The Space Between

Thursday night, returning home from my last taekwondo sparring class, I sank deeper into the dark mood that has been shadowing me the last couple of weeks. I’ve thought unhappily about how I tied so much of my sense of self to job titles, to atypical pursuits, to this idea that somehow I am only valuable for what I do and not who I am.

It’s been nearly 15 years since I’ve renegotiated a life for myself, making decisive changes and shifts towards a larger goal. I moved states, met and married my husband, had a child, stayed in a job, grew roots in a community. Standing still was a foreign idea to me, but somewhere in my mind, I could feel a larger plan at work.

I have a similar feeling now, understanding that I am making deliberate choices and changes toward a broader goal. It’s not a pretty process and I’ve felt dismayed at my self-absorption, grim determination, joyless introspection. Everything is churning, restless, irritable. It is this discomfort, this sense of me without merit, that I have avoided through the years.

Drinking, excessive eating, unneeded shopping, smoking, gambling, pointless relationships, working nonstop – I churned through one compulsive behavior after another until I had nowhere to run. I do none of those things now, thinking smugly that I had miraculously saved myself from an unhappy fate. I became an upstanding citizen, a responsible wife and parent, a generous volunteer, a loyal employee. I’ve been doing everything “right”. Haven’t I?

Yesterday, I searched the internet, looking at all the martial arts schools in my area. I flipped restlessly through the community ed brochure, seeing 50 different new things I’d like to try. I wrote up an advertisement to start a writer’s group, since the last group I applied to was unresponsive. I thought of volunteering for the school’s Valentine parties, repainting 1 room or 10 in the house. I thought about going for personal trainer certification, going back to school for an MFA, and on and on and on.

It struck me, as my mind squirmed and twisted, that this has been the addiction of choice over the last five years. I am not me if I am not committed, overbooked, obligated, in motion, helpful, useful – desperately busy. I am nothing if I am not needed, not relied on, praised and lauded. I am still a small child in search of approval and fighting the feeling of not being good enough. It’s a very damning realization, at 46, to see the facades pushed aside and to see her, still avoiding the space between, those primal feelings at the core of it all.canstockphoto11716486

Many of us grew up in less than happy homes. Mine is nearly a stereotype of domestic violence, alcoholism and poverty. I am not one of the kids who got hit and “turned out okay”, as comments on corporal punishment articles doth protest. I became an insecure, fearful liar – anything to avoid getting punished or criticized. As an adult, I rebelled by becoming rigidly dedicated to being truthful and good. Good is a subjective term. Piousness, in and of itself, is not always good. Selflessness is not always about generosity.

I feel like a jackass for being this far down the road of life and finally working up the courage to deal with scars. Out of the messy distractions, I was lucky. I married a good person who supports whatever I decide to do. I have a healthy, happy child. I have a warm, safe home. I have enough space to make choices. I’m in a safe place to unravel. And it scares the hell out of me. Who will I be when I let go?

So excuse the whiny depression, the restless irritability, the self-induced misery. It’s getting ugly in my head, but I know it’s time. There’s a better plan. I just have to sit long enough, in this uncomfortable space between, to figure it out.

41 thoughts on “The Space Between

  1. Silence and stillness is so hard with the pressure to move/act squeezing in. In you, it turns to overbooking. In me, fear. But, at this age (I’m a year younger), we are allowed to get better. I actually don’t fear who I could become so much as a lack of knowledge about the future. That almost sounds like the same thing, I guess.


    1. I like that “we are allowed to get better”. Sometimes martyrdom feels more comfortable. Until it doesn’t. I think I’ve reached the stage that I’m more curious than fearful. I mean, I’ve run through so many different options and many of them weren’t good. Sitting still seems like the thing to do right now.


  2. Ah, Michelle. Know that you are a fully fledged homo sapiens. Most people seek approval from others all their lives. Most people will lie – at least, on little things – to avoid punishment or disapproval or embarrassment. Those things are normal.

    For the rest of it – you cannot change the past; it’s woven into you as firmly as your DNA, and it is formative. You can “deal with the scars” and come to some kind of terms with your baggage, but the baggage will always be there. I have my own baggage and don’t find it possible to “let go.” It can be buried and forgotten for long periods in that box in the darkest corner of my brain, but it’s never really gone. How can it be? It happened. It can’t un-happen. Once in a while, that box gets opened up and the contents mulled over, then stuffed back inside and re-buried.

    But as you have already found – and done – you can change your priorities, your focus, your behavior, your attitudes. I’m not so sure that results in a changed identity, though. A happier, more secure you is still you.

    So who will you be when you “let go” or at least finish mulling over that stuff from the box in the back of your brain, and re-bury it? Still you. Hopefully just a more serene you.

