Awash with Wonder


OpinionShannon ButlerComment

I'm currently living with my best friend, Emma, in Brighton, and if there's one word I'd use to describe her, it's loyal. Make a passing comment with a slightly negative tone about something she cares about -- whether it's a place, person, or TV show -- and she'll immediately defend it as if you're insulting something integral to her being. I find this curious and a little baffling because I don't have that kind of attachment to anything. 

It's pretty obvious that I don't have any allegiance to a country, as I've lived in so many of them (this is making the question "Where are you from?" more stressful than it should be right now). Because of all that moving, there's only a handful of people that I deeply love and most of them are family. I don't have a favorite author, director, or band; I'm not part of any fan sub cultures. There are things I like, sure, but there are not many things that I love -- at least not enough that I derive some understanding of myself from them. 

The buddhists may encourage this kind of non-attachment, but I'm finding it...boring. The things we identify with and are loyal to give us a sense of belonging, and they help us connect with other likeminded people. And that's what it's all about, really: connecting with other people. 

Have you ever noticed that the way you feel about other people is defined almost entirely by how you feel about yourself?

A couple of years ago, I was in a really good place. I'd been laid off from my job and broken up with my boyfriend -- I know, I know, it doesn't sound like I was in a good place, but I was! I experienced a rebirth in that period where I decided to become someone. I immediately re-started my yoga practice, which I'd abandoned after starting full time work, and adopted an Ayurvedic approach to eating. I read a lot of nonfiction that gave me new, hopeful perspectives of the world. I started freelancing and discovered how fun it was to work for myself, with no limitations on my time or location. I decided to move to California. I booked a ticket to meet a German stranger in New York just for the sake of adventure. I was happy. 

During that time, I really liked most of the people I met. I was so open to them and I expected the best from them. In particular, I met one person who I thought was funny and open and warm. Flash to a year later, where I was basically the opposite of all the things I just described, and I ran into this person again. I HATED them. They weren't funny; they were trying too hard. They weren't open; they were invading my personal space. The thing was, that person was exactly the same; I was the one who changed...and obviously I hadn't changed for the better. 

Now that I'm in Brighton and definitely happier but not quite at my most fulfilled, I've found that my default in meeting new people is not expecting them to be great. Instead, I'm more judgmental, convinced that because of some surface differences, we won't have anything in common. Yuck, right? 

I know on an intellectual level that this attitude is a reflection of me and how I feel about myself rather than anyone I meet. Because I am not actively pursuing things that make me feel like a more realized person and like someone who has lots to offer, I don't expect much from other people. Still, knowing things on an intellectual level does exactly zero to change my behavior. 

I don't know if I'll ever understand loyalty to places; loyalty to a country because you happen to be born there often means that you overlook the problems and don't try to enact any change. Actually, loyalty to just about anything can cause that. But loyalty to people? Well, that seems like the kind of loyalty I'd like to possess....but that means first meeting people I'd like to commit to...which means become the kind of person who I'd like to meet. 

It's always just journey of becoming, isn't it? Right now, I'm trying to establish some sense of purpose in my life. Not capital P Purpose that online entrepreneurs would convince you to quit your job to pursue, but a small, personal purpose that makes my days feel worth it. I have a sneaking suspicion that that purpose will lie in becoming loyal to some things and ultimately becoming loyal to some people. Fingers crossed Brighton is the place where I'm going to learn how to do that.   

Would you describe yourself as loyal? What are you loyal to? 

Steps In The Right Direction

PersonalShannon ButlerComment

A funny thing happens when I tell people that I've moved to England. Their first question is, "Did Joerg move too?" and when I respond with no, there's a pause before they ask a question they don't want to finish, "Oh, so you and him....?" 

I'm quick to say, "No, no, no we're fine! I was just a mess and I needed to figure my life out!" but it is weird to go from living with your significant other to no longer living with them. It seems like a regression. Generally, once you move in, the only thing that's going to separate you is a break up. You've made the decision to share lives now, and if one of you has to move for any reason, the other one tends to follow. It's even weirder to just move to another country with no compelling reason to go -- no job, no house, no anything -- other than the feeling that you simply must. 

