Into the Quiet-Alone
By Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindful-Meditation Practitioner
When I was little, I used to watch the adult world in amazement especially when they would do this particular thing that I found strange and exciting. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to engage in the same peculiar activity, so I could understand it more. What could have two people so transfixed on one another like this? The activity that I was observing with such bemusement was conversation. Somehow, I recognized that adult interaction was very different than the interaction I experienced with my same-aged peers and I wanted to be doing what adults were doing. Naturally, I became a therapist.
I will never forget the babbling buffoon I was when I began my practicum placement. Words were a way to alleviate my own anxiety; they were something I used to stuff up the unsettling silence. I was supposed to fix this person after all. The problem was laid down before me and I was supposed to solve it, like some kind of riddle. I’d frantically sift through my personal toolbox of words desperately trying to select the right ones that would do the trick. That would fix this person and save me from the humiliating truth, which was, that I had no idea what I was doing. What I learned, as therapists tend to learn in time, is that you are not fixing anyone. You are simply providing the space where one can be deeply heard and patiently received, free of judgment. You as the therapist, are providing space around all the cluttered parts of one's being, making more and more room for all the facets of self that have been covered up with words, opinions, behaviors, tasks, routines, injuries, defenses, accolades, accomplishments, disappointments, injustices… (the list could be endless). Essentially, you are holding space, holding the space for what feels to the person as an unbearable weight. For it’s the space between the words where true connection is found.
My toolbox as I’ve learned over time has more to do with my ability to be patient with my own emotional state than any theoretical or methodological practice I have studied. But it’s both my ability and my commitment to first ground myself in whatever arises within me and then between me and the person that is the best resource I have to offer. Something as simple as holding calm steady eye contact, a poise of attentiveness, and an embodied softness with genuine care and concern for the person sitting with me are somehow just enough to begin the process of healing. How reassuring it was for me to drop the expectation that I am an expert of some kind. I am not a person with answers to dish out but rather, an embodied person who can offer careful attention, curiosity, and genuine love. They don’t talk about love in clinical training but it is truly the most valuable tool of them all. To love another just because… of our fellow humanness, of our fellow suffering, of our common and insatiable need to feel safe and to be loved, just as we are. How freeing it became for me to “not know” as opposed to the one who is supposed to know. I’m happy to allay that heavy burden. It allows me to let go of my ego (of my individual needs and wants) and to give into the organic unfolding of another’s lived experience, moment by moment. It’s true presence that I’m offering, not solutions and definitely not an expertise. It’s a bit risky- giving up the mask of expertism- and walking into the unknown with a person, admitting to not having the answers when someone is so much seeking a solution to pain and uncertainty. It’s easier to hide behind the mask of certainty, to rummage through the toolbox of words and “interventions” than to be painfully exposed to the unknown and holding up here.
By my nature, I’m not a selfless person (truth be told) but I actively work on cultivating presence for another. It’s easier for me in the therapy room; it’s for a finite period of time with clearly ascribed boundaries that I’ve defined. It’s much harder in the day-to-day to actually show up for others in this way. Sometimes I’m able to and other times I truly fail. But I come back to it again and again, reminding myself upon entry to a new interpersonal encounter: steady now, take a breath, slow down the thoughts, make eye contact, hold it here for a comfortable while; lock-in, listen more, talk less. This is hard for me as I have always been a loquacious person since I was very small. I’m a near-even split between extra/introversion with a slight lean to the introverted side. I can hold my own quite well with the boisterous personalities and the reticent. Although, it’s my quiet side that I prefer the most and that which I tend to share the least (there’s more risk there too). I’m easily swayed by my extroversion. I’ll jump right on into that mosh pit with the rest of them, filling up the space with my enthusiasm and my thoughts; jumping right in on the tail end of someone else’s, no space in between for the quiet and reserved to find a way in. Sometimes I walk away from such encounters feeling emboldened and energized by the chemistry exchanged and other times I walk away and think, I’m still that obnoxious little girl that the teachers used to sit by herself in the classroom because no matter who she was near, she’d get them talking out of turn too.
