By David Jones
At one point in my childhood, I’d walk around without swinging my arms.
I remained compact and contained. That’s what happens when you constantly hear, “Be careful, watch out” whenever you walk.
It was worse when I was in a crowd, or where walkways through an area were constricted. The dangers of walking through a living room with knick-knacks on end tables, or through crowded aisles in department stores, were seated into my personality.
It was my dad who broke that trait. One evening we were at a bar (I was around 8 years old) and he gave me quarters to go select a few songs on the jukebox. It was crowded, so with my arms firmly glued to my sides I started making my way toward my goal, looking for breaks in the crowds like a running back waiting for a hole in the opposing team’s defensive line.
I didn’t get far before my dad called me back with an irritated voice, “You need to walk like normal people do. Swing your arms when you walk.”
I tried but I started off flailing. An octopus perambulating along the ocean’s floor was more at ease with its limbs.
Dad called me back again.
“No, not like that. Come on. Shake your arms out and make them loose. Just walk normally. Swing them normally.”
I got better at it, but the humiliation of being distractingly self-conscious stayed with me. It was like my self-consciousness was rude; it was an intrusion on the environment and lives of those around me. My existence was an intrusion.
So I developed competing anxieties: either walk the way I normally would and risk accidentally knocking something off a shelf or table, or walk compactly and not be appropriately invisible.
Either way I lost, because no matter which I chose, I was going to make someone uncomfortable. And that was always somehow my fault.
Now when I’m in crowds, or walking through a store with things just stacked on shelves, I tense up. I want to compact myself so there’s no chance I’ll bonk into something or someone. Even a crowded hallway at work might be enough to make me go elsewhere just so I don’t run the risk of bumping into someone, or even worse having to excuse myself by them (another thing that resonates as rudeness, inconveniencing them by my existence).
How do I deal with it mindfully?
If I see a crowded aisle at the grocery store, I can choose to go down the aisle anyway. If I need to say “excuse me” or “pardon me” then I will: it’s not rude when I need to go down there to get my soup. I have as much right to be in that aisle as anyone.
If I bump into someone, the shame is now mindfully rephrased in my head. I just apologize in a folksy way and help pick up anything I’ve caused to fall.
I’m done regretting my own presence. I’ve had enough with being afraid of bumping into something or someone. I can happily and intentionally choose to engage uncomfortable circumstances and quiet the voices which say, “Be careful. Walk normally.” I am careful and I do walk normally.
I’ll still be the most apologetic person in a mosh, though.
David Jones has a 27-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
Editor: Dana Gornall