One of the sacrifices we make when we enter into a relationship is that we no longer get to chase after every feeling or whim. We have to consider how our choices affect the other person and our shared life. But sometimes, the decision to leave is the best one. 

Germany was incredibly difficult for me. I spent a lot of my time there trying to force myself to be grateful for the good things -- and there were so many of them! But when you have to bully yourself into being grateful, life probably isn't as it should be.

I needed to make a big change and I needed to do it by myself. 

I wrote a very long and poetic post a few months ago when I first decided to move, but at that point, I also thought that I had to break up with Joerg. Honestly, I was embarrassed to be so sad and to have someone bear witness to it. I thought if I ever wanted to be happy again, I had to burn everything down and start from the beginning. A small (very small!) part of me felt like I did not deserve his continued love because I had changed so dramatically from when we first met. 

It is hard to be stuck. It is hard to be around a person who is stuck, and this just makes it harder for the stuck person, because no one wants to inconvenience anyone else with their struggling.  The stuck person sees every encouraging comment, every offer to help – even though there is no real way to help, unless you can move into their brain and program it to think in the way of a not-stuck person – as more quicksand being poured onto their feet instead of the helping hand they’re intended to be. 

I have been stuck for months. Maybe an entire year, but I try not to recall my days for fear of realizing just how bad things have got. It happened slowly. A little bit of doubt, a little bit of uncertainty of where next to put my feet…and then it spiraled into days where I could not imagine a better future, could not stand to spend one more second in my own skin.  

I'm not stuck now. A move to a new country and securing a few jobs has filled me with a new sense of purpose, hope and happiness. Basically, I turned my life around in a week, and I could have done it much, much sooner if I hadn't been afraid. But we are not brave and certain and hopeful in every period of our lives, and that's why, even though it's difficult, we need people who are willing to help us, especially when that 'help' is unwavering love. 

So. That brings me back to moving without Joerg. What I love about our relationship, and our mutual desire to not get married or have children, is that it's always just going to be him and me. Although we are building a life together, we are two very separate people who get to pursue whatever it is that will make us happiest. Our "us-ness" does not supercede our "I-ness" and that makes me excited for the evolution of our relationship. There are no rules. We can move in and move out and do whatever we need to do to grow into the people we feel called to be. 

And even here, only a week removed from my old life but already feeling like I've traveled lightyears into the future, it does not really feel as if Joerg and I are separated at all. Of course, long distance is not easy, but when you are focusing all your energy on trying to build a life, as I am, it's nice to know that there's someone out there who is rooting for you. It's easier in a way, because I get to build it and then invite him back in, instead of asking him to carry all the building materials, without any real plan, as I did for the last year. 

Life is funny and hard and unexpected, isn't it? I'm (finally, genuinely!) grateful that that's starting to seem exciting instead of, well, awful. 

Confidence, Hope and Brave Choices

EncouragementShannon ButlerComment

When I left America almost a year ago, I admitted that I didn't know anything about being brave. Falling in love and moving all over America to pursue that love and then deciding to quite suddenly move to Germany may have seemed like bravery, but it was really just hope in motion. I believed so much in the good that was yet to come. I woke up each day believing that the future was an unpredictable adventure and not an unknown terror. 

All of that was fueled by hope. 

I have learned a lot about bravery and hope in the months since that move.

I have spent many days devoid of hope, and, let me tell you, that is not a place you ever want to find yourself in.  All I've ever wanted was to make the brave choice, but with so many shades of brave to choose from, it can be hard to decide which to wear. When you have hope, it is easier to choose a path or make a decision. You pick the thing that feels hopeful -- that makes you feel as if you're walking into the best party of your life, even if that's accompanied with some of the nerves that come with stepping into somewhere new.

Without hope, no choice feels quite right. I tried them all on for size, and every time I did, it was like the only thing I had for reference was a fun house mirror that sent back a distorted image, making every option seem oversized and out of place. Making me seem out of place, too small and ill-prepared for what brave living (or, really, just living) asked of me. 

All of that was enough to paralyze me into inaction for a little bit. Well, a long bit. 