Interestingly (although not surprisingly) I am raising a son who is so far slanted on the extroverted scale; he blows me away with his sense of ease in the public sphere. I find him glorious and interpersonally wise beyond his years. Although, it’s challenging as his parent to always provide that audience, especially since I need more of that quiet-alone time for myself. Prior to COVID, I would put him on an egg timer for 20 minutes, having to enforce the independent play. It didn’t come naturally for him and it was difficult, painful even. One of his first words was “people,” which he used to say while pointing out the window indicating that he wanted me to bring him out into the world to “see people.” He is energized by others and there is nothing wrong with this. I tell him he can influence the world with his personality. I cherish him completely. But I also want him to be able to sustain himself in the quiet-alone. This has been one of the biggest gifts from the Pandemic. He can now occupy himself for very long stretches of time, his imagination gone florid and free. This will benefit him enormously. Personality is not fixed when you are young; it develops over a span of 18 years and so I am very thankful for the opportunity he has had to be bored, to be alone, and to figure out what to do with his boredom and solitude. He has thrived and grown as a result, despite the challenges. The ability to be in the quiet-alone was definitely an advantage for the introverts throughout the pandemic. Quarantine must have been very difficult for the extrovert; an unthinkable, restless kind of quiet that cannot be sustained. I find this compelling because in American culture we so much emphasize the extroverted personality; we reward it far more often than we do introversion. We look down upon the quiet ones, assuming they are timid, anxious, uninteresting, and with nothing to say when actually higher intelligence is correlated with introversion. Maybe there’s something we can all learn here. Like patience, like finding more comfort in the stillness, like allowing more space for the quiet to rise up, leaving more room for those introverted parts of ourselves to come out and be seen.
The Pandemic has allowed me to lean into my introversion more, clearing out the cluttered spaces, quieting myself more and more, and in there finding that comfortable place of solitude that is most essential for writing. Creative writing requires a different relationship with words; a much more patient process allowing them to find you over time, unfolding the way a bud reveals a flower. I have also spent nearly all my social time with other introverts, who like myself, found ways to thrive despite so many limitations in preoccupations. We reveled in the quiet-alone together, slowing down enough to share (what may have historically been private-alone space) with one another. We risked more interpersonally and become far more intimate, far more honest, holding that eye contact long and steady, establishing calm, safe, and soothing space for our quiet-alone selves to be revealed. What I had traditionally kept to myself or only allowed out in the therapy room (as both therapist and receiver) bubbled more to the surface over this past year. And I tell you, I hope never to go back to filling up the space in the room. Not to say there is anything wrong with my extroversion, in fact, that part of me is what gets me out on the dance floor, allows me to go after the huge and intimidating, to be unabashedly competitive (sometimes hard for a female), and to thrive in public speaking events. There is nothing wrong with either extra/introversion and there are wide gradients in between. The introvert though requires space, requires more time for the unfolding of the preciously-guarded- too good to be stampeded over- beauty inside.
So, I come back to the quiet-alone space within me again and again, reminding myself: slow it down, talk less, listen more. Reminding myself to offer presence instead of words. Every interpersonal encounter is a time to become known to one another with freshness. When you can offer presence to another like this, it is such a gift but, yes, it involves risk. It's like writing poetry when that first line comes so effortlessly and then nothing follows and I know I’m going to have to sit with this for who knows how long (hours, days, years?) before the rest comes. How patient am I going to have to be with this, how much will I need to toil with it, how many times will I walk away because I don’t have what it takes to complete it (yet); what will it reveal about my limitations, my vulnerabilities? There is so much risk in writing, there is so much risk in following the unknown, so much risk in showing up for another, in loving like this; far easier to turn away; to fill in all the blank spaces with amusement and chatter; to disregard one another with such lack of care, to ignore the quiet-alone where creativity soars. But the reward in pursuing the quiet-alone is far beyond any place on this Earth that you can travel to and explore. The human spirit when it connects so purely here, so free of distraction, released of judgment and defense, moves us beyond the sea and the stars; aligning you with me and making the risk worth it all.