This is only one of the countless great things that Shantini has told me, over our hundreds of hours of chats we’ve had over the years. It’s a wonderful little piece of advice that’s so simple but which has come to be a real anchor for me and the decisions that I want to take. If there’s just one life lesson you take away this week, let it be this one. I really believe that it’s one of the most important things to consider for a more fulfilled, happier life.
I think perhaps the best way to explain this wisdom is by the same two personal examples that I had talked about with Shantini:
ONE: I was with someone a couple of years ago with whom sex was awful. I mean, really just completely and totally awful. I was telling Shantini about this a long while after he’d left me and remember saying to her that I was a girl who had liked sex, but because of these dreadful few months with this guy was now completely, entirely, utterly put off sex. I hated even the thought of it or anything remotely related to it – relationships, boyfriends, even the innocence of kissing. Sex went from something I loved to something horribly gross.
I had been telling Shantini this all in a kind of animated, ridiculous jest. I don’t really know how to talk about bad sex except to be funny and slightly dramatic about it. But she looked thoughtful then, and pointed out to me that there, right there! was exactly where it was all wrong. Not just the sex, silly, but this: the fact that this person had made me deny a part of me that was well, very much me. I was a girl who liked sex – everyone who knew me before this guy would have known that. And now here I was, staunchly denouncing it as an act more frightful and repulsive to me than oatmeal.
It was the simple fact that sex was a part of who I was at the time and something I enjoyed. But far from becoming improving or growing from that aspect of me, time spent with this partner had turned me away from it completely. I wasn’t learning to enjoy sex in a more balanced, matured way; nor was I learning to establish a healthier balance and helpful attitudes towards sex. I just outright denied it. This relationship had essentially just made me sweep myself – including my thoughts, desires, sensuality, physical impulses – under a carpet and deny myself. I wasn’t becoming a better, improved version of myself, I had just diminished and shut a part of myself off completely.
TWO: Just before I left the organisation, I had asked a few friends if they might have felt, in any way over the last few years, that I was unhappy. All of them answered that yes, they’d noticed me becoming only a shadow of the person they knew, that I’d lost a lot of the person I was.
I talked about this with Shantini later and she too said that yes, she had noticed me getting further and further away, more and more busy with the things I had to do. But it wasn’t merely about the busy-ness. I remember her saying that she wasn’t being a crazy, jealous friend; nor was she saying all this just because she missed spending time with me. Rather, she had noticed that the busier and more involved I got, the more unhappy I seemed to be, the more my energy seemed to shrink. I was becoming less of me.
Here, at the heart of it all, is the little nugget of wisdom: she pointed out that whatever you’re doing – no matter how busy it makes you or how involved you become – it should make you more of yourself. All those fundamentally good things you experience – happiness, peace, clarity, confidence, growth – should increase. As an ‘outsider’, who never knew fully what I was doing in there, all she saw, sadly, was that I was becoming less of myself. Instead of becoming a fuller, brighter, bigger, better version of me, the confidence and energy that I had before was depleting, I was becoming more anxious, more jittery, more befuddled.
So the lesson here, and the best yardstick I’ve been given in a long time, is really just as simple as whether something is making you more or less of yourself.
Does this situation, place, work, relationship bring out more of the good things that you already are or more of the bad?
Does it make you embrace and grow good things?
Develop healthier, more workable attitudes to problem areas and flaws?
Or just outright suppress, deny and/or ignore them?
It was a real eureka moment for me, that it could be that simple – to reflect upon whether something makes me more or less of myself. Basic arithmetic, really. And just like maths, where 2+2 always equals 4 (well, mostly!), the answers will also always fall exactly at the most truthful place, at a single answer. You just have to shuffle your figures about and find it for yourself.