the zone where you simultaneously forget your ego and remember who you really are.

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