Episode #31: Be Still

Do you struggle to find peace in stillness? There was a time when I was completely unable to be still without becoming overwhelmed with anxiety. I missed being present in my life and with my little people. And living on anxiety and adrenaline for years cost me my health. Ironically perhaps, or as wake-up calls tend to do, my journey through severe mental illness taught me the beauty of stillness. In this episode I encourage you to practice stillness too.



Welcome to of the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode. 

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As I give talks for groups, I often share about a time in my life when I was unable to be still without being overwrought with anxiety. Stillness looked like me curled up in a ball, checked out on my phone or working feverishly on my laptop. So, technically, maybe I was able to be physically still, but I wasn’t able to be physically still and emotionally present at the same time. 

I have two distinct memories about this phenomenon in my life. The first time I took notice, I was the mom of two and the Executive Vice President of a real estate management and brokerage firm. My youngest was about 18 months old. She was born in 2006, at the pinnacle of my firm’s growth curve. I was responsible for the financial results of the firm. And the primary wage earner at home. And in many respects still carried the overwhelming majority of responsibilities at home . . . bills, laundry, dishes, bath time, etc. 

Between 2007 and 2008, we began to see a shift in the marketplace. Deals were slowing down, fewer deals where maybe before a franchisee was doing 5 sites, now they were only doing 1 site, deals taking longer to get to the table, tenants starting to have trouble paying their rent. 

And my boss and I, and I and my team engaged in difficult conversations about what to do with the firm. We could see something was coming. We didn’t have any idea how big that “thing” was (aka the looming real estate bubble burst and 2009 recession) or how long it was going to last, but I had a directive to ensure a minimum amount of net operating income from the firm. Part of this process was reflecting on my own ongoing role. Would I stay in a downsized role, effectively taking a “step back” in my career, would I buy the firm, or would I re-org myself out of a position and the only career I had ever known, with no back up plan. Shockingly to many, I picked the last option. 

I distinctly remember the moment I made the decision to leave. My boss and I had had a difficult relationship for my entire career there. He pushed all of my perfectionist buttons. And I spent many, many years trying to meet his standards. I had grown up at the firm so to speak, starting to work there just a couple of weeks shy of my 26th birthday. 

As I got older, and more self aware, I knew there would be a time when it no longer served me to stay in that dynamic. In a way I thought I was exorcising my childhood demons and I would stay there until I had finished that work. At the same time, I was extraordinarily loyal. So loyal, in fact, that I wouldn’t even consider looking for another job while employed with this company. I didn’t have the energetic bandwidth to do both at the same time. 

I was at a car wash. Waiting for my car to go through and come out the other side to the people who would dry it and clean the windows. I was standing in the sunshine. And this thought crossed my mind, “My vision for myself is bigger than his vision for me.” That was the quiet, penultimate moment of my career. My vision for myself was bigger than my boss’ vision for me, and bigger than staying at the firm that had raised me. It was time to move on. 

I met with my boss and we planned the re-organization. We would be laying off a number of employees. It was heartbreaking. And necessary. And heartbreaking. This firm was family. 

The day I came home from the office, after planning my exit from the company I loved, I sat down on the floor and played with my youngest. And then it hit me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had sat down with her and played. It is possible that I hadn’t been that present and still for most of the months of her life. It breaks my heart a little to think about it now. But we are all doing the best we know how to do in most moments. 

The second memory ends as sweetly, but it took years of upheaval and work on my part to get here. 

When my mom’s cancer diagnosis changed, I was still a relatively new CEO (less than two years into the role) with a 6 month old, third child. My Mom was in Nashville. I was in Knoxville. I had been on bedrest for about 8 weeks before my son was born, and the organization I led was in the midst of a strategic overhaul; aligning three legacy entities behind a single vision, culture and operating model. At the time, I had about 12 direct reports, because I had flattened the organization before re-assigning leadership roles in support of our strategic objectives. In addition, everyone was learning a new way of working and relating within the organization. The cultural fiber of the organization was being stripped and re-woven at my behest. 

