The Power of Breathing

"Jess? Can you talk?"

I still think about a call I received from one of my best friends a few months ago. She may not have realized this at the time but she demonstrated herself to be a pillar of strength that day. And as trite as it sounds, that conversation taught me that taking a few deep breaths is the answer to almost everything in life.

My friend called me from New York, and I could tell she was walking briskly on the street because of the sounds of her heels clopping along the sidewalk and the wind rustling in the air. Her heart nearly thumped itself out of her chest. Her voice was shaky. She was upset–in fact, she was beyond upset–she was so mad that she was on the verge of tears.

"We just got into a fight and he dumped my clothes all over the room," she said, straining to control her emotions.

She replayed the episode, scene by scene. What they were originally fighting over rendered itself moot due to his show of utter contempt. But instead of reacting, she told me that she calmly put on her coat, grabbed her bag, and said to him: "I'm leaving. You clearly need space to work out your anger issues." 

Of course, her own composure crumbled the second she left the building, but she was able to hold it together just long enough to walk out the door. She wanted my help in backing away from the proverbial emotional ledge but, in my eyes, she'd already had all the strength in the world.

Instead of being lured into a swirling vortex of anger, she took a few deep breaths and gave herself a mental pause. What occurred there in a matter of seconds, changed reality as it were. The only way she could make him face his behavior was to remain completely sane herself.

She could've dumped his clothes on the floor. Hell, she could've thrown them at him.

But she didn't.

We talked through it together. I was a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a helping hand. She sounded calmer and calmer as the minutes passed. Soon enough, her pulse returned to normal. 

"I think I'll go to Soho House and relax," she sighed, slowing down. "I just need to have a glass of wine and relax."

While she may have felt vulnerable–and even defeated–what I saw seemed to be a very powerful and victorious moment.

 

On Self-Respect

It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the spectre of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.
— from Joan Didion's 1961 essay for Vogue, "On Self-Respect"

On Making Decisions

"You always know the right answer, somewhere inside of you, inside your heart," said my friend Leonie this past weekend when I told her about a tough decision that I had been struggling over for the past month. "I just don't know what to do," I sighed. The truth was I did know, but, still, l wanted to verify it with everyone around me, hoping for an outpouring of reassurance. Instead, I was a lone reed.

In my twenties, I wasn't afraid of making the so-called wrong decision. My intuition was still running on training wheels. There were times when the only way I could know what was right was to experience what was wrong. Now that I'm officially in my thirties, though, every decision feels like a major life decision. If I choose this over that, will my life really be spun onto a totally different trajectory?

Here's a very basic rule of thumb that I use to guide me: If it feels wrong, it probably is. No matter how many people you seek advice from, nobody will be able to feel that but you. You should always follow your gut instinct. Learning to trust it, on the other hand, is the hard part. At the end of the day, owning your own decisions is one of the most powerful, and empowering, things you can do for yourself.