If hope is the thing that propels the brave choice then confidence is the seed from which hope grows

It takes some self-confidence to be hopeful. You have to believe that there is something about being you that is inherently good and that this task of being you is one that's worth risking and existing for. It's no surprise that my confidence was the first thing to go. 

So, my first step in trying to arrive back at that hopeful place is rebuilding my confidence. That journey started with a move to England (which I resisted because I wanted to stay safely tucked up in love) and it's continuing with a new daily mantra: 

There is something only I can offer to the world and my only responsibility is to keep offering it. Even when I don't know how. Even when I can only manage the smallest possible manifestation of that offering. Even when it seems like no one is reaching out their hands to accept it. 

And you know what? I'm already feeling a little hopeful. 

So, if you are maybe in a hopeless place or have lost your confidence , feel free to adopt my new mantra: There is something only you can offer to the world and your only responsibility is to keep offering it. Maybe this will be the small thing that encourages you to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and before you know it, you'll have arrived somewhere completely new. A hopeful place from which you can make all your brave leaps. 

Advice: Should I Stay If He Won't Commit?

AdviceShannon ButlerComment

I've been dating someone for almost one year with no commitment on his part. I've discussed being in a relationship several times when we first started hanging out. He either said he was not ready to be in a relationship or did not want to discuss it. He says he would be happy in a relationship with me but cannot commit. 

All his actions indicate otherwise. There hasn't been a day in the last year we haven't spoken. He treats me well, I see him often, and he is compassionate, loving, and considerate. He treats me like a girlfriend/ a best friend/ a lover ... I am confused and torn. Should I continue as we are until he's ready or let him go? 

I'm at the point where I feel like I should let him go, but he is one of my best friends in an unfamiliar city. If I lose him, I don't know what I would do with myself. I tried to end things once before but I found myself right back in the same situation a day later. Now I'm becoming increasingly more numb - from the fear of being hurt or left by him for someone else. 

Please tell me what you think. Or if you can shine some light on what I should do. The closer it gets to the one year mark, the more I hate myself for staying in this situation so long.

First, I want to say that there is no reason for you to hate yourself. There is no shame in loving someone and wanting to be loved by them. And when he treats you exactly as you would like a lover to, why wouldn't you care for him? Why wouldn't you stay? It is never easy to let go, and it is harder still when you are sure that you have a good thing.

The problem is that what you have may be a good thing but it is not a great thing, not the right thing. 

It's clear that you want a commitment. It's something you have wanted from the very beginning, and he not only does not want to give it to you, but he won't even talk about it. It may be true that he has commitment issues, but why is that something that you have to take into consideration -- to allow for and make excuses for -- while he doesn't have to consider your needs? 

He has told you the terms of the relationship, and even though those terms make things far too small and far too tight, you keep looking for ways to make yourself fit. All of the good things he does will never equal the whole you're looking for, and the only way to stay is to become someone who wants less. I promise you, the love you deserve does not require that you break in order to earn it. 

I know that relationships are rarely black and white, that none of us are all good or all bad. I'm sure that your guy is as great as you describe because I have been him. 

I dated someone for an entire year who I did not love in the way he loved me. We went on vacations and spent every day together and I was as kind to him as I knew how to be, but I also knew that he was not my one, and he knew it too, but he stayed because I gave him reasons to believe he could be. 

I stayed because there wasn't anything wrong with him. He was funny and attentive and everything a person might want in a boyfriend. I stayed because I liked to be loved by him and I didn't want to be lonely. I thought it wasn't cruel to stay because I made no promises of forever, no commitments that I wouldn't be able to keep. I thought if it wasn't enough for him, he could leave. 

The people who love more don't leave though. They stay and stay and stay, kept alive by hope and the promise of what could be. It was incredibly cruel to not leave as soon as I realized that I could not give him what he most wanted, because it would have taken a lot more strength for him to leave. It always does when you are the one who has already sacrificed so much in order to stay. 

You're in a situation where you have to be strong enough to leave. Relationships do not have to have commitment to be fulfilling, but from your letter, it sounds like the lack of commitment is hurting you. It's making you insecure, and you don't have the sense of safety that would allow you to grow alongside him. Instead, you have to dedicate so much of your energy to navigating your non-relationship relationship. 

