Listen to Yourself

Mary has been my best friend since kindergarten.  We met in Los Angeles, where I was born, and attended the same grammar school together, a little place called St. Augustine By the Sea.  It was a hippie-type school, actually -- a place where, if they asked you, "What is two plus two?" and you said, "Five," they would say, "Well, if five feels good to you, then okay!"

Although I didn't grow a lot academically at St. Augustine, I did learn everything I needed to know about friendships and feeling good about myself.  Most important, it's where I met Mary.  She has always been a soul sister to me and always tells me the truth.  

Never was this more obvious than years ago when I was going through a bad time with a boyfriend of mine.  I always seemed to be unhappy.  Although I loved him, there was something about him that made me believe I was never enough for him.  Day after day, I picked apart our troubled romance, all the while crowding my mind with thoughts like if only I were smarter, or more beautiful, or wittier; if only I were all those things, I could somehow get my boyfriend to care for me the way I cared for him.

My mind works in a linear fashion.  I certainly don't have low self-esteem.  And yet, for some reason, my relationship was making me doubt myself and my instincts.  Because these feelings were so new, I couldn't let them go.  I was driving myself crazy.

Around this, Mary and I decided to attend a weekend workshop in yoga and meditation at a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery up in the Catskills.  We often did interesting things together, but this was a flight of fancy for us -- we had never been on a retreat before.  The schedule was, to say the least, unique:  We would get up at five -- to gongs -- put on our robes, then meditate for forty-five minutes without moving a muscle.  After that we would have sessions in chanting and yoga, then eat lunch in silence; eye contact was not permitted.  Admittedly, some of this was bizarre, and at moments it was really hard for Mary and me to keep from laughing; we had been friends since kindergarten, after all.

You would think that in this serene setting, I would shrug off the bad feelings I had been harboring about my boyfriend and enjoy myself, but instead, I felt the bottom drop out.  Looking back, I suppose this was inevitable.  When you're in an environment that is so still and pure -- when you don't have all of that outside noise -- the volume on your inner monologue turns way up, and along with it, whatever unfinished business you may have in your heart and soul.

So there we were, sitting by a beautiful lake after our morning activities and, once again, I was complaining, telling Mary how bad I felt, listing what to me was an unending stream of offenses -- whether it was not calling me back when he said he would or not showing up when we had plans.

"This is so awful," I finally said to Mary.  "Why am I doing this to myself?  Why do I feel this way?"

Mary paused for a moment.  "Gwyneth," she said, taking a breath, "you feel this way because you are not getting what you need."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Mary simply and calmly repeated her words.  "You're not getting what you need, Gwynnie."

Uncharacteristically, I didn't respond immediately.  I remained silent for a long while.  Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the simple directness of Mary's strong, loving words.  But suddenly, I realized that I was, in fact, a valuable person who, for some reason, had permitted an unhealthy relationship to provoke these awful feelings.  Like a fog lifting, it instantly became clear o me that my boyfriend wasn't the problem -- I was, by not allowing myself to get what I needed.  In other words, I was taking care of him, not me.

As the day wore on I began to feel a little angry, resentful even.  After all, if it was true that I wasn't getting what I needed, then the obvious conclusion was that this guy wasn't the right person for me.  And I wasn't ready to accept the verdict.

For the rest of the weekend, Mary's words played in my head.  I actually felt glad to leave the monastery and return home where I could clutter my days with distractions -- shopping for groceries or returning e-mail or remembering to give my dog his monthly flea pill.  In retrospect, I was clearly relieved to steep myself in activities that kept me from doing what needed to be done.

But, of course, it wasn't long before I acted on Mary's advice.  I broke up with him and everything started to look brighter.

To this day, Mary's lakeside counsel continues to have a profound effect on me.  Whenever I feel displaced or off balance, those simple words -- "You're not getting what you need" -- can still set me straight.  I have chosen a profession in which demands, reasonable and otherwise, are frequently made of me, whether it's working overtime or making a public appearance after a thirteen-hour workday, when all I really want to do is sleep.  And in these situations, when I find myself struggling to be a version of myself that would please somebody else but not me, I quietly ask myself, "Are you getting what you need?  Are you drawing boundaries?"  And if the answer is no, I immediately know what I need to do.

Self-esteem is a fragile thing, and I've learned that.  In the end, it's within our power -- it's our responsibility, actually -- to take care of ourselves and nourish feelings of worthiness.


-Excerpted from The Right Words at the Right Time,
passage by Gwyneth Paltrow, actress