How to Be Productive and Achieve If You Have a Tender Soul
Work with your soul, not against it.
If you have a tender soul, you respond to everything that happens like a feather caught in the wind. Successes put you over the moon, but the slightest discouragement can knock you flat. If your self-esteem isn’t that great, criticism feels like stabbing knives. Just taking a step that might bring on disapproval can feel like a herculean task.
Maybe you worry about making a mistake that would hurt someone, giving bad advice, getting something wrong, or offending someone. And whenever you try to do something that’s not right for you, your conscience screams until you stop. Even when it is right, a welter of emotions can get between you and what you’re trying to accomplish.
Sometimes you might envy the people with steelier souls. People who can work like a machine without getting tripped up seventeen times a day by their feelings.
I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing to envy about people who’ve shut down their emotional life. And there’s no reason you can’t create and achieve magnificent things — without putting a gag on your soul.
I’ve tried the way that doesn’t work — for way too many years — trying to slog through a work life and then an academic program that didn’t chime with my soul. Trying to ignore the pain of the misalignment, but finding myself at the end of the day curled up on the sofa in a fetal position, drinking wine every night, or contracting mysterious illnesses that wouldn’t go away.
I’m 52 now, and I think I’m finally figuring it out. Two attitudes, and one major strategy, have been helping me stay productive and move toward exciting goals, without feeling like I have to stifle my soul.
Knowing that I truly don’t have to choose one or the other.
The world seems to be structured to work for and reward people who’ve discarded their emotions. That’s probably true about large swathes of modern life: it encourages focus on financial bottom lines, mechanistic production, and feeding people’s addictions, for the sake of easy sales and immense profits, rather than nourishing their souls with integrity and imagination.
But that’s not the whole world. There are still millions of people out there who value — crave, long for — beauty, truth, authenticity, vision, playfulness, delight, inspiration — all those things that only a person with a tender soul can offer. This is my world, and your world. It might not be quite as profitable as the other one, but it can definitely be enough.
Nurturing and sheltering myself.
This world can be pretty dark and dreary, and even sharp-edged for someone who’s sensitive. I’m learning to take care of myself. That means making sure I get the emotional and sensory nourishment I need: taking breaks to listen to my favorite music, filling my space with light and color and beautiful scents, and ultimately finding a place to live where I feel free, safe, and inspired.
I’ve discovered I have to be extra-careful about my boundaries. The acid rain of this world can eat away at our joy. I’m doing everything I can think of to protect myself from that, and to maintain my sense of wonder and delight.
This doesn’t mean withdrawal or isolation. There’s a difference between taking a positive interest in the world and people around you — engaging with them lovingly — and allowing yourself to be harmed and brought down. I’m learning to always remember who I am, and that my energy and accomplishments will be grounded in my sensitivity, compassion, vision, and joy. I need to nurture and shelter those qualities in myself.
My emotions hold the key to functioning well — shutting them down isn’t going to work for me.
For me, the emotional flow is pretty much constant, and until recently I found it very distracting and hampering. In my case, it’s been things like, for example, feeling really restless when I have to stick with a project that isn’t intrinsically interesting at the moment: I would let that restlessness completely carry me away from what I needed — and really wanted — to be accomplishing. Or, when I moved toward working on my novel, I would have a wave of feelings about it not being good enough, or feeling futility, like success will never come to me no matter how good I am or how hard I try. I found it really hard to set those feelings aside in order to focus on my work.
I suspect that people who have closed down their souls don’t experience emotions like those so keenly, or they’re able to push them away fairly easily, and that’s one reason they get a lot done. I find it incredibly hard to do something I don’t fully want to be doing. I have to feel hopeful and excited about it, and that it’s the right thing for me and, ideally, beneficial for the world in some way. From sweeping the floor of my kitchen to building my writing career, I have to stir up some level of excitement and a feeling of congruence with the task before I can give it my energy and engagement. On the other hand, any negative feelings can completely prevent me from working — or even keeping my house tidy.
So this is the solution I’ve discovered: Instead of trying to ignore or push away these unhelpful emotions, I turn toward them and give them the attention they seem to want. Before I start work, I first sit and self-reflect for a moment to sense what I’m feeling about what I’m about to do.
Sometimes I find that I’m really excited and eager, and it’s great to notice that and be able to ride that energy into the session. But if it’s feelings that are pulling me away from the task instead of toward it, I will sit with them for a while and give them some time and attention. Sometimes, especially if I’m having trouble figuring out what’s going on, journaling helps me identify what it is that’s trying to make itself known. If I’m alone, I’ll even talk to myself out loud: “Wow, I feel really sad about doing this today, and I don’t know why, but crap do I feel sad.” Figuring out why I’m feeling a particular way can be useful information, but it seems most important just to identify and acknowledge the feeling itself, and sit with it till it softens.
Sometimes the emotion is just sort of like an itch that needs to be scratched or a pebble I have to take out of my shoe — it just needs a few minutes of undivided attention, and it will fade away. Sometimes it’s more intense or durable. Sometimes journaling about it or crying a little will soften or dispel it, and even if it doesn’t completely go away, I’m still able to work now. There are times when I decide to accept that it’s there and get to work anyway, not trying to stifle the feeling, but just letting it be a presence while I do the work I really want to be doing.
It’s so much more peaceful and productive when I’m honest about what I’m feeling. When the feeling goes against my chosen goals and plans, I don’t have to let it “win” and deflect me. But recognizing that it’s there can drain a lot of the undermining power out of it.
Obviously, this practice can take a bit of time, but if it saves you from getting completely distracted from what you want to do and not doing anything, you’ll come out ahead. And I think it’s worth it in itself for the self-knowledge you gain from it. Acknowledging and sitting with the emotions can be truly healing, too.
I’ve learned I don’t need to stifle myself in order to be productive and successful.
Exactly the opposite: I can work productively when I accept and allow who I really am and what’s going on for me. I’ve learned that my soul is the source of my creativity, energy, and unique gifts. Shutting it down won’t get me anywhere that I actually want to go — and anyway, it hurts too much.
I’ve learned that my truth, such as it is, really can be a gift to the world, to people who are yearning for truth and authenticity and for the specific life lessons that I’ve managed to learn and can now echo. It’s been so encouraging and life-changing to get that. Obviously, the same goes for you.
So when your emotions are tripping you up, maybe give them the respect and attention that every inch of your soul deserves. You can still get the work done, set and achieve ambitious goals, and be as productive as anyone else — you just need to work with your soul, not against it.