Not to worry, though: I have a plan.
Recently I had an experience with The Work that highlighted to me a lesser-known trick to successful inquiry. And I’m hoping it’ll be the key to going deeper.
It happened late one evening when the kids were at the pool with David and I had a few rare hours to myself. I was sitting on the couch (okay, a mattress on the floor that I call a couch, because it is a couch, even though everyone else in my family insists that it’s a bed, which it isn’t). The lights were low. The TV was off. There wasn’t even sound coming from the heating vents. If I were being picky, I’d say that the refrigerator’s low hum broke the silence, but I’m not being picky.
It was silent.
And so, I did what any lover of quiet and her own company does.
I promptly logged onto Facebook.
There, several good articles. A few unusually good. I made some comments, reposted a few highlights. Then, amid the clutter, it reached out to meet me: a still shot of Rachel and Monica of Friends sitting on the Central Perk couch, deep in conversation.
Yes, a GIF. It was a GIF that got me.
Okay, so I probably hadn’t exercised as much as usual that week. Maybe I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, and was primed for a rough night. But the emotions that came over me as I looked–no, stared–at that simple photo were unexpectedly painful–pungent, even.
Oh, I thought. Here’s a moment for The Work.
I didn’t click away. I keep looking at the picture, thinking about what it meant to me. I remembered all those Friends reruns I watched alone in my college apartment during a time when my relationship roster should’ve been the fullest, but wasn’t. It was a decade of my life when I actually had the time to sit on couches in coffee shops, to do “study dates,” to go to parties on the weekend and to hang out–well, pretty much whenever. But because I was too shy and awkward and didn’t live in the dorms, I didn’t. And apparently, part of me still regrets that.
I turned off my phone and lay back (because I can do that on my couch). I noticed the mix of emotions, meditated on it a while. Then I realized what I was feeling.
It was grief.
Friendship is a right, my thoughts were telling me. Especially friendship in college. It’s one of the most essential human experiences, and I was largely left out of it.
And I’ll never, ever get those years back.
I’m forty. Almost. It’s been a lot of years since college. I have my best friend, who’s also my husband, three kids and a supportive immediate family. I’ve taken to texting my dad and my sister almost daily, and writing letters (actual letters!) to my brother and mom. I have a whole list of family friends and host at least one dinner at our house each month, and I see a mom friend at least once a week. I have two good friends from my neighborhood–very sweet women–and several other close mom friends I don’t see as often.
So what the hell is my problem?
But that isn’t the question, I realized even as I had that thought. The Work isn’t about talking myself out of anything. The Work is about simply bringing your false beliefs to light, and seeing if they hold up to scrutiny or fall apart.
The Work is about being curious.
Which is why that night, I switched things up a bit. Rather than finding a stressful thought or two, then jumping into the four questions right away, I spent a great deal more time trying to pinpoint the exact belief I was suffering with. And I’m glad I did, and I’ll do it this way in the future, too; it felt a lot more productive.
Here is part of what I wrote while sitting on the couch . . . bed . . . couch that evening, using a process I later called “emotional excavation” (basically just free-writing all my negative beliefs and thoughts on the topic at hand).
Emotional Excavation of the Thought “I Should Have Had More Friends When I Was in College”:
- I should have had more friends when I was in college.
- Friendship is a right, and that right was taken away from me.
- I’ll never get my college years back. I’ll never have the fond memories I could have had.
- I should have tried harder to make friends, joined more clubs.
- I should have more close girlfriends now.
- I wish I had a best friend other than my husband.
- I don’t have enough friends.
- People don’t like me. They just pretend to.
- People think I’m weird.
- People think I’m judgmental.
- People think I’m a show-off. Full of myself.
- People think I’m a bad listener.
- People think I talk too loud.
- People think I don’t like them, care about them.
- People don’t like my conversational style.
- People are uncomfortable with me because I’m uncomfortable with them.
- I have nothing to offer other people.
- People hate hearing my advice.
- People feel defensive whenever I give them advice.
- People misunderstand my intentions whenever I give them advice.
- I need people to listen to me.
- I need people to like me.
After I found all of these thoughts (and a few others) within myself, I chose the two that most resonated with me–tugged at a heart string, so to speak. Then I did The Work on those thoughts rather than the first thoughts I had, the ones specifically about college.
And it worked. There was a lightness that followed this experience. The grief didn’t go away completely, but I was able to detach from it somewhat. The following day I found myself feeling more grateful than usual for my husband and for the other wonderful people in my life. And over the past several months, I’ve actually made three new friends.
The moral of the story: there’s more in there, people. More negativity, more false beliefs, more . . . dirt. If I have deep sadness or deep anxiety or deep anger about something, anything–well, I have to just keep digging. I can’t just do the work on a single thought and call it good. I have to take the time listen to the feeling. Ask it questions.
I have to excavate.