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I Still Care, Even if I’m Not There

Life has a way of taking us away from each other.

We leave for so many reasons. Lovers’ quarrels. Moving cross-country. University graduations. Even the slow passage of time simply changing us. The chemistry loses its magic. Surely we never intend for relationships to deteriorate, but that thing life puts in our path becomes undeniable—so irresistible—that we part ways.

I don’t even fight it. I’ve been at the steering wheel of countless turns that changed the terms of my connections (I’m a bit of a vagabond in that way). And when it happens that I’m on the opposite side of the decision-making, it hurts like hell, but I understand. I understand why we have to listen to the stirrings of our soul and let go.

We can’t carry everyone with us forever.

That said, I typically lean on the romantic, optimistic end of the spectrum of humanity. So despite how history reinforces this fact (over and over again), I’m still caught off-guard when someone who resides in my heart is no longer present in my life.

It took me over a year to come to terms with my first boyfriend not wanting to stay in touch after we broke up. I know this may be naïve, but I really thought we could work it out. I still cared about him and it felt completely wrong that I couldn’t just reach out to say “hello,” ask how we was, and celebrate the many victories he was surely collecting in his new life.

Did I do something? Is he mad? Maybe I should just reach out again…

I took it, as we do, personally.

Yes, I was genuinely in acceptance of the partnership’s closure. It was sad to lose each other, but I was in full support of the directions we both had chosen to take. I wanted the best in life for him, even if it wasn’t with me. What I couldn’t come to terms with was the disconnect between the deep care in my heart and the blaring absence of any physical expression of it.

Perhaps that was my problem: I assumed that heart and life residency are essentially paired. I assumed that by releasing a relationship’s physical bond, I must also release the love I felt for the parting person. This is a painful misunderstanding.

Because the truth is, I still care, even if I’m not there.

I feel this way for past lovers, best friends, family members I’m no longer in touch with, teachers—anyone with whom I made a genuine connection. Their presence floats into my mind from time to time, and I remember fondly how we brought laughter, late night talks, and mutual, loving support into each other’s lives. I cared so much. I still care. How could I not?

I still care if they’re finally sleeping better.

I still care if the city discovered the artist I always knew them to be.

I still care if their warring minds made peace with each other.

I still care for them to know how gifted and beautiful they are.

I still care, and so hope, that they feel safe and loved. Always.

When I listen to my heart, all of this is true. But what I’m coming to know is that we can genuinely care, and also be at peace with knowing we are not there to know the answers to these wonderings. We do not have to shut these people out or shut off our hearts just because things changed.

We can learn to trust that life, and the many people in it, will be there to remind these people that they are cared for. It does not have to be us just because for a season (or even many seasons) it was.

We can hold all this care in our hearts without the aching need to act on it. Love is not dependent on a relationship to thrive. In other words, we can love without attachment or condition.

There is a beautiful Buddhist meditation called Metta, which is a practice of expressing the feeling of “loving-kindness.” I’ve found this to be an immensely helpful means of keeping our sense of care alive without suffering around the loss. There are countless guided meditations of this kind to explore, but for simplicity’s sake, it goes like this:

Loving-Kindness Meditation for Healing Past Connections:

Relax into a comfortable, seated posture.

Take a few deep, clearing breaths, filling up the chest and belly, and then expelling all the air completely.

Then, relax and bring awareness to the natural breath, rising and falling in the chest.

Start by bringing to mind a person who was easy to love.

Visualize their face before you, smiling.

Then, genuinely send the love and care you feel for them from your heart to theirs.

Visualize their heart receiving this care from you, without condition or further action.

Next, bring to mind someone you find difficult to be in relationship with—perhaps a connection that didn’t end on good terms.

Remember the love and care you felt for them prior to that difficulty, and then send that love from your heart to theirs.

Then, offer this genuine love and care to yourself in the same way, visualizing your own smiling face across from you. Send your love out and back into your own heart.

Lastly, visualize your heart, soft and open, offering this sense of care to all people. Offer love to the new figures in the lives of those you’ve let go. Offer gratitude for that care, knowing there is enough love and care in this world for all.

Return your awareness back to the breath, and your own heart, placing your hands over your chest to close.

