The first few moments of a Listening Circle can feel a tiny bit awkward; everyone is laser-focused on me, uneasy about where I’m going to take the conversation. They all know they signed up for an evening of asking tough questions of themselves and each other; this is no ordinary girls’ night out. Feeling the discomfort in the silence, I ask: “How is everyone doing?” Lovely smiles form, but the participants’ nods and quietly muttered “Good”s tell me they’re performing, because really, who is “good”? 

“No, really. How is everyone doing?” I repeat, and then there is the brave woman who answers, “Busy.” This is an equally obvious response, and one that’s intimately familiar. 

A firestorm follows of “Ugh, I’m drowning,” or “The kids have me running in circles,” or “I’m on a really big case at work, so there’s just no time.” If I bump into a friend on the street or at school drop-off, their answer is the same: “Busy.” 

Every person I know has an endless to-do list, one that feasibly includes getting that year’s holiday card photo taken even though it’s only July. This list keeps us so occupied that we don’t have time for anything else— especially our most insecure thoughts about ourselves and our relevance in the world. I know I can get pretty tied up when I’m trying to tune out the internal broken record grooving to “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t figure this out so maybe I’m not worthy; I must not be needed.” When that playlist starts, it’s amazing how quickly I disappear into reorganizing the wrapping-paper drawer. 

We’re drawn to distractions like the television after a hard day because, as the renowned Buddhist leader and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says, “we know that when we turn it off we may have to go back to ourselves and get in touch with the suffering inside.” What is that suffering? A Listening Circle participant said it’s a question of “who am I, and it feels impossible to answer.” We don’t want to sit with ourselves, our thoughts, our outstanding questions about our lives—because that can quickly morph into the “not good enough” feeling that poisons our self-confidence. But when we use our to-do list or the latest Taylor Swift playlist to drown out those fears of inadequacy, we also block out our curiosity and the potential for self- improvement—our oldest habits allow us to self-silence. 

New rule: Let’s just accept that we’ve made ourselves, at times, unnecessarily busy. And let’s no longer use that busy-ness as an excuse to not figure out, and then say, how we really feel.

Excerpted with permission from Raising Our Hands; BenBella Books 2020.

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  • JENNA ARNOLD is listed as one of Oprah’s “100 awakened leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity” because she doesn’t have much patience for the status quo. She has been called a “disruptor” in every industry in which she has dabbled from elementary school classrooms to halls of the United Nations, MTV, and the White House. For her recent work as one of the organizers of the Women’s March, Jenna was recognized with a Glamour Women of the Year award. The New York TimesWall Street JournalWashington PostForbes, and Fast Company, to name a few, have recognized Jenna’s work as “shaking up long standing assumptions” and being one of “the biggest ideas in social change” for the work of ORGANIZE, a non-profit she co-founded focused on ending the waitlist for organ transplants in America, for which she was also named one of Inc. magazine’s “35 Under 35” list.