I was at an event for veteran business owners this week when a gentleman (is that the right word here?) walked past me, then abruptly turned around a few steps later, walked back past me, and introduced himself to my husband.

I could feel myself smiling, despite the initial rage building up inside. It has been a long time since I felt this way, I’d almost forgotten how it feels when the sudden “knowing” of my role kicks in; how automatic it is and how out of control it makes me feel. I kept smiling as he chatted about procurements and contracts and other small talk bullshit that didn’t interest me. I leaned forward, with what might be construed by an outsider as interest and attentiveness. I nodded and “mm-hmm” obediently and on cue, without much thought at all.

I was, in an instant, so careful.

Careful of the space that I was allowed; careful that my presence wasn’t disruptive; careful that everyone could feel comfortable that I was there.

This isn’t my job.

Old stories die hard.

Being careful is exhausting. For a long time, I confused being mindful with being careful. Being at this event brought back so much of the uncertainty and smallness that comes with being careful; I felt myself shrinking as my old autopilot took control. For that first couple of minutes, I sat there watching myself as if I was behind soundproof glass. It was a familiar defeat.

Careful is what we do for others; mindful is what we do for ourselves.

Being careful is like water, it takes the shape of the object it occupies. When we’re careful, we only fill the cracks and crevices that we are allowed in. It’s the space afforded to us. When the landscape shifts, we morph and twist and rush to fill the empty areas. We are beholden to the containers provided and don’t dare ask for more.

In my little world, careful counts calories and weight watchers points so that it fits into the dresses it’s “supposed” to slip in and out of. Careful is okay with being “good for a girl”. Careful is desperate to be acknowledged for “doing it right” and seeks validation when it’s checked off all of the appropriate boxes on the do to list. Careful obsesses over making sure that every word in her emails is perfect so that the receiver feels good about being in the wrong. Careful smiles at hurtful comments so that no one else feels uncomfortable. Careful is so desperate to fit in that it will thank you for the privilege of being the butt of your jokes.

And, like water, careful ends up a shapeless puddle when all of the containers are gone. It is helpless to save itself.

Photo by Aman Bhargava on Unsplash

I thought that I was being mindful, that all of that paying attention meant that I was doing the right thing – and I was so concerned with the right thing. What I’ve learned over time, though, is that while you can keep other people’s feelings and needs and space in mind, mindful cannot be determined externally. It’s not for them and, when you think you have perfected the art of morphing and pleasing and placating, there is a lot of resistance to looking inward.

Mindfulness is the container that we make for ourselves. It is the space that we occupy for yourself. When you’ve spent a lot of time being careful, yourself can be a pretty uncharted territory.

In my first year of sobriety, I still very much relied upon the containers of others but, for the first time, I was mindful of where I found them. I knew what I needed, and it was an absolute shit ton of support. I didn’t know what it would look like or where it would take me or if I could even trust myself to find it, but I did find myself in a program for which I am grateful every day. They gave me a safe place when I was a puddle, helping me collect and examine and construct boundaries of my own, giving me the ability to not just contain, but also to know when to allow flow. They taught me how to fill and release and gave me tools to forgive myself and others when those exchanges don’t go “perfectly”, a word which I struggle with almost daily.

They also taught me what happens when that container you’ve made no longer fits the space in which you’ve created it. That squeezing yourself into beliefs and roles and ideas that don’t serve you, no matter how familiar, will wear you down until you’re water all over again. It’s an insidious process that leaves you a sopping mess before it dawns on you that you’ve lost your shape.

And there I was, reaching out my hand to introduce myself, holding my own space.

I, the business owner whose name was on the ticket to be there, who invited my adoring and supportive husband as my guest, shook hands with the man who ignored me. As it turns out, there is a lot of overlap in the spaces we occupy. By being mindful of the space that I fill and the desire to grow and serve that that space holds, I was able to make the decision as to whether or not this was the right space for me instead of obligatorily filling the void that was left. It allowed me to see his fear and nervousness too and, while I can’t excuse being ignored, I can reflect and say I was scared too.

When we are more than water, the world becomes more than impenetrable boundaries. Sometimes we like what we see, sometimes we don’t, but we do have the power to choose. Mindful doesn’t settle for what it gets, it illuminates who we are.

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If you are in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill NC area and would like to connect with other #soberbravehearts just like you, join us on April 8 for our first Sober Second Sunday – Harnessing the Power of Your Sober Story. Meet some like-minded ladies while learning how to embrace the power of your decision to create the life you truly desire. Seats are free and space is limited – sign up here or contact hello@uncagedgrace.com for more information.