Gently open your eyes.

This is one practice that has helped me let go of loved ones without numbing out or tuning out my own heart. We can love people unconditionally, even when they aren’t in our lives anymore. In fact, that is what this world needs most, I believe.

When we can learn to care for one another—everyone—with all our hearts, beyond the confines of a present relationship, we may someday know peace.

In Soul, Danielle

(This post was originally published on Elephant Journal)

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The Paradox of the Extroverted Empath


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I have a pretty clear image of the “classic empath” in my mind.

She’s shy and sensitive and loves nothing more than curling up with a good book, a cup of tea, and a pair of socks she probably knit herself. She’s a gentle soul, deeply in touch with her emotions and sensitive to the feelings and experiences of those around her. She cherishes her solitude and the lucky few she trusts enough to love.

It’s a pretty picture—but it’s not that simple for everyone.

For those unfamiliar with the term “empath,” it’s a character structure built upon empathy for other beings. There are many other terms to describe this experience—including HSP, intuitive, “giver,” and more. Many consider it a gift, but also a challenge to navigate in our high-pressure, high-stimuli world.

Empaths have a few identifying characteristics including:

Hypersensitivity to people’s emotions, noises, stress, and stimuli of all kinds.

Emotional absorbency—taking on others’ feelings as their own.

Strong intuition or “gut feelings” about people and situations.

Loving and needing alone time.

Through all the pieces I’ve read and personal conversations I’ve shared, these qualities seem relatively undisputed, but one in particular I just cannot resonate with—introversion.

As sensitive and spongy as I am, I’m also (and have always been) a die-hard extrovert.

I thrive in relationship with others and need a boost of human interaction to keep my energy up during the day. I can’t help but feel an unending love for people. The truth is, when I spend extended periods alone, I actually feel heavy and drained—the exact way most empaths express their experience after too much socializing.

This is the paradox of being an extroverted empath:

We need human connection to thrive, but still feel drained after spending time with people.

We can relate deeply and personally to many people at once.

We feel a great sense of purpose from understanding other people’s experiences.

We need our alone time, but don’t always want to take it.

This is a highly challenging place to be in, but it’s the truth I’ve been trying to balance my entire life. Frankly, not all the “empath survival guides” out there speak to this experience and the unique needs of the extroverted sector of this community.

I’d like to change that.

How do we take care of ourselves as outgoing, extroverted sensitives in this life?

Here are a few practices that have proven helpful to me:

1. Breathe.

Some sort of personal breathwork practice is imperative to staying in balance. As an empath—especially an extroverted one—we are exposed to the emotional dispositions of many. So familiarizing ourselves with the feeling of our own bodies, feelings, and energy allows us to recognize when we’re holding something that isn’t ours.

I have benefitted from basic Buddhist meditation, self-reiki, and chakra balancingpractices, but the options are limitless. Find one that works for you!

2. Ground and center.

Carrying other people’s emotional energy leads to feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and ungrounded. Once we recognize we’re feeling this way, re-centering our awareness back to ourselves and getting grounded expands our capacity to hold space for others without sacrificing our own well-being.

Grounding is as simple as sitting in meditation and bringing awareness to our tailbone being supported by the Earth, or the simple sensation of our feet on the floor. We can also get grounded by spending time in nature, noticing all the sights, sounds, and smells around us. In terms of centering, I like to just close my eyes and take a few deep breaths into my heart and belly—visualizing all my scattered thoughts and emotions drawing back to me.

3. Let go of what isn’t ours.

Extroverted empaths are drawn to engage with many kinds of people, and naturally absorb thoughts and feelings that aren’t ours. For example, that sudden feeling of anxiety was actually our mother’s, that grief was our colleague’s, or that flood of love was our best friend’s. Whether or not the feeling is pleasant isn’t important—only that it’s not ours.

When we choose to regularly engage socially, it’s even more important to check in with ourselves and make sure that what we’re feeling is actually our own. Pause frequently and take a big sigh out to release anything that isn’t yours to hold.

4. Seek out smaller groups.

I’ve found that smaller, simple interactions are enough to fill me up with the human connection I need to thrive. We don’t have to be the fluttering social butterfly at a 50-person party every weekend to feel connected—in fact, more intimate personal relationships often generate the fulfillment we’re looking for more effectively anyway.

