The Fine Art of Being Aware
I’m very curious about strangers. I’m a noticer. I don’t know why this is—it’s a gift, I guess—but this superpower allows me to pick up on details about other people’s lives that seem to escape the awareness of others. My giftedness is highlighted in a conversation I had with my husband when we lived in Jersey City. “It’s so nice that our neighbors host their family for a BBQ almost every Sunday! I just can’t figure out if it’s her parents or his. They’re actually there a lot helping with the kids after school.” My husband stared at me blankly. “What neighbors?” As I tried to explain that I was talking about the ones who drove the Jaguar and sat on their patio every Sunday drinking red wine with his (or her?) parents, it became clear that he not only had missed every single detail that was obvious to me, but he also thought I was nuts for noticing. What could have been a lovely conversation about our neighbors ended up with me being accused of having too much time on my hands and being a nosey neighbor. Sheesh! Clearly, not everyone appreciated my giftedness as a noticer.
Sadly, I never thought to apply my “noticing” talents to myself or my relationships. For years, I ran through life fueled by a mixture of fear, anxiety, habit, and obligation. It never occurred to me to notice that I had trouble sleeping and sitting still (I couldn’t tell you if our couch was comfy or not) and that I had an unhealthy fear of making a mistake. The question, “Would you like some feedback on that?” could bring me to tears before another word was even spoken. (Oh yes, it was that bad.) It was only as I started to unpack the ways that childhood trauma has impacted my life that I began to notice what was going on inside my own heart and mind. Strange, I know. Like most of us, the way I rolled defined my normal. As I’ve become more attuned to noticing my inner life, I’ve been shocked to discover how disconnected I was. I recently told Jeff: “I think I suffered from anxiety for years and didn’t know it!” He looked at me like I had two heads and teased me, “Ya think?” Oh my. I guess Jeff is a noticer, after all.
It’s actually pretty normal for most people to ignore the inner rumblings of the thoughts, emotions, and habits that constantly tick beneath their surface appearance. I observe this happening all the time with the clients I work with. Recently, a client whom I’ll call Dan told me that he overate at dinner the previous week. As I helped him understand what was happening inside him, he shared that he and his friend ordered a shared appetizer. When it came, he immediately noticed that there were five pieces of sushi and that THAT was going to be a problem. (Someone would only get two pieces of sushi while the other would get three.) In retrospect, Dan admitted, “I started to get worried that I wouldn’t get my fair share, so I began to eat faster. Suddenly, my friend turned into a competitor that had to be defeated. I knew it was crazy to feel that way, but that didn’t stop me from being driven to win the sushi race. Argh! The worst part is that I didn’t even enjoy what I was eating.” Dan then launched into a familiar pattern of feeling guilt and shame because he finished dinner feeling over-full and mentally exhausted. As Dan and I unpacked what was beneath the surface, he realized that growing up in a home where money was always tight and his single mom struggled to make ends meet caused him to battle a constant fear of not having enough. As we processed the fear that his 5-year-old self was still holding onto, he suddenly was filled with compassion for that little boy. “Poor little guy!” he blurted. “No wonder he feels compelled to stuff himself!” Dan learned an important lesson that day about the importance of curiosity and the power of kindness. In reality, most of us have far more going on beneath the surface than we realize.
The art of learning how to notice what’s going on inside of ourselves is no easy task. (I only wish I was half as good at it as I am at noticing others!) However, I have learned a few things along the way that you might find helpful.
Start your day by doing an internal check of your emotions. Be curious about what comes up. (Just this morning, I noticed I was feeling mildly guilty because I had not made much headway on this post. I had to remind myself that I’m not in trouble and that God was on my side to help me get it done. The guilt lifted.)
Do an internal check before you start eating. Are you physically hungry? Are you feeling emotionally triggered? Do you feel stressed? Just notice. Don’t judge it. (For example, if you notice that you are standing in front of the frig and aren’t physically hungry, say something like, “Oh, it’s interesting that I’m looking for food, yet I’m not even hungry. I wonder what else is going on with me?”
Do an internal check an hour before bed. How are you feeling inside? Try to name your emotions. Are you feeling sad? Angry? Happy? Disappointed? Guilty? You’ve got to name the emotion before you can tame it.
I wonder how the world would change if we focused more of our attention on our own thoughts and feelings than what we imagine is going on inside others. Please leave your comments below!