The French have an expression, Je suis bien dans ma peau. It means, “I am comfortable in my own skin.”
It speaks to confidence, but not only confidence. It speaks to comfort, especially. How comfortable a person is being alone with themselves, sitting with themselves, hearing their own thoughts, or, not hearing any thoughts at all; how comfortable a person is sitting in their own silence. It doesn’t matter if you are an extrovert or an introvert. It matters only if you are able to enjoy your own company, entertain yourself, amuse yourself, listen to yourself at both surface and deeper levels.
But this isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. In fact, I consider it to be a learned skill, something that comes with time, age, and experience.
When I was in my early twenties, I took myself on a solo road trip. It was great and wonderful in many ways, and I liked that I was on my own, but as the trip stretched from days to weeks, I stopped knowing how to be alone with myself. There was a lot of silence, and rather than push through it, I sought to fill it with exterior noise. This isn’t what I actually needed, not in the long run, but I went for the temporary relief. I started calling home and emailing friends, spending time indoors on a computer that could have been spent out exploring more of my new and temporary surroundings. I could have pushed through until I was comfortable, which is a life-long skill, but I gave up too soon.
Perhaps a decade later, I had two maternity leaves that were fairly back to back. My first one was filled with all the newness of being a first-time mom, all the figuring-things-out-ness, as well as a move to a new house, a couple of family holidays, and other things to make my year feel very full. But my second child was a winter baby, and there weren’t many new or interesting tidbits to break up the monotony of a long winter spent indoors with an infant. I am an introvert, so I didn’t get that much enjoyment from group mom and baby classes, etc. The time felt long, but, mostly because I stopped being comfortable. My family was going through a dark period, my health had taken a bit of a tumble, I had two kids in diapers and a husband who was always away, and, perhaps worst of all, I felt like I wasn’t contributing anything to my home, to my family, or to the world at large. I started to try and fill my time with ways to validate myself and my maternity leave, as though raising our kids wasn’t a good enough way to fill my time. I began to fixate on keeping our home clean as though that was my solution, but I was always angry and grumpy. I had everything I had always wanted, but I was unhappy. I wasn’t allowing myself to settle into a rhythm. I wasn’t allowing myself the chance to simply enjoy my time. I was pressuring myself to fill my time, and in doing so, stopped feeling comfortable with my life. This presented itself in various, mostly negative ways, and impacted my family in much the same way.
In both circumstances, had I only slowed down, had I only taken time to breathe through my anxieties, through any haunting thoughts or daunting challenges, I would have come out on the other side stronger than I went in. Or, much the same, but, with a few less bruises. But in both circumstances, I stopped being comfortable, I stopped allowing myself to just be, to just experience, and so, in both circumstances, I kind of lost my way.
I was thinking about this recently, given that most people are home under quarantine. Some people are home alone, or with their partner or spouse. Some people, like my husband and I, are home with kids and are alternating between loving it and losing their grip on reality. At first, it felt like a vacation. The whole family was home and we all used the opportunity to relax and unwind as one does during spring break or summer vacation. But as time went on, and as it became obvious that this “holiday” was the new norm, we all went through a period of mental adjustment. Speaking for myself, I hit a wall, and it was something I needed to work my way through.
Quarantine removes some of the choices we are used to being faced with. As someone who does not enjoy speaking out loud or communicating in person (or communicating by phone or any form of video messenger), you would think I would be okay with all this. But I dislike not having the choice and the opportunity to speak with people when a little conversation is needed. It can feel lonely without options, and even though I’m with my family, I find myself needing to reach out to the world beyond our four walls.
Quarantine also removes purpose. I had a job I was good at, now I don’t. Being faced with this reality is a bit of a mind trip. Similarly to how I felt on my second year of maternity leave, even though I am home taking care of my kids, even though I am their primary caregiver and they will be home with me for months (while my husband works from the basement, which is a more bum deal if you think about it), I feel as though I’m not contributing enough, doing enough for my family, supporting them enough, because I’m not operating at the same speed as before. I am putting this pressure on myself, like I have a duty to use this time effectively and purposefully. I saw people homeschooling with vigor or housecleaning with rigor, and yet I was stuck in a mental fog brought on by this self-inflicted feeling of pressure.
Quarantine gives us a chance to get comfortable in our own skin, if we choose to accept it. I had to come to the realization, again, that I needed to find a way to become comfortable. I needed to find a way to push through. Sometimes I need to give the loneliness and the brain fog and the insecurities a great big hug, then take them by the hand and walk together through the field of emotions that make up my inner landscape. Sometimes the only way to get to the other side is to take myself there, however long or short the journey may be.
And on the other side, there is a silence that I am comfortable with. On the other side, there is no need for outside validation, because I am valid enough. On the other side, I can reinvent my purpose. On the other side, I understand that some things are within my control, and some things are utterly beyond it.
On the other side of the ups and downs and inner conflict and rush of emotions, is a chance to be bien dans ma peau once more. Getting there is worth the work it takes to get there, although the journey itself can be a bumpy ride.
Maria Giuliani is a certified introvert. Creative activities help her escape the real world and can take on many forms such as painting, home decorating and, of course, writing.Her writings can be found on her personal website, mariagiuliani.ca. Maria lives in Montreal, Quebec with her husband and their two highly energetic kids.