The Unlearning of Softness


I used to think of life as a series of lessons, like slippery but sturdy little stepping stones gradually leading you to a better version of yourself. Each stepping stone was an experience – something challenging or joyful or overwhelming or exhilarating. If you were able to find your balance on the stone, to reflect on what the experience was teaching you, then you could keep that wisdom in your pocket for the journey ahead. So with each and every stepping stone you would gradually become stronger, more balanced, more confident in your own steps and your ability to navigate the stones ahead.

Within this perspective, it made sense that throwing myself headfirst into this crazy Jamaican adventure would ultimately lead to a new, improved me emerging from all the huge lessons I would learn. But of course reality is not quite that simple. In fact, I believe I have adapted to this new life not through learning but by embracing a constant state of unlearning. I have had to let go of beliefs, expectations and patterns of behaviour that have served me well for my whole life – until now. Many of the things I am unlearning are so closely tied to my sense of self that letting them go has been at times both painful and liberating. I can no longer say with any certainty that placing yourself in a hugely challenging situation and simply having to adapt will necessarily result in positive changes. There will be changes, for sure, but like most things in life, whether you see them as positive or negative is entirely down to your perspective.

Take, for example, one of the most unexpected and difficult elements of my experience here: the unlearning of softness. Although I came here for the express purpose of giving my time, energy and skills to help others, within this context I have slowly unlearned my natural inclination to be open, friendly and generous. It is somewhat heartbreaking to realise that I now say “no” far more than I say “yes”. With an onslaught of sleazy men, pushy teenagers and (beautiful but) challenging children waiting outside my door each day, I quickly realised that if I continued to give whenever it was demanded, I would have nothing left. To put it simply, if I don’t look after myself here, no one will.

After spending a whole year dedicated to living the power of kindness, unlearning the habit of giving freely and openly does not seem to be a particularly positive development. It certainly does not feel like progress towards a better version of myself. However, after reflecting awhile on this particular stepping stone I begin to see something else hidden there. Along with letting go of softness, my time here has allowed me to see that I am much tougher and much less breakable than I thought. I am now rarely emotional, anxious, or stressed, even though logically I have more reason to be all those things than ever before. And perhaps this isn’t an entirely new me, just a side that had never had the chance – or need – to reveal itself.

Unlearning softness has also opened up the space to be more considerate of my own wants and needs. One of the biggest lessons from the Year of Kindness was that being kind to yourself is always the most difficult kindness of all. While I could eagerly accept, encourage, support and nurture others, I found it hard to do the same for myself. But in my new life, faced with the very real possibility of having nothing left to give, I have begun to draw much firmer boundaries around my own needs and truly consider what I must do to maintain my own wellbeing. I make “Cat time” a priority every single day – yoga at sunrise, writing, listening to happy music, preparing nourishing food – and for once in my life I do not feel guilty for making sure I give to myself before giving to others.

While my current circumstances may be peeling away some of my softness, the flip side is they are shining a light on inner-strength I never even knew I had and pushing me to care for myself in a way that was never quite possible before. I can only hope that once I move on to the next stepping stone I will be able to find the balance between inner-strength, kindness to self and softness towards others. For now, I accept this new version of myself, and continue to unlearn.


13 thoughts on “The Unlearning of Softness

  1. Your unlearning sounds as though it is providing you with some great learning. What a lucky girl you are! Miss you lots and love reading your blog. Feels as though you are still here. Mwah x

  2. Cat, I’ve been thinking about what you wrote for several days… I’m in the process of figuring out some similar ideas. I’m wondering if rather than “unlearning”…. perhaps letting those “ways” be and think of it as “learning” new ways instead. I think certain ways of “being” might be more aligned in certain relationships or certain cultures. But in other types of relationships or cultures, different or modified ways of interacting might be more helpful? So, some ways worked well previously, but right now some “new” ways might be needed?
    I’ve also been trying to learn that I need to be one of the main sources of my own sense of well being… rather than depending on others, as I tend to do at times. So…something “calling to be strengthened” in me is less dependence on “approval” from others, greater willingness to say “no” when appropriate…setting more appropriate “limits and boundaries.”
    So, perhaps instead of “unlearning softness”…I’m sure your softness is wonderful in many situations….to “learn” how to say no… saying no to “over-giving” which is also saying a very positive “yes” to appropriate limits and boundaries… does this make sense? As I wrote, I’m plugging away at this too, but in a less pressured setting.
    Here’s something I’ve been using for the past week… in this linked post…about becoming a source of well being I keep this in my pocket and look at it again and again and again…to help develop some of those areas that are less developed…

  3. Oh…here’s another way of “saying” that… A
    few years ago, I was trying to figure positive ways to approach saying “no”…by, instead of just focusing on the “no” which seemed negative at times, to instead focus on what positive quality I was saying “yes” to…to see that in every “refusal” or “no” there is an underlying positive “yes” to some quality that I might benefit from developing. Here was my attempt to “say” that to myself…maybe I’ll try to update it, now that I have a bit more awareness about that idea…but am still plugging away at it, that’s for sure. (weird…we just had a very unusual, several second power outage and everything in the house, computer included, shut down…but then, when the computer rebooted and came back…this was comment was still here… how odd!) So…saying yes to “saying no” is supporting your well being… make any sense?

  4. Kathy, you never fail to make me think and try even harder to see the silver lining! Absolutely it is true that different contexts/cultures/situations require different approaches and behaviours. Which is precisely why my approaches and behaviours have radically changed in order to adapt to a radically different context.

    I had a conversation just this morning with my friend about how this new environment is forcing me to let go of needing any ounce of approval from others, because no matter what I do there will always be many people that disapprove of me (usually for reasons that actually have nothing to do with me) and they will let it be known loud and clear. By saying no to external demands and expectations, I am certainly saying “yes” to my own wellbeing, which can’t be a bad thing!

  5. I had that same experience after moving to NYC. I call it my inner New Yorker, and now that I’ve returned to “normal” life, I’ve found the New Yorker has diminished. She occasionally rears her head still, and it’s good to know there’s this bristling lion inside if ever I need to call on her, but the lesson was still a hard one to learn.

    • Good to know I’m not the only one, Crystal! And also really nice to hear that you are now able to turn your “inner New Yorker” on only when needed. You’ll be my inspiration when I return back to normal life where excessive toughness isn’t always the best policy… 😉


  6. Whenever I read your blog, I feel I’m reading an advanced copy of my life. It always seems like you’re on the same river as me, but just a few boats ahead. This entry especially has hit close to home because I know I’ll have to go through the same stuff when I head to Guyana. And it’s always been hard for me to focus on my own needs before others’. I hope I can achieve this as you have.

    • It’s a very wild river we’re on, Erika! Yeah, being forced to focus on your own needs first has definitely been a hard lesson for me, and one I am still struggling with honestly. But I know its a very good lesson to learn in the long run. Good luck! 🙂

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