Awash with Wonder

We’re All Speaking Different Languages

LoveShannon ButlerComment

When I was younger and witnessing the relationships of my parents and their friends, I was sure that I could do the whole relationship thing much better than they were.  They didn’t seem to talk to each other. 

Sure, they talked, but it was never about anything important. Most of the time, all the stuff that truly mattered to them was being left unsaid. When they did try to talk about anything other than the trivialities of their days, it was if they never hopped on the same frequency.  I couldn’t understand it; if they weren’t talking to each other, who were they talking to? 

I imagined that my future relationship would be very sophisticated. There’d be no TV in the bedroom, obviously, and our post-work talks wouldn’t be about anything as silly as what we did that day. No, we would talk about our fears, our hopes, and our love. The big stuff. 

Well, I grew up, and I realized that relationships are more dependent on domesticity than they are dramatics. There is even romance in the everyday conversations I can have with no one other than my partner, because they’re the only person that knows the intimate and mundane details that shape our shared life. 

However, I still don’t want to sacrifice intentional communication because it’s easier to talk about what’s for dinner.  

In the long term, it doesn’t make it any easier to not truly talk with your partner, because lack of communication is why so many relationships fail. I’ve witnessed the relationships where partners stop talking to each other, and it’s the worst kind of loneliness. 

Communicating never seems like it will be a problem for us though, does it? We talk all the time! All we have to do is keep sharing our thoughts and not ignore our partner, and we should be good to go. 

Except the problem is we’re all talking to each other but none of us are speaking the same language. 

The meanings and connotations of words are largely influenced by each individual’s experiences, beliefs and perspective. What’s blue to me is not blue to you. So, how can we ever truly know what another person means? We can never completely separate ourselves from our own limited view of the world, but relationships require that we try.

We start by not using the same words we always have without considering what they mean to another person. 

Learning a New Language

When I was twenty-two I dated a man a few years older than I was. It was a long distance, so the bulk of our relationship was spent talking. There were no activities to distract us, and we made up for our lack of physical contact with almost constant communication. I soon learned that we might be using the same words but they definitely didn’t have the same meanings. 

While his blue did not necessarily have to be my blue, what about the important, even more subjective words: love, loyalty, compassion, and faith? It is so much harder to express these big words, heavy with our experiences, which have more meaning than their dictionary definitions give them. We introduce the word so that we have some common ground, but then we have to go further if we want the other person to understand. We must risk the vulnerability of laying ourselves bare - all the past hurts, and joys, and unmentionables - so that the other person can truly understand what we mean when we use a valid-but-not-all-encompassing word.

Often, we're not willing to expose ourselves – to explain the true meaning of our words with the rawness of our experiences – and we don't recognize how this leads to a breakdown.

We say that they "didn't get us" or there was a "lack of communication.” In reality, maybe we were communicating, just in different languages. We kept using the same words over and over again without realizing that they were completely unintelligible to the other person.

With that specific relationship of mine, the big difference came in our definitions of faith. He was surprised to find himself dating me because he had always imagined dating someone who was Catholic. Which was funny because I never imagined myself dating someone who was Catholic. 

Catholicism, although a religion, is a word too. For him, the word had positive connotations; it was tied to a lifetime of attending masses where he found the guiding truth for his life. For him, perhaps Catholic was synonymous with God because it is in Catholicism that he found his God. 

For me, “Catholic” represented years of schooling in which I had to rebel against practices that did not resonate with me; I did not find my God in it. It was immediately clear that when we used the word "Catholic," we were talking about two very different things.

Can we still be all the things a word means to someone without exactly fitting their definition of that word? I think so, but we have to build a joint dictionary. 

When I started dating him, I imagined myself with somewhat of a meditating guru. Someone who would agree with me on the importance of deep breathing, and we could spend hours talking about non-attachment and the connectedness of all things. 

(I was exploring a new-to-me spirituality at the time and a little pretentious about it.)

Those were all just words though; what was important was meaning. When I peeled back the layers of that imaginary person, what I really wanted was someone who: listened when I talked, I connected with, cared about people and the planet, saw the value in being present. Could all of those things exist under the word "Catholic" instead of the words "Meditating Guru"? Sure, if I was willing to, for a moment, speak a language other than my own.