Have dinner with a few close friends, or meet one-on-one with someone to share a creative project. When I do find myself in spaces with many people—like a concert, party, or bar—it helps to have an “anchor person” who I know and trust to check in with if things start to feel intense or overstimulating.

5. Take breaks.

We have to be willing to take breaks alone to recharge—even if it’s for an hour or two—to avoid emotional burn-out. This has been a lifesaving lesson for me. If I want to be social after work, I’ll go home to make dinner, lay down, listen to music, or read solo for a little while before reconnecting with people again.

Meditation, or even a five-minute walk, is an incredibly effective means to do this when we don’t have time to take a full break. Finding (or creating) small windows in the day to reconnect with ourselves ultimately allows us to keep up the energy to support our extroverted nature.

6. Be alone in the presence of others.

Many of my favorite “me-time” activities involve taking myself out to enjoy things I love in public spaces where I don’t know anyone. Extroverted empaths can’t help but engage on a deep, emotional level with people we know, and this takes energy, but complete solitude can be equally draining. Solo time in public is the “Middle Way.”

I love to take my laptop to a coffee shop and write, or take a book of poetry to a bistro and enjoy a nice glass of wine. Others may like to hang out at the beach, hit the rock climbing gym, or maybe peruse an art museum. Enjoy the company of the strangers without directly engaging with them.

These are just a few practices I have found allow me to fully express my social, people-loving nature while maintaining my sense of balance and energy as an empath in this world. Are there any other extroverted empaths out there? I’d love to hear how other tips for embracing the paradox that we are.

In Soul, Danielle

(This post was originally published on Elephant Journal)

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Love Beyond Condition

 

I have been lonely damn near all my life, but I never gave up on love.

As a little girl, it never occurred to me that I would have to think, say, or act a certain way to be loved. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t normal protocol to throw my arms around someone upon first meeting and say, “I love you.” I wore my quirky little heart on my sleeve, and learned quickly that being wide-open and heart-forward was over the line of what was acceptable.

Most often, I found myself in the presence of many, but still alone.

Like a recurring dream, the same tearful conversation with my mother would arise. Age six. Age nine. Fifteen. Twenty-three. “I cannot be the only one who feels like this. I love these humans so much, but I cannot be anyone but myself. Am I not enough? Maybe I’m not supposed to love everyone like this…”

As the many years passed, I solidified this tragic misconception—love is conditional.

In order to be loved, we must be easy, agreeable, and emotionally “together.”

In order to be loved, we must be constantly available to the needs of others.

In order to be loved, we must do everything we can to keep our broken bits to ourselves.

As hurtful as these statements were to believe, I accepted them as truth because solitude hurt more. I took them on as my own, and they became how I learned to “love” myself, and how I accepted “love” from others—my parents, friends, and romantic partners.

But this wasn’t love at all. Relationship, yes, but the sorry fact is that most relationships we engage in aren’t built on unconditional love.

We’re all walking around carrying our own set of conditions about what qualities in others are (and are not) acceptable to us. Every day we are alive, we are learning and changing these rules based on what triggers us, what our resources are (time, energy, or otherwise), and what kind of life we desire for ourselves.

As much as we might aspire to exist purely on unconditional love, so long as we are human, we have needs and desires and these are, in fact, conditional.

When we commit to a monogamous relationship, there is a condition that we will not go out and sleep with another person. As coparents, we have a condition that our partner will pick the kids up from daycare and keep them safe. Even in the platonic realm, we have conditions that time is made to talk, that we’re listened to, and that our friend offers kindness or value to our life in some way.

This is completely okay! It’s natural and good to know what our needs are.

But here’s what I’ve come to learn: While we may not be capable of unconditional relationships, we can choose to love beyond condition.

This means that even when someone makes a terrible, hurtful mistake, we can stay in our hearts. We can see the humanity in that person (who is clearly hurting in some way) and still love them.

This does not mean we sacrifice ourselves by continuing a relationship indefinitely. Oftentimes, the conditions of the relationship will no longer be met, or we will grow the need to redefine what our conditions are, but there is always space for love beyond those terms.