    Life is short. Enjoy it!


  3. Hi Michelle. I appreciate your honest, searching, generous vulnerability in this post. I feel you. I’ve been using yoga in a similar way to your martial arts. It’s better than nothing, but wherever I go, there I am.
    Have you ever looked into the Enneagram as a healing/growth/investigation/understanding tool? It has helped me understand myself and people I love lot better. You might find it interesting. (I’m not trying to sell you anything, btw:))


    1. Sometimes I wonder that I write a little too much about the vulnerability. I was hesitant about this post since it’s more immediate to me.

      I am returning to doing yoga more frequently, although I need to work on that discursive mind of mine. I find most ideas about self-exploration interesting, so thanks for the link!


  4. Staying still can feel so daunting. I read a great quote recently, “For most people 20 minutes of meditation a day will suffice. For those who feel they do not need any, 60 minutes.” You and I have much in common, for me taking up mediation a couple of years ago has been a huge blessing in my journey of healing. Enjoy the ride, who knows all of the exciting places it will take you.


    1. I think I’ve read a similar quote about meditation. I’m not very good at it, but I am learning to make it a part of my daily life. Practice, practice! Despite feeling rather unsettled of late, I know being in the muck serves a purpose and that it will not last forever. I look forward to new possibilities and perspectives.


  5. There is this moment in middle-age when everything that has gone before comes crashing in. The past demands attention, the present is uncomfortable, the future – scary to say the least. It is but another stage to negotiate, another turning of the wheel. We break apart to be rebuilt into something new. The only thing, at this stage, not allowed, is to run from the demand to open one’s self to change. Best of luck. It’s terrifying and exciting, too.


  6. Hopefully, the longer you spend in that still place, the less uncomfortable it will be.
    And I hope you also bring thoughts of your husband and child to that place. It sounds like you’ve built a great life for yourself, and nothing can take away that accomplishment.


    1. I’m uncomfortable sitting still and I actually think the opposite will occur – that I will calm my thoughts to the point that I’m ready to move on out of choice and less as a desperate attempt to stop discomfort. I guess I’ll find out. It’s odd to feel so out of sorts yet still recognize and appreciate how fortunate I am. We are all walking dichotomies, though, aren’t we?


  7. The older I get, the less convinced I am of the numbers of people who have it all together at any age. I was told once that we all walk with a limp and that resonates. Continuing the process of recognizing the “limps” seems like a productive start. However, if you’re like me, you’re much more interested in moving along from that point.


    1. I am definitely interested in moving forward and not having those proverbial limps define my choices or who I am as a person. I think that’s what I’m trying to convey – I want to stop making automatic choices as a response to the limp. They’re not getting me where I want to go, so I’m trying to put on the brakes, slow down harried thinking and proceed from there.


  8. I’d like to propose that you neither married a good man nor raised a happy, well-adjusted child by strokes of good luck. Finding money on the ground is good luck, making good decisions and doing the right things to properly raise a child are not. Give yourself some credit.
    As for the space between the phases of our lives, I think we’re nearly always in them. Arrival at any one stage or goal is seldom a clear defined moment, and even when it is, it’s is just that; a moment. Before which and after which we are once again “between”.
    Great post as always – sorry if I got too philosophical on you.


    1. No need to apologize – I’ve been waxing philosophical all week. So glad that there’s been snow to shovel and work to be done – I’d be insufferable! I think of luck in terms of the vicissitudes of life – health, death, accidents, addictions. While I appreciate the good decisions I’ve made, I recognize that life changes on a dime, no matter how many good choices a person makes, so I was awkwardly expressing gratitude for being okay right now.
      This was definitely not one of my more thoughtful posts, since I was stuck – writing out the mess in my head seemed to be the only way to get going again.


  9. It’s amazing how hard some of us can be on ourselves. All we have to do is let go. But that is even harder. Sounds like you’re on a good road. One of my favorite sayings is from the movie, “What about Bob”. “Baby steps.”


    1. Indeed – baby steps are a greater challenge for those of us who are constantly striving, leaping and bounding, afraid of what may happen when we don’t. But today, life is slow, the sun is pouring through the window and I’ve stuffed the family with pancakes – it seems a little easier. Have a good Sunday, Don!


  10. I just learned about a concept called “liminality” yesterday — interesting notion if you aren’t familiar with it (or even if you are, obviously). Sounds like that’s where you are.