Learning to Listen 

Once we get past those labeling words, we can start to examine the ones we use in casual conversation. We learn that when our partner says, “Look at that beautiful bird,” they are really saying, “I want to share this moment of beauty with you.” When we ignore them or respond dismissively, we are losing out on much more than the opportunity to see a bird. We’re not acknowledging the meaning of their words, and that’s when communication starts to breakdown. 

It starts with something so simple, and before we know it, we’re not talking at all because every time we tried, we were talking past each other. 

I don’t want a meditating guru now, but I do still want someone who embodies all of those qualities. I found them in a person who literally speaks a different language and who has ten more years of life experience than I do. It takes a lot of daily work to unpack the meaning of his words, especially the ones that are a mixture of English and German. But I am glad to do it, because I want to create an entirely new language with him. 

In your own relationships, consider if they are saying one thing, shaped by their experiences, and you are hearing something completely different, shaped by yours.  You may have to expose all the footprints of your past to teach them your language. You may have to learn a new one, too. 


Advice: How Can I Be More Assertive?

Advice, VlogShannon ButlerComment
I'd love any advice on being assertive (personally and professionally). I'm naturally a people pleaser and when I do have to be assertive, it doesn't sit right with me. For a few months now I've been managing two people at work and I always struggle to give them criticism. Those two people have now been replaced with two new people and I'd like to start off on the right foot with them. Any insight would be much appreciated.

This was the very first advice request I've received that wanted a video, so this edition of my advice column is in video form below. I go over how we have to reframe our mindset from seeing assertive as being "bossy" and instead look at it as being helpful. Also, that establishing our boundaries and expectations and being assertive about enforcing them is a way to respect yourself and the people you are in (professional and personal) relationships with.

Do you have any advice or insight on how to be more assertive? Please share! 

What Compels Us to Share?

OpinionShannon ButlerComment

I have had to come to the terms with the fact that I am not a very private person. I like to order and rearrange my experiences in essays, but it goes beyond the act of writing or I would stick to journaling. No, I like to share those experiences with the larger world and I do not feel exposed in doing so. I occasionally worry about what someone might think but that worry doesn't overwhelm my need to share. 

I did not like this about myself for a long time. It seemed...tacky. There was something more self-contained, more professional, about the people who were not comfortable sharing. But almost all us share portions of our life online now -- we only differ in the degree to which we share. 

The Different Types of Sharing 

For me, it easy to be honest online -- whether I'm writing about my relationship, my experiences, or my thoughts -- because I know that those stories are crafted. Even though they are true, they are my version of truth. No matter how much I share, there is still so much that readers cannot know unless they were there experiencing it, too.  I feel no responsibility to portray a consistent representation of myself (although I do feel pressure to act as if I am always trying to better myself); I am not a brand.  

I know that a lot of other people do not share my approach; they see their personal lives as off limits. Their experiences are not up for consumption, and by not sharing them, they protect them. I understand. Still although what I share has changed over the years as I've matured, it's hard to imagine a time where I would not want to make sense of my life through personal essays. 

From observing other people online, I think the way we share breaks down into five different categories: 


There are two kinds of aspirational/inspirational sharers. One kind are the people who choose to share the most beautiful and most positive parts of their lives. The other are the people who are all sharing the same kind of aspirational content so there's nothing personal or unique about it-- these accounts are all white rooms, "effortless"style, and calligraphy quotes. While some people have a problem with the envy and inadequacy these latter accounts can cause, I think the exist solely to look at beautiful things; I view them as a kind of advertising (for products and a lifestyle I'm not buying) because there's nothing personal about them. 


These are people who use their own experiences as a basis to talk about universal themes. It goes beyond just sharing their experiences as they happen.  Although authentic, these stories are not minute-by-minute documentation of the author's life, and instead carefully thought out representations of their lives, shared for a larger purpose. The aim is  to start a conversation about an important subject or to give people validation that they are not alone in experiencing something. 



This is the most popular way of sharing online, at least for those whose approach to their online lives is strategic. "How to's" and "Ten ways to..." articles are everywhere you look, on every conceivable topic, from career and marketing advice to life, parenting and travel tips. Although these articles have to draw on the experiences of the author to be credible, reader's don't get much of an insight into the personal life of the sharer -- and there's really no need to. Everything they share is about adding value to the life of the reader.