After about five years of emotional, psychological, and spiritual self-reflection and healing, I am learning how to let go of the conditions I put on myself to be lovable. I’ve unpacked and set free those terribly false ideas, and thus, have opened my heart to loving myself beyond condition.

In doing so, I have had the extraordinary opportunity to experience this kind of love through several connections in my life lately. To be honest, I have been left in awe on a near-daily basis.

More and more beautiful humans are entering my life who are doing the same. People who are doing their inner work and are mutually committed to healing and sourcing the courage to live heart-forward. People who genuinely love me for every shade of who I am and accept my shadowy, unglamorous aspects. It inspires me to do the same.

From this heart-space, I wrote a letter to let go of a hurtful parent relationship. I said goodbye to a partner who I loved so incredibly much, because I understood that this chapter of his journey required the freedom and focus of complete independence. I have felt profound love for a person I’ve never even met (someone far away from me) on the basis of empathy and shared experience.

In each of these situations, I have chosen to love beyond condition. I love my parent beyond his presence and assistance in my life. I love my ex beyond the circumstances of our breakup or his need to walk his path alone. I love my new friend beyond the confines of distance or time.

There isn’t the slightest doubt that each of these people are worthy of the purest love from me—love that is greater than the terms relationship requires. I want them to be truly, deeply happy, and I pray that they are supported with what they need to experience it.

Loving beyond condition is not easy, because it requires a constant flow of faith and courage to hold the sadness of inevitable loss in our hearts every step of the way.

It requires a genuine sense of wanting the absolute best for someone, even if it means we don’t get what we want. Even if it means we have to let them go. We must look our own insecurities in the face when our feelings get hurt and choose not to run away or throw that hurt back onto them.

Relationships may be conditional; but, love lays on the other side.

I believe with all of my being that this is our highest human potential.

We are here to love beyond condition. We are here to love and be free.

In Soul, Danielle

(This post was originally published on Elephant Journal)

image credit: audrey reid

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Control Comes from Lack of Trust.

I’m the first to admit it—I’ve been a control freak in most aspects of my life.

Control involves a lot of mental planning. We ruminate over all possible outcomes. We make detailed check lists. Schedules. “Five-Year Plans.” We send follow-up text messages to make sure everyone remembered our get-togethers. We investigate a lot of “what ifs,” and even rehearse possible future conversations to ensure they go over well.

Yup. That was me. And as much as I bent over flippin’ backwards to try and create my “ideal” outcomes, they hardly ever turned out that way.

This effect is potentially most obvious in my personal relationships. That “ideal” my mind created was a harmonious bond between myself and my loved ones, where we were both free to express our deepest truths, feel completely understood, and (here’s the catch) never hurt or leave each other. Totally doable, right?

It sounds ridiculous, but there must have been some part of me that believed it was possible, otherwise I wouldn’t expend so much emotional energy making sure everyone’s feelings were in a “good place.” But, as humans, we inevitably mess up. And no amount of preemptive planning can avoid that, despite our most genuine, noble intentions.

Situations change.

People leave.

Things fall apart.

Though all evidence in life points to this truth, we put in an awful lot of effort trying to prevent it from happening. We could call this pure ignorance and stupidity, but I try not to cast off our actions with this type of judgement anymore. It’s not helpful.

So why do we try to control life anyhow?

I’ve come to understand that beneath it all is a deeper issue: lack of trust.

Think about it: If we trusted that things would work out the way they needed to, and that we (and all others involved) were capable of rising to the occasion in the moment, we wouldn’t feel the need to manipulate external conditions, massage people’s impressions of us, or mentally prepare for future events.

We could just live.

But it’s not as easy as just saying, “Trust yourself” or, “Trust the process.” In fact, if we’ve lived through some sh*t (and who hasn’t?), statements like those are, at best, out-of-touch or, at worst, completely insulting. If we’ve endured a childhood of abuse, or a completely shocking layoff, or a natural disaster wiping out our home, it’s incredibly difficult to trust that life’s got our back.

So we control. We control everything we can to keep ourselves safe.

But the fatal flaw in this dynamic is that, whether or not we trust life to support us, the unexpected still happens. And the more we’re in our heads trying to plan for a future when everything is stable and going the way we want, the less we are able to handle curveballs in the present.

