On Being Alone with Your Thoughts

On my 28th birthday, my friends threw me a surprise party, pooled their money, and gifted me with two nights stay in a local bed and breakfast. It was so generous of them to do. A “personal retreat,’ they said. I remember pretending that I was thrilled, but when the time came to actually stay at the inn, I was miserable.  It was two nights in a beautiful, romantic bed and breakfast…completely alone.

I’m reminded of this today, 15 years and some months later, because I’m currently writing from a hotel room. I’m taking a little mommy vacation – “time off for good behavior,” my husband calls it – spending 24 hours alone, not having to answer 5,334 questions per day or help anyone in the bathroom or fix breakfast or mediate an argument or referee a wrestling match. It’s a true personal retreat, and it is so desperately needed and amazingly wonderful.

So, what changed? Why is the same situation that was almost torturous then so blissful now?

Obviously, part of it has to do with the demands of motherhood that go far beyond the scope of what my full-time job teaching Biology, Physics, and French, and living with a roommate did many years ago. Sure, I answered questions all day at work, spent a lot of time on my feet, needed to shift gears (and languages) constantly, rarely fit in a bathroom break, and then brought home work in the form of papers to grade, lessons to plan, and tests to write. But the intensity of that was nothing compared to being so very needed while homeschooling my own children. Having a break from my current level of being “on” – round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week, even-more-intense-on-holidays “on” – is much needed and something that I had every weekend while I was single and working.

But there was another part to it, too. This is the part that I think is even more profoundly different, and it has to do with being alone with my thoughts.

Back then, I played a lot of roles. I was the responsible one with my family, the funny one with my friends, the worker bee at work. I was capable. I was independent. I had a good work ethic. I tried not to need anything from anyone. I was acceptable to everyone – and to myself – as long as I played these roles. But there was a jumble of thoughts and feelings that lived inside my being that I believed were unacceptable. Feelings of being lonely even in a crowd of people, of longing to fit in, of being broken, of being different from everyone else, of being an imposter, of wondering if anyone “saw” me. Feelings of being self-critical and perfectionistic, beating myself up for minor mistakes. Feelings of abandonment and heartbreak the source of which I didn’t understand. I didn’t feel known by anyone, least of all myself. Being alone without distractions just brought these thoughts and feelings bubbling to the surface.

Since then, I have come to understand that I am different, but not in a broken way (though for many reasons I still feel this way often).  I am more sensitive than most people. More intuitive. I have a rainforest mind and it often leaves me feeling jumbled up inside. As I have learned these things, it has made me more understanding and compassionate toward myself. I’ve been grateful to find out that I am not the only one who feels these things, because it can certainly seem that way sometimes. It has also given me an appreciation for the few people who do know me and understand me and love me in spite of – or even because of – my unique ways of interacting with the world.

And as I accept these things about myself, I have become more comfortable being alone with my thoughts. I’m learning the source of some of my more self-critical feelings and as I process them, I’m able to thank them for their role of keeping me safe for a time, and dismiss them now as they are no longer needed.  Mistakes are allowed. I am human. These things have been life-changing for me. The thing is, now that I’m able and wanting to think through some of these things, I find that I rarely have the time to do it. That’s what makes this night away so blissful.

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photo courtesy of Watje11

As I write these things from the quiet of my hotel room, on my new laptop (the last one went out with a dramatic display of sparks and smoke), I realize that it has been twelve weeks since the beginning of the new year. That makes twelve weeks since I last used social media. Twelve weeks in which I had to communicate face-to-face with trusted friends, or to write in my journal, or to pray, or to post here on this blog (though not for the last month or so due to aforementioned sparks and smoke), in order to process my thoughts and feelings. After a few weeks of struggling with the lack of immediacy to the feedback I’d receive, I find that I’m better for it. Being alone with my thoughts has provided me the chance to work on validating myself.  God has impressed on me that he has created me this way for a reason and given me sensitivity and intuition for a reason, and he has reminded me that it’s okay to use it.

I’m not broken. I’m complex and different, but not broken.

Learning these things about myself has not come easily. It started with the death of my twins, almost seven years ago now, when that earthquake of trauma shook me to my core, and every part of me lay in pieces on the ground. It’s come through the rebuilding, as I’ve chosen which pieces to put back into place, where to place them, and which pieces to leave where they lay since they were never really good for me, anyway. It’s come through lots of tears and suffering. Lots of facing up to reality and the unhealthy ways I’ve used to cope with it. It’s come with a reckoning – a desperate desire to get to the core of my real Self, and to be authentically that person, without the pretense I’ve used to earn acceptance in the past. I’m sure that it will be a life-long process, this search for authenticity, and that I will spiral again back to the tears as I struggle with it.

What better time to come away and reflect on this, and to begin to understand that I am completely known and loved by the One who made me this way than at the start of Holy Week. As I head home today to begin preparations for the week with my family, I will do so refreshed and grateful. Grateful for a Father who rejoices over me, a Brother who laid down his life for me, a husband who loves me, children who need me, friends who encourage me – just as I am.

Wishing you all a beautiful, reflective Holy Week and a joyous Easter.

 

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