The life documenters tend to be a little more indiscriminate in what they share -- everything is documented. The meals. The errands. The bad days and good. The random inconveniences. Basically, all the mundane and occasionally extraordinary things that make up a life.  This type of sharing is as authentic as it gets because there's no analysis or clear message behind what they're sharing; they're just comfortable inviting people into their lives. 




These are people who regularly share the work of others, links to cool/funny/interesting things, and whatever might be going viral that day. Although partly motivated by being helpful and encouraging, the curator also shares these links because of what sharing them says about them. We can tell a lot about a person from their interests, and it allows them to share bits of themselves without having to divulge anything too personal. 




What Compels Us to Share? 

Even once we can identify how we share, it still prompts another question: why do we share? 

A lot has been written about the way we use the internet and social media (most of it ending in the conclusion that we're all narcissists) but they never talk about the obvious: we all really, really want to share. The reason that social media platforms have experienced such rapid growth, to the point that they've become part of the daily routine for most of us, is because we wanted a way to share ourselves. We had that desire before we even had a name for it.

I suspect that the main motivation for most of us is the validation that our lives matter. We get that validation from people's responses to the things we share, but just the act of sharing it is enough to tell ourselves that our thoughts and experiences-- that who we are -- adds something to  the world. 

And we all need different kinds of validations. 

For example, I rarely post selfies. Something about them is very awkward and makes me feel exposed; the subtext is always, "Look how pretty I am" and having that naked want so visible to the world isn't something I'm comfortable with. But I am very comfortable with sharing my innermost thoughts or insight into my life, and the subtext of that is, "Look at how interesting I am". 

I need that kind of validation, I guess, enough to keep sharing in the hopes of getting it. Beyond that, I also think it's helpful to share my experiences. I believe that by saying "this is how it feels to be me" it helps you understand what it means to be you. So although I have selfish reasons for sharing, I also have reasons that aren't all about me. 

I think we are all motivated to share for selfish and selfless reasons. We, ultimately, hope to be helpful. 

So people who post a lot of selfies, the selfish reason may be that they want validation that they're attractive, but another, more selfless reason, is that they want to redefine what's beautiful; they want to show how comfortable they are in their skin to inspire other people to feel the same. 

Perhaps, underlying all of the things we share is the same message: I matter and so do you. And that's ultimately hopeful, isn't it? 

Do you identify with any of the categories I described? What compels you to share? 

Authenticity Online

Shannon ButlerComment

I dropped my phone in the toilet a few months ago. It was in the back pocket of my too-tight jeans, and it flipped to its watery death as soon as I took them off. In a moment of panic, I blowdried it, effectively destroying what wasn't already broken. I haven't replaced it because I have iMessage and FaceTime on my computer, so as long as I'm online (which is always) I can still contact people.  

The only thing my lack of phone has really changed is how frequently I post on social media. I went to England for two weeks with an old iPhone that I hoped to use as an iPod but the battery life was so terrible, it had to be plugged in constantly to stay on. My only uploaded photos from that time are of my friend Emma's bunny, Nibbles, because I could take them while home. 

I don't feel like I have a responsibility to record my entire life online, but it is still weird to look at those photos because they're not a representation of my time there. Most days were a split between yoga, coffee shops, and pubs. I wonder if my memories will hold up without the Instagram snapshots to shape them

It would be a lie to say that I am not conscious of the online representation of my life. What I'm conscious of has changed though. I find that I am less concerned with impressing people. I don't announce my travels anymore because it is so easy to travel in Europe. Joerg and I wanted to go sledding the other day (I was terrified; it was embarrassing) and a quick hour drive found us on a (tiny) mountain (okay, more of a hill) in Austria. 

In the past, I would have felt compelled to post a status about that and likely one announcing my arrival in England and my departure; it made me feel important and interesting to announce my life. It's nice to have an audience. Now, I'm conscious of the messages I send.  I don't think that traveling is any more heroic or important than committing to life in one spot, so I don't want to use my online homes to promote it.

But what do I promote and how much explanation do I owe the people I'm promoting to? The performance aspect of social media does make it all promotion after all, and that, in and of itself, is not bad. We just need to stand behind the right messages. 

Using an old phone of Joerg's, I took the above photo a month ago. It's a pretty photo, and I wanted to post it. The problem was that that walk was a disaster. I complained from the moment we left the car because I don't have proper winter clothes, and I made us abort after about five minutes. Previous photos of Joerg have always captured a happy walk and an appreciation for him. I was aware of that, and I wondered: do I have to announce that today was not a good day, that we are not a perfect couple?  

