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An author and psychologist talks about the power of sensitivity, empathy, and the importance of having ...
2021-09-28 09:00:00
healthy living

Knock Before You Enter
A Conversation with Natalia de Barbaro

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Knock Before You Enter
Knock Before You Enter

Two women accompany each other in their transformation. They discuss the power of sensitivity, empathy, and how one’s room looks: a space in which you can finally tune in and listen to yourself. Monika Kucia and Natalia de Barbaro speak of the road to freedom and multi-faceted aspects of manifesting our true selves.

Read in 20 minutes

Monika Kucia: We have come a long way together. Were I to point out the most important aspects of this journey, I would say it was mainly about accompanying each other in the process of leaving and returning to ourselves. In your book Czuła przewodniczka. Kobieca droga do siebie [The Tender Guide: A Womans Path To Finding Herself], you wrote this path is rough and full of potholes, often leading us astray. You led me, even though you are not me. Sometimes, I find it hard to believe I was so distant from myself. Nowadays, Im learning not to wander off too far, even though it never happens definitively. How do you see it?

Natalia de Barbaro: Yes, leaving oneself is something that happens all the time. It is not possible to stand right by the core of who you are at all times, at least not in my experience. This is not a story of just one great achievement and sticking a flag on a summit but of a constant process of adjustment. Also, I have to remember that there are people on whom I can rely. When I feel weaker or have a bad day, the risk of self-abandonment grows higher. Then I can call you or some other friend and have someone ‘hold space’ for me, as we call it in women’s circles.

What does this mean?

Whenever I close my eyes and think about holding space, I can see myself sitting in a chair in front of someone watching me with care, listening to what I say. It brings to mind the phrase you often use: I see you, I hear you. It’s the opposite of judgement or unsolicited advice.

I would love to discuss the question of space with you. I keep circling the idea of ones own room. Look, this is my shed here [we are talking via video chat]. Heres the Egyptian cloth from Tatiana, a washed-out rug next to it, and a scarf I used to carry my daughter Luśka. This shed used to be derelict and ugly, but now it serves as a temporary room of my own while the house is being renovated. To me, the question of ones own room is connected to the relationship I have with myself. Let me read you an excerpt from Izabela Filipiaks introduction to the Polish edition of A Room of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf: 

A room of ones own is also the music. This room is made of walls, floors, windows, and ceilings. In a way, the room is also made of birds that chirp outside the window, a childs cry coming from across one wall, the sounds of love being made across another. A room of ones own also means peace. Especially by night, unmovable, the deepest it can be. Ones own room is the money needed to afford it. And that moment of turning the key, opening the door to see first the nights glow, hazy through the milky net curtains, and then the table, your desk, untouched papers, scattered just like we left them. And then comes this thick, sweet warmth, pooling around the heart.

Beautifully written, I forgot about it.

We tend to discuss mental space and relationships, but in my opinion, physical space is the key. Now that Im building my own house, I can see it clearer than ever: this aspect of space is incredibly important. I also notice how women react to the realization that they have the right to their own space, a realization made when reading your book. The path towards fully-developed womanhood leads through real private space.

I get it. Realizing the physical aspect of it all seems crucial to me. According to the Jungians, there are two types of energy: masculine, responsible for making the rules, and feminine, focused on the body and physical experiences. When I listen to you, I don’t think you are talking about the rules. You’re describing the practice, the fabric of life rather than, say, achieving some goals. According to Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory, we conclude who we are based on our behaviours. For example, if I hear a person shout, I perceive them as short-tempered. When someone rests a lot, I decide they take good care of themselves. Still, I draw conclusions about myself the same way. If someone gets to have their own space carved out in the space of my home – however cramped – and I get none, it means I consider myself a person not deserving of privacy.

Were discussing concrete material facts here. I dont mean that I have the right to go for a night out with my girlfriends, have my nails done, get some rest. Were talking about real, physical space. A place to which I can take myself. In my city life, I was always stuck in the passages between the kitchen and the living room, I was constantly available, anyone was allowed to interrupt me. It was as if I was waiting for something. Like I was sitting at a bus stop.