It's time to direct your energy elsewhere. 

It is scary to walk out into the unknown; it feels safer to hold on to the familiar, even if the familiar is not enough. But the only way to make space for everything that could happen, for everything you truly want, is to let go of the things that cage you. It's making you and your world too small to keep holding on to this guy. All the time you dedicate to him could be spent making friends, turning that unfamiliar city into a home, and even finding a person who will commit.

It won't be easy, but imagine the life you could build for yourself when you stop compromising on the things you want most.  Maybe if you leave, your guy will realize he does want to commit or maybe he won't. I say this with all the tenderness in the world: It doesn't matter because it's not about him. It's about you. 

Don't spend any more time in a relationship that makes you doubt yourself or hate yourself. Commitment is not the final step, it's the first, and if he can't take that step with you, find someone who will -- and until then, keep walking towards a future that feels alive with possibility.  


This post is response to a reader submitted question for my advice column. If you would like some advice, fill in my form


P.S. A related read on the kind of love we all deserve: Love Advice for Daughters


There Ain't Nothing Shameful About You

EncouragementShannon ButlerComment

We spend more time lost in our thoughts than any of us realize. Most of our days are consumed by whatever little men are running around in our brain rather than what’s actually happening.

This is a problem for two reasons: 

  1. Our reality is skewed by our thoughts
  2. Most of our experiences are private 

The first point is fairly obvious. If you’re constantly thinking negative thoughts, your world is not going to be a pretty one. Also, on a deeper level, being lost in our thoughts removes us from the life that is unfolding only one moment at a time. We are distracted from the beauty of a walk or the taste of a meal because we are hanging out in a world of our own creation. 

We’re missing everything. 

The other problem is that we spend so much time thinking that we’ve convinced ourselves that most of our thoughts are valuable, or true, because we’re the ones thinking them. That’s simply not the case. If you’ve ever experienced insomnia, you know that when you’re wide-awake, mind racing, you would do anything to shut off your brain and go to sleep. You recognize those thoughts as not very helpful. 

But because most of the time we aren’t able to recognize that our thoughts aren’t helpful, we place a premium on them. Which leads me to privacy and ultimately shame. 

Privacy is not a bad thing. The world is not entitled to every part of you. But if we recognize that we spend the majority of our lives building our own private worlds with our thoughts and that we rarely invite other people into those worlds, we have no way to know if what we believe is true. We also have no way of knowing if other people feel the way we do. 

The more we keep to ourselves, the more we can convince ourselves that we are shameful. This idea is confirmed when you look around and see no examples of your experiences in anyone else’s lives. The problem is that everyone is convinced that parts of themselves are shameful and it is their duty to hide them. 

I have harmful ideas of myself and because I’m creating my own world, I often look for confirmation of these ideas in other people's actions.  I find what I’m looking for, it hurts me, and it drives me further into myself. 

When I’ve worked myself up about something truly painful and someone who loves me and wants to help asks what’s wrong, I physically cannot get myself to say it. I am afraid to reveal this private hurt, but there is also another more primal fear: I am afraid it’s not true. Some part of me knows that this idea I have of myself is not correct and when I allow it to escape from the fortress of my brain, it won’t survive in the light of day. 

You would think I’d welcome the opportunity to be free of this oppressive dictator, but I don’t. It is a hurt I am familiar with because I invented it. I have created my own world inside of myself and this idea is integral to the infrastructure. If it’s not true, what else do I think that isn’t based in reality? The whole economy of myself could collapse.

If I find the courage to share though, my relief is instant. Instead of collapsing, it’s like I opened the curtains and flung open the windows in a dark, stuffy room and all the beauty can be revealed. Inviting company over allows me to rearrange the furniture in my brain.  The rooms I cowered in a like a monster? They’re glorious. 

I’ve never shared anything I considered shameful without getting at least one compassionate response. That compassion reveals that they get it. It can’t be just me. 

Resist the urge to retreat into yourself. When you’re convinced that something about you is shameful, shine a light on it. Invite other people in. There isn’t anything shameful about you.