This is, perhaps, the only enduring condition in life.

But what if we’ve been dealt a lifetime of adversity? If historically evidence has shown us that life is dangerous and hurtful, how the hell do we trust that we won’t get pummeled, inevitably and repeatedly, for the rest of our days?

There is only one way.

We have to prove to ourselves, that we are the trustworthy ones. That we can handle whatever comes, whenever it comes, however it shows up.

When the love of our life leaves us, we still love ourselves.

When the job falls through, we hustle and get a new one.

When we get sick, we learn how to care for ourselves and heal.

And when we fall, time after time, we get back up.

Unlike faith, trust is built on action and time-proven evidence, so for those struggling to feel this sense of self-trust, do not despair. It can be earned.

Start small: Adopt a simple, enjoyable self-care practice and build it into your week. Learn what it feels like to be there for yourself in simple ways. Cook a nutritious meal instead of eating chips for dinner. Get enough rest so your mind is fresh for work in the morning. Stand up for yourself (calmly) if someone speaks critically of you. Be honest, always, even when it’s scary.

Over time, these small acts will build in strength and we will begin to see with our own eyes that, despite the unpredictability of life, we can be quick on our feet and make the best choices for ourselves without needing control or a plan.

We become our own protectors, our own safe space.

And in this way, we are free.

Free to let go and be.

In Soul, Danielle

(This post was originally published on Elephant Journal)

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Honoring Sensitivity in a High-Pressure World


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I’ll come out and say it—I’m sensitive.

Indeed, a “highly sensitive person,” as my closer companions often call me—“HSP” for short. And I’d like to acknowledge for a moment that it takes courage to share this identification with the world.

We pay a lot of lip-service to sensitivity these days. Brené Brown’s Power of Vulnerability skyrocketed from bestseller to instant-classic-manifesto status. We proudly proclaim ourselves as “empaths” (albeit with a twinge of self-pity) and we find ourselves riding the wave of the millennial self-love revolution. “Staying in is the new going out!” read lifestyle magazine headlines. And I can’t argue with any of it—most of the time I’m in full agreement—but does our culture actually mean what it says?

Frankly, I’m calling bullsh*t.

At the end of the day, we live in a high-pressure world. The new American Dream demands us to rise up, keep up, and make a name for ourselves—all while being 100 percent self-sustaining, “healthy,” environmentally conscious, and making a thriving living off our entrepreneurial dreams. In a culturally-relevant (i.e. expensive) urban oasis. Oh, and honoring our sensitive nature.

I have a hard time believing our culture is sincere in supporting this sensitivity. We can be sensitive as much as we want—off the clock. We can be sensitive as long as we are still highly-functioning, profitable members of society. Ultimately, we can be sensitive if we keep it to ourselves.

Does this pose a dilemma for you? Because I’ve been mulling it over for months, if not years. How do we honor our sensitivity in this high-pressure world?

First of all, we have to honor it within ourselves.

This is easier said than done—but it’s a must. It starts with a simple acknowledgement: “I’m a sensitive.” Hey, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Honoring our own sensitivity requires deconstructing the judgments we hold against it. I am in firm belief that our true nature is one of self-acceptance, so sourcing our inner-critic requires a little personal archeology.

Who said it wasn’t okay to be this way? Was it the boss who told us to get our sh*t together after a breakup? Was it the parent who signed us up for countless extra-curriculars, or demanded academic perfection? Or perhaps it was the schoolyard peers who said crying is for sissies. Dig deep and find the root of the belief.

Once I understood why I didn’t accept my sensitivity, I was able to have compassion for myself and change the script. While the outer world may still supply this message, I was no longer one of the voices. I became my own voice of care.

Then, honor it with our actions.

This often requires compromise. I hate to burst the invincible bubble, but we actually cannot do it all. We are human beings. As a sensitive, this is even more valid. Honoring our sensitivity means assessing our energy-level frequently and respecting where we’re at. Checking-in with our physical and emotional bodies allows us to make loving and informed decisions about how to fulfill our deeper needs.