Being available became your default mode of existence. Here’s another question: Where do you breathe? Where is the space in which you can take deep breaths? I aspire to make a room of my own anywhere I go, in a way. Just like a city is organized in a certain way, with a market in the middle of it, I also need my room, a centre of my space. As a child, I first had no room, then a room I shared with my brother, then half a room, a small room to myself, and finally, a large room to myself, but for five years now, I’ve had a room that’s only and completely mine. On top of that, I discovered a part of my garden I never paid much attention to for the past five years. I call it the Woodier, and it’s my equivalent of your garden shed.

The people reading this might respond with various material counterarguments, concerning their financial situation, saying they cannot afford their own space. Of course, there are significant material differences to be taken into account – in that sense, I am aware of my privilege. But even when living in a two-room apartment, we can buy a room divider or set up a chair on the balcony. The first move is crucial. The solution we come up with might not be enough, but I think what’s most important is the decision to reclaim one’s space. Yesterday, I talked to a group of women. One of them said that she’s planning to build a house right now and it hadn’t even occurred to her that she might have her own room there. What do you think, Monika, what percentage of non-single women in society have their own private room? 30%?

And whats the percentage among men?

I wouldn’t expect it to be very high, but higher than that. Oftentimes, a separate room is given to children.

In my shed, the benches are scaly with dry paint peeling off, the place is derelict. I collected some curtains, throws and blankets I had at home, I took my gold-framed goddess and a mirror. I decided I deserve a place in which other things happen than those I experience in my regular life.

Those things simply cannot happen in a shared space. As for me, whenever I travel and stay in a hotel, I choose the spot in which I’m going to sleep. Sometimes I reorganize the room, and I always buy myself some flowers or collect them in a meadow. Today, I’m going to sleep in a hotel, so I had a chat with my inner Wild Girl and agreed that on our way, we’ll stop by a meadow with pretty flowers and when I arrive at the hotel, I’ll already have a bouquet with me. One time, a woman messaged me to say that on her way back home from work, she always cycles by a meadow. And for the first time in years, she decided to stop and make a bouquet. People were watching her but she ignored them and kept on picking flowers. She said those stares were critical, but I thought that among the onlookers, there was surely a woman who would soon make a bouquet for the first time in ages. That lady told me that while doing it, she experienced a sweeping wave of euphoria and joy she hadn’t felt in years. For that moment in time, the meadow became a room of her own. Of course, the space into which I bring my flowers is also important, as is choosing the right spot for them.

Perhaps a man needs other things than a room with flowers. We have a certain idea of how a study looks. This image is vividly present in our culture.

We have seen more men’s studies than women’s rooms for sure, but this kind of space can be arranged in a multitude of ways.

A friend of mine has a meditation room at home. Theres nothing there but stones, paintings and candles. Its a spiritual space, a designated place of silence where nobody is allowed to disrupt someone elses focus. In that room, you dont talk about what’s for dinner.

I’m surprised how rarely people ask themselves the question: What kind of space do I need? One person needs a meditation room while others would prefer a garage, a woodwork workshop, an armchair in which they can sit and think. There was one time when someone almost took over my room. Just thinking about it was crushing.

That space was your intimate place.

My room has a door and a doorknob, there is a physical border stopping people from entering. At first, my husband and son would come in without knocking. Initially, I did not react. Perhaps it was just a reflex – I was telling myself it’s fine, I was so grateful to have this room at all. But when some time had passed, I asked them to knock. Whenever they forgot, I reminded them – and now they always do it. To me, it’s a ceremony of sorts. This way, I show that I belong, first and foremost, to myself, and only then to others. I am the one who decides, who says yes or no. The state of default availability seems to be a source of great sorrow and can make one feel profoundly unfulfilled. I’ve met many women who taught themselves and others that being always available is the norm – this leads to frustration.

Perhaps thats why religion is such an attractive option for a lot of people. When you pray, nobody can disturb you. Youre communing with the absolute, therefore you leave the system. In such circumstances, no-one will ask you whether you remembered to buy potatoes.

Interesting. Of course, I have no intention of undermining the solemnity of spiritual experiences and prayer, but it should be noted that the ladies who kneel in the pews of a quiet church indeed get to have some alone time. It has some meditative value, but it also allows some of them to hide from their loved ones.

At church, youre allowed to disconnect from the world. Back in your family life, everyone has so many urgent matters to discuss. I can feel it even now, despite having a large house and garden. My neighbours, postman, child they can always find me. Thats how I realized its not just about the physical space, but also about me allowing myself to be in a constant state of availability.