And here I was. Immediately overcome with panic the moment I realized I was pregnant (even though I had desperately wanted a third child), leading an intense organizational transformation in the face of much resistance, and my lifeline, my Mom, was dying. Oh, and my little boy was ravenously hungry. At all hours of the day and night. As Mom’s cancer progressed, and the trips to the ER increased, I found myself running up and down the road between Knoxville and Nashville. I would get to Nashville and find some sweet relief from seeing my Mom, even if I couldn’t lean on her the way that I wanted to. But in a few hours, the anxiety would creep in, and I would find myself planning my escape. Back to Knoxville with all of my to do’s. I would get to Knoxville and send email, pay bills, cook, anything and everything to feel like I had some semblance of control over what was happening in my life. Back to co-conducting the chaos of three little people at home who were all in distinct developmental stages--at 10, 5 and 1. 

I. Couldn’t. Sit. Still. It was almost like my skin was crawling with anxiety. And I would do almost anything to keep it at bay. 

So, why don’t we sit still? I have some theories, though this may not be an exhaustive list: 

  1. We are desperately trying to maintain a semblance of control. 

  2. We don’t want to appear lazy. 

  3. We are afraid of the things we feel in stillness. Including those parts of ourselves that are screaming for attention, but that feel unsafe in some way in this world. 

  4. We think if we keep moving we can outrun whatever we are afraid of, outpace it, survive it, or hold the tsunami at bay. 

  5. Or we get stuck. 

I pulled this quote for a recent talk that I gave: When we operate at a high enough intensity for long enough, we progressively lose the capacity to shift to any other gear. Our natural inclination is to push hard when demand increases. Over time we resist precisely what would make us more effective: taking breaks and seeking restoration. In effect, we get stuck in overdrive, unable to turn off the engine. ~The Power of Full Engagement

One of the gifts of being crippled by severe mental illness, and yes, I mean gifts, was that I was forced to be still. A. lot. I was FORCED to be present. Because I did not have the capacity to orchestrate my brain out of the present moment. I temporarily lost my ability to see around corners and to dream of bigger things. All I had in any moment, was that moment. I couldn’t conjure anything else. I didn’t even have the energy to fear what was next, because I was using everything that I had to get through what was now. 

I remember the first time I was able to sit down with my son and play Legos without becoming overwhelmed by anxiety. And now there is part of me that craves stillness. The part of me that is willing to get up at an extra early hour to capture the quiet before the day begins. (Trust me, this doesn’t happen all of the time, but sometimes, when I have been getting plenty of rest, it does). Now, don’t get me wrong, I am still guilty of falling into my IG or twitter feed whenever I start to wind down for the day. 

But here is the blessing. I no longer (most of the time) fear the stillness. Yes, when my anxiety starts to ramp up, my habit is to assuage it with activity. But I know now that I have a choice. I can try to feed my anxiety with activity, or I can feed my soul with stillness. 

And YEARS after becoming aware of the benefits of meditation, I can finally say that I engage in an almost daily meditation through the Calm app. My son and I do it together. While holding hands right as we go to bed. No, that is not the technically correct way to meditate I suppose, but for me in the now, as he approaches adolescence and won’t think holding his Mama’s hand for meditation is super cool in the future, it is the sweetest gift at the end of my day. 

I know how overwhelming stillness can be. I know what it feels like when you are crawling out of your own skin, desperate to move. And I can promise you, based on experience, that whatever lies in the stillness cannot eat you. It may feel like it can. But it can’t. I promise. 

If being still is something that makes you queasy right now, start small. Start with one minute, no distractions, no devices, and lean into whatever your senses can pick up at that time. Touch, taste, smell, hear, sight. For one minute. And when you have built the capacity for one minute, try two. And so on. I think that you will find blessings in the stillness. I have found joy, peace and light there. And I am holding space and light for you there too.


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