People assume a lot about us from the stuff we post online, and I don't want to feed anyone's misconceptions of Joerg and I constantly floating around on a cloud of love. At the same time, I don't owe anyone a thorough explanation of my current mental state. Sometimes a pretty photo is just a pretty photo. 

So, without having to spill my inner most thoughts every time I share a photo, here is what I hope all my posts convey: I am trying to find moments of beauty and share them. It doesn't mean that my life is always beautiful or even overwhelmingly so, but it does mean I'm trying to notice when it is.

As long as I'm doing that, I think I'm promoting a message I'm happy to stand behind -- and an authenticity that's as real as it can be.

How do you define authenticity? Do you think your online representation is authentic? 

P.S Since writing this post, my phone magically repaired itself (!!) and I'm back to posting on instagram pretty regularly. 

What Makes a Person Whole?

Shannon ButlerComment

I rarely see the mention of being "whole" unless we're talking about ourselves in relation to other people. The most common dating advice is that you have to be whole before entering to a relationship; you can't expect someone else to fill in your missing pieces. While there is some truth to that, it's also misleading. It suggest that you have to reach some level of perfection before you can consider sharing your life with someone.

Often, the idea of being whole is only introduced as another way of saying "worthy of love." When you become this version of yourself, then someone will love you. In reality, we all want to become more completely ourselves because it allows us to move through the world more freely. It's a way to truly know ourselves, to have a home no matter what our circumstances. 

Although not an exhaustive list, here are five aspects of our existence that move us closer to realizing the full potential of ourselves. 


Caring about our health goes way beyond vanity. It is easy to disconnect from the reality of our bodies, especially as most of us pursue careers that require a strong intellect and not physical prowess. Add in that many modern religions and spiritual practices emphasis the value of the spirit over the body, and most of us won't take much notice of our body until illness forces us to. 

I am firmly on Nietzsche's side, who believed that "There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy."

Taking care of ourselves is a way to recognize our own value. It just feels good to eat nourishing food and move your body regularly. Often, we use food as a way to self medicate, and before we know it, our bodies are unrecognizable and we also haven't found a sustainable way to work through our emotions.

My health is the first thing to suffer whenever I go through a big change and it definitely makes me feel disconnected from myself. I've found that yoga is one of the only exercises that consistently feels like kindness. Don't get me wrong, sometimes I go to a class and I am just MISERABLE. Everything feels difficult and like it's never going to end. But, most of the time, I go, and I don't think about my weight or my appearance; mostly, I think, "Wow, you are doing something so great for yourself right now." It makes me feel connected and joyful.

Now, the trick is to make that a regular part of my life...


Shame has a way of disconnecting us from ourselves. Either we did something for which we feel guilty, so we avoid visiting those memories in order to distance ourselves from our actions; or we feel that some part of us is inherently shameful, and we do everything we can to hide that from others. The latter example can be more dangerous because we can become obsessed with this one characteristic of ours to the exclusion of everything else. We then begin to define ourselves by the thing we hate most.

Not a healthy way to live, and it causes fractures in our psyche. 

To get close to embodying the fullness of ourselves, we have to develop a healthy relationship with shame. This means that when we do something that causes us to feel ashamed, we have to examine the root causes of our actions. Why did we feel compelled to act in that way? Instead of assuming that we are terrible at our core, we can begin to understand how certain pressures, people or circumstances cause us to act in a way that we otherwise wouldn't. We can then make peace with ourselves and find the courage to reach out to anyone we may have wronged. It is much easier to apologize for something we did rather than who we are. 

We are more than the worst things we've ever done. 

When it comes to the characteristics we believe are shameful...the only way to get over this is to bring those characteristics into the light of day. Everything we keep hidden has a way of feeling illicit, and the longer we hide it, the darker it becomes. Facing down those shame monsters can be done in the presence of trusted therapist or friend, or through extended periods of meditation, contemplation and journaling. Although, it may be more helpful to talk through these things with other people (even though it's scary!) because sometimes we're not aware of how twisted our perspectives have become

It may be that you find the thing you're ashamed of is not so shameful, or you may find areas of yourself that need work. Either way, accepting that we all contain complexities and that no one aspect of ourselves should be given more weight than the other is the route to wholeness. In the words of Voltaire, “We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good; we do the best we know.”