It’s worth starting with practising saying this one sentence out loud: “I need to be alone right now.” Just a few words, and yet many grown, accomplished women find uttering them more difficult than giving a presentation in front of the entire board at work. I find such practice incredibly important. If, in response, someone protests and says: “But you have to do this and that”, just press play again: “I need to be alone right now.” Even as I say it, I can hear protests and explanations as to why uttering those exact words is absolutely impossible in many situations. But how am I supposed to recognize my own life if I never talk to myself? How am I going to talk to myself if others are talking to me at the same time? It’s simply about logic.

This also invites the question: When do I exist? Do I only exist when Im useful and helpful, meeting the needs of others? Do I exist when Im just with myself? Do I exist during those meetings at the very top?

Or at the very bottom.

Many people asked me if Im worried about feeling lonely after I move to the countryside. And I, with my family and commitments I dream of being alone. I have not spent a whole night and day alone for the past two years.

I do believe the introvert-extrovert divide is real. Of course, it’s all a spectrum, there are ambiverts, too, and we can be more and less extroverted at various stages of our lives. Still, there is a certain internal constitution we all have. My son is an extrovert, and he does regenerate when surrounded by people. And I’m an introvert – to regenerate, I need to be on my own. This is how it works on a personality level. However, there is also a spiritual level. Regardless of whether I’m an extrovert or not, I need to know how I feel in my own company. Is it attractive to me? Or maybe I find it difficult or even unbearable? If you want to find out, try this: simply put down your phone and sit in a chair.

And stay like this for 30 minutes.

Try just three! Have you heard of the electric shock experiment?

No.

The participants were given a choice: they could either sit on a chair in an empty room with no stimuli, or shock themselves, as it was the only activity available. Before the experiment, those people were asked what they were going to choose and most of them, if not all, said they would just sit there. And yet, a large number of participants, mostly men, chose the shocks after all, even when they got rather painful.

Because they were bored?

Because they found it hard to tolerate their own company with no distractions at hand.

My guess is this behaviour was motivated by the belief that we must keep ourselves occupied and that reality is based on matter, meaning that we need to have something for something to happen.

We discover that noise doesn’t come from the outside. When I start to feel my feelings with nothing there yet to drown them out, I want to immediately run away. It’s a difficult experience, and that’s what makes meditation so hard.

Virginia Woolf wrote: So that when I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.That, to me, is about our internal lives, of being with ourselves.

Very powerful. When you mentioned money, I could immediately feel the tension in my body about what I wanted to say. There is a lot of pressure around women making money.

The relationship between women and money is very interesting. Having access to the money we have earned and deciding how to spend it means power a materialization of some kind, a way of creating reality. Woolf doesnt urge us to build our social standing or invest in material goods. Instead, she wants us to have a place of our own, inviting us to go inside.

In my perspective, making money to show other people we can do it is completely different from making money while manifesting ourselves in the world. The latter seems more attractive spiritually. I remember how I felt about it myself. My calendar was empty: all my workshops planned for March last year were cancelled overnight due to the pandemic. I knew I wanted to write a book. I remember those two weeks when I didn’t have a publisher yet and I was already writing. There was one question burning within me: Should I write anyway, just give it a shot? Should I trust that someone will find my voice interesting? Not that my book would become a bestseller – I was simply concerned about finding a publisher interested in my book. Should I keep on writing even if I cannot find anyone ready to publish it? I was at a crossroads. I could either tell myself: Yes, your voice is important, or let my doubts win. To maintain my sense of identity, I needed to decide to keep on writing no matter the outcome.

The Unknown Speaker of whom you write in The Tender Guide is a voice I can hear when Im with myself and not flailing about. This voice shows me directions and signs, taking the lead. Now it has led me to my new home. After all this great effort, changes and sticking my flag in a new place, I discovered that not that much has changed.

Wherever you go, you will always find yourself. Life will always be life.

I don’t expect a radical quality transformation. I have what I brought with me. Perhaps it will blossom or grow. Right now, I keep getting mad at some things, and in that aspect, nothing has changed at all.

I just thought of the word ‘cooperation’. We need cooperation, or perhaps an alliance, between the space with all it can offer us and ourselves. We’ve got to be ready to work with it. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said: “If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.” It’s hard to imagine anyone maintaining a constant state of peace and harmony in a studio flat shared with four other people. Or to expect someone very tense and closed-off to find joy in nature, however beautiful it may be. Some kind of alliance is necessary. I have my Woodier. Trees are growing there with an empty circle 1.5-metres wide inside. It turned out to be the perfect space in which to set up a circular palette that could be covered with burlap carpet and set up an office. I’ve been looking at it for several years and never saw it before. I wasn’t ready.