  11. I tend to think that all of life is transitional—every moment holding very little that’s static and much that is in motion, whether I am in motion with or against ‘it’ or standing still myself. What changes the most slowly is my inner self; whether because that’s natural or because I’m such a fearful and slow person may be irrelevant I suppose. But what it means for me in practice is that those things that frustrate or worry me about my ways of thinking and being don’t change much. I hold on to what bugs me and sometimes even nurse it, rather than taking the terrifying step of making radical inner change, no matter how much I tell myself, and even believe, that I want it.

    I have had an easy life. There’s no particular reason or excuse for my being a scaredy-cat, having been clinically depressed and anxious, or being stuck in any of the stupid phobias I let control me and parts of my existence. But they all exist and, much as I dread and hate them, I also dread and hate the unknown and hard effort of any kind, so I don’t change much but continue to fall back on the devil-I-know. You, on the other hand, seem to have avoided confrontation with some of those things that frustrate you most by the exact opposite means, that of keeping your body and mind too busy to wallow in or change them. Guess I can’t say either approach seems to solve all problems, can I!

    But the very fact that you’re clearly aware of your situation tells me that you *will* find ways to take charge of it in your own way, in your own good time, whether it’s through quiet independent meditation and study, through (as has been helpful for me) the assisted kind of meditation and study that comes in conversation with a good therapist and/or medication, some entirely different form of transformational practices, or some combination of the aforementioned. You seem to me to recognize the value of periodic reassessment and evaluation, and as painful as the process may be, I picture you coming *through* it rather than being mired in it for very long.

    Whatever comes, may it bring peace.


    1. Thanks, Kathryn. Learning to recognize and master whatever our demons may be (and one does not need to have adverse circumstances for them to arise) is a long and winding road. I’ve been willing to use whatever tools are at my disposal to work through issues, accept my own fallibility, breathe through tension and fear.
      This particular issue of being busy and attempting to always be good (a relative term) in order to feel good enough, has been waiting in the wings for its own moment, front and center. I recognize that moment is here and while it’s unknown territory, I do believe settling in with it will, in the end, land me in a happier, more creative place.

      As Lila pointed out earlier, this sense will likely always be with me, but it will be much diminished and I’ll have better skills to cope with it.


  12. Lila’s thoughtful comment seemed right on to me. I also liked the images of the limp, and rowing with one oar.

    I doubt that I have anything encouraging to add. I’m 65, not 46, and Michelle, I feel about the same way you do. I’ve just retired. For the first time, I’m really free, and I don’t know what to do with the freedom.

    I doubt that it’s possible to leave our scars and memories behind. Everything is permanent, just my opinion. I think we become more definitely who we are as we get older, i.e. our limps are not likely to go away as we age, but to become more pronounced. I’m fairly sure that as our short-term memory falters (just wait), our long-ago memories come back stronger than ever.

    My great aunt, when she was very old, said: “It’s not easy, you know.”

    My personal opinion is that the best course is to surrender to whatever is real and true, and to love ourselves and those close to us unconditionally. Easy to say, but not automatic to do.

    For me, at least, I know that it would help to have a goal, a life’s work, and I’m casting about for that. Some things we cannot force. If an appropriate goal does not present itself, I’ll accept that too.


    1. I’m looking forward to seeing what arises, but also to maybe developing better mental habits. So much of what we do is automatic and maybe that’s really my point here. I don’t want to keep moving along, busying myself up and making decisions or choices out of habit. Maybe scars stay – do we always have to live in reaction to them and do they have to define who we are? I don’t believe that. If I did, I would settle into a gray hopelessness. I have to believe in the potential to change and to be something more than a survivor of life.
      I have found that if I think of just allowing myself to be creative, to not being so “squared away”, I feel a greater sense of enthusiasm.


      1. I agree, the scars remain, but they don’t define who we are. What happened in the past is past. It’s over. We remember it because the brain is like a recording on vinyl. Not perfect fidelity, but nearly indestructible. (I have not expertise. Just my thoughts.)

        Yes, change is possible. Change is necessary. That’s the central thought of Christianity, as I understand it. The concept is valid, whether you look at in a religious context or a secular context.

        Repent. Again I say repent.

        Your sins are forgiven.

        Go and sin no more.


  13. There is nothing wrong with you, Michelle. Most people avoid what you call ‘the space between’ or being confronted with the naked self. It feels very uncomfortable, but we all have to do it sooner or later in order to figure out who we are and so that we may grow. We can do it gradually and gently and be as kind to ourselves in the process as we would be to others who are hurting.


      1. Winter in your region almost forces you into that’ space’. It can be a good thing. But it sure feels good when it’s over. I am always so glad when winter is over, whereby in our climate winter does not even compare to yours. Soft candlelight, warmth, hot tea, perhaps some powerful poems, plenty of good reading, and some serious self-pampering seem to be in order. 🙂


Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.