Lots of people turn to religion to find the rituals we all crave. As soon as they step through the doors of the synagogue, mosque, or church, they're mentally prepared to enter into a new metaphysical placee. They get there by performing the rituals associated with their religion. 

You don't have to be religious to incorporate rituals into your life though.

Rituals help to ground us, prepare us for a certain experiences, and give order to our lives.

For example, if I do a home yoga practice, I usually start by closing my eyes and taking ten deep, intentional breaths. This sends a signal to my brain that I am going to be entering into a peaceful and meditative state. It helps me to ease from the natural bustle of my daily life into a calmer state of mind. 

Other rituals are simpler. For example, you could make lemon ginger tea every single morning before you do anything else. You could read a chapter a day before getting online. You can wake up at the same time every day. You can establish a night time routine you don't break. You can stomp your feet and clap your hands ten times before going into a job interview. You get the idea. Rituals don't have to be connected to deity or spiritual practice; they just have to help you give order and meaning to your days. 

This helps us to feel whole because we can incorporate these rituals into our lives no matter where we are or what we're going through. It's a way of coming home. Rituals are also surprisingly effective in helping us to navigate uncertain or difficult periods in our lives. 


The online business world is saturated with advice to either follow your passion or find your purpose. This is overwhelming and often not that helpful, but it does point to a universal truth: we all want our lives to be meaningful. Luckily, we get to decide what constitutes a meaningful life for us. 

I don't personally believe that we are all born with a predetermined purpose. I do think that we're naturally good at some things, and when pursued, they can point us in the direction of a purpose. We're still creating that purpose, though. 

Defining an overall purpose for our lives gives us a direction to move toward, and it also influences the things we say yes or no to and how we behave in relationships. 

Purpose is a combination of natural talents, your values, and the kind of person you would most like to be. 

There are multiple ways to express your purpose, and it's possible that it will evolve as you do. For example, I think that one of my purpose's is to create space for people to be who they are. That sounds vague, doesn't it? 

This is how it manifests: 

I've created a place online where I talk about things that aren't often discussed everywhere else. I try to share my personal stories in a way that encourages other people to share theirs. I offer advice and encouragement, and I try to create a community culture that overcomes feelings of shame. 

In my relationships, I am all about radical honesty. I value the integrity of the individual more than I do the state of our shared relationship. This means that anything can be talked about, even if it means that our relationship might be changed by the conversation. 

My values are reflected in these practices: I believe in being thoughtful, intentional and honest. 

The person I would most like to be is reflected, too: I want to be someone who people trust and who encourages self-acceptance. 

Whenever I face a new challenge or an opportunity to go down a new path, I can return to my purpose and ask whether it aligns. Although my purpose is for the benefit of other people (as I think all our purposes have to be in some way) it is not dependent on them. 

What is your purpose?


Knowing our place in the grand scheme of things is incredibly helpful when it comes to grounding ourselves. A sense of reverence for something bigger than you are will help you to rise above the smallness of your humanity but also to appreciate the significance of your unique contribution to the world. Some people find reverence in religion; it helps them to worship a savior. 

As an atheist, my route to reverence isn't so clear cut; instead it's a combination of things. 

I love to hear about how the universe works. Every time I learn something new, I am at once amazed at how much had to conspire to make human beings possible and also how we are not at the center of things (even though it so often feels like it).  

I love great literature. A truly beautiful sentiment that somehow gives words to a previously unspeakable feeling is transcendent for me. I love that it's possible for us to create so much beauty. 

I love mountains. I rarely sit in silence in my daily life; I require almost constant background noise. But since moving to Germany, my favorite thing to do is to go as deep into the mountains as possible, and to just be silent. The silence there is heavy and sacred. It is both calming and overwhelming. 

All of this is the worship of something bigger than me. These things have existed long before I ever did and they will exist long after I'm gone, but, while I'm here, I get to witness them -- and, in some cases, contribute to them. 

While reverence should make me feel small, it actually allows me to expand beyond the boundaries of my skin. I know that I am both important and insignificant, and it feels like a privilege to exist in that contradiction.

Finally, What Makes You Happy? 

This is maybe the only question we have to answer to be able to make it through our days. It's definitely the one question we have to be able to answer before we enter into any kind of relationships with other people.

How do you define wholeness?