We aren’t going to be up for every invitation or request. This requires saying “no” to others a lot more than we’re likely comfortable with. Start practicing. If we need to, we can say “no” in small ways and work our way up. “I’m sorry, I can’t drive you to the airport next week. I have a lot on my plate.” could eventually become “I love you, but I can no longer engage in this relationship.” or “On second thought, I never wanted to be a doctor.” If it was scary to read that, don’t worry. Baby steps.

Lately, I’ve scaled way back on the expectations I put on myself in my spare time. I spend a lot more “me time” at home: cooking healthy meals, playing music, journaling, or reading inspiring books. I love people, but when I acknowledge my sensitivity, being an on-the-go social butterfly doesn’t fit my life right now. Maybe again someday, but what’s important is I’m listening to my needs in the present and making the kindest choices I can to reflect that.

Get clear on priorities.

Sensitivity is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for life’s difficulties. There is no such thing. Sensitive or not, there are aspects of life we have to face to survive (and ideally, thrive) in this world. And I believe it’s entirely possible for us, so long as we’re clear on our priorities.

I like to think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for this thought exercise. I’ve literally drawn the pyramid out in my journal and made commitments to each layer of personal development. The base of the pyramid is “physiological needs,” meaning food, shelter, and sleep. If any of these aspects are out of whack, it’s highly difficult to feel balanced and healthy, much less engage with the world without getting drained. So we start there. Prioritize a good night’s sleep. I know it’s not “sexy,” but you know what else isn’t sexy? A zombied-out HSP.

Then, prioritize a stable, sustainable work and home situation. Sensitives are more impacted by change than others, so finding a good fit long-term in these areas is super important. Despite my sensitivity, I’m highly ambitious, so I used to set myself up in harsh, demanding work environments for the challenge and prestige, but ultimately would burn out and return to the same ungrounded, high-risk place I started in.

I’ve learned my limits and I’m clear about them with everyone in my life, so now I’m confident in the long-term potential of my current life choices. I go to bed before 11 p.m., I maintain a nutritious diet, and I created a cozy, modest home that feels good to return to. Much peace arises from these choices.

Lastly, commit to self-care practices.

Reclaiming my sensitivity began when I learned (and consistently practiced) meditation. This is something I believe all sensitives would benefit from embracing. Meditation is, quite simply, taking time to be with ourselves. Free of demands, judgment, pressure, or misunderstanding. Sitting with ourselves allows us to get to know what’s actually going on in our minds, bodies, and hearts. How else could we know how to best take care of ourselves? After several years of practice, I now receive direct, intuitive insight in my meditation sessions about the best choices to make, and answers to questions I’ve struggled with off the cushion.

There are infinite other self-care modalities we can adopt, as unique as each of us. I have a friend who is devout about her yoga practice. Another who is basically a mermaid and jumps straight for an Epsom-salt bath. Another swears by reiki to rebalance after tough weeks.

We all benefit from different tools at different times. Usually, quiet time writing does the trick for me, but other days I just need a long talk on the phone with someone who loves me. When sh*t really hits the fan, I break out my emergency first-aid kit (“When Harry Met Sally” and a very large bowl of popcorn).

I write all this in hopes that I, and my fellow sensitives, can embrace who we are and empower ourselves to build our strength, restore our health, and live out our best lives. I don’t want to view this quality as an adversity; it’s just another part of how we walk through the world.

We can, and we will, rise to meet every day with integrity, honesty, and the beautiful sensitivity we have to offer. We are everything we need to be. We are enough.

In Soul, Danielle

(This post was originally published on Elephant Journal)

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Finding the Freedom to Fail

One would think by now, what with all my professional experience, that I would be a seasoned and savvy fucker-upper.

But, alas, whenever I drop the ball, struggle, or straight-up bomb, I feel like a failure. A failure at said task, but also a failure at failing.

Such is the plight of the chronic perfectionist, a title I used to consider resume-worthy but now realize is one of my greater hinderances.

I’ve recognized a similar pattern between myself and other Type As. We were the classroom kids who sat in the front row and quickly mastered our textbook’s lessons. We were the know-it-alls. But the problem with “knowing it all” is there’s little room for anything new. Maybe we can get by this way for a while, but eventually our luck runs out.

>> Read the rest of this post on Elephant Journal << 

In Soul, Danielle