Its also about growing up to accept that some of our behaviours might be stupid. Its about confronting the truth about ourselves. I have some human limitations and there is nothing I can do about it. I shared some of my concerns on Facebook. Did I really want to renovate this house?I wrote. And heres how people reacted: Just keep going!” or In a few years, youll remember it differently.But when giving birth, I wasnt thinking of my childs sweet smile in a year from now. All I could feel was my pain.

When I was building my house, I often thought to myself: This is so hard, maybe I should have stayed in my little flat. I created this picture in my head – as you know, I have a high-ceilinged living room – imagining a ceiling-high Christmas tree, crackling fireplace, my family sitting there together. This image was my anchor. And now we commemorate it with giant Christmas trees every year, perhaps to thank ourselves for the effort we put in building this house, the effort that was both financial and personal. What were you hoping to hear when expressing your doubts about renovating the house?

I know youre struggling”, I see you. I also have such anchors to hold on to I imagine myself sitting in a room with the door closed. This vision keeps me in good form, but on the other hand when Im in my shed now, with nobody speaking to me, unlike how it was in our Warsaw flat I think its enough, its already a radical change. Of course, living from boxes for such a long time is also challenging and there are times when I struggle. Its a fact.

Different people find different things reassuring. To me, “You can do it!” is not a helpful thing to say. Nor is the phrase: “Everything will be alright, it has to be”, because I know it really doesn’t. Not all stories have happy endings. In my marriage, we have developed this habit we picked up from the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Sometimes, I tell my husband: “Right now, I’m speaking to you from Venus” and he knows all I want from him is to listen. It helps.

I find it reassuring when someone tells me: I can see youre tired.

Reflection of feeling is helpful. Brené Brown, a researcher and author of psychology books, said she uses the energy-check method with her husband. At its core, it’s a team exercise. One of them says: “I have 30% energy left” and the other can respond with: “That’s fine, I’m at 70%.” I don't know what they do when they’re both at 20%, but at least they’re both aware of it. But do I know my energy level? Do I ever check my meter?

Do I check on my levels of saturation and deficits? Before leaving Warsaw, I was afraid that here I would finally find the space for everything I have never expressed because it was squeezed so tight inside me. I couldnt afford tears or dreams, I was in a constant survival mode, always ready to act. Here, various things happen to me because there is space for them to occur.

Until now, you kept those feelings in storage, but they were still yours. Right now, they have their space to speak out. I also recognize this state of mind within me – a belief that I can be an exception and that some rules don’t apply to me. Still, the things we don’t express will not simply disappear. Also, my energy is not an inexhaustible resource. My book caused a stir, but it also meant I would have to distribute my energy differently. I was forced to modify my everyday life – if I was simply reactive, I would have perished.

We keep on changing as we go through life. Our attention is drawn to different areas, we learn to navigate them better. Ive noticed how much I gain from ignoring certain things and seeing theyre just trifles that will be meaningless soon. I dont want to feed the bad wolf’ – this is a skill we can train and shape.

To me, cleaning my inbox proves to be a good exercise. I go through it and look at what I can delete. When I first did it, almost nothing was left, bar two sentimental emails from my friends. All the rest were things I found incredibly important back then. But now, I just click ‘delete’. What a wonderful exercise in lightness.

Maybe a lot depended on them back then? When youre getting married, having a child, preparing for an exam, some things become more meaningful. But over time, their significance shifts. The question is, whether we can get rid of the things that were once important to us. Just accept the loss and move on.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés says: “Let die what must die.” It is very hard.

But its also one of the most important life skills. The world keeps on changing, people leave, and we need to transform to enter the new world. To me, this ability to renew and revive is the very essence of a good life.

It’s the readiness to say goodbye and some vulnerability – a state of sensitivity and openness while knowing that opening up can lead to being hurt. My friend made a remark about the pandemic. He said that suddenly, everyone started running around screaming: “Oh my God, I am mortal!” Well, yes, we are mortal. We were aware of it before the pandemic, but many of us didn’t fully realize it until then. We cover this fact with our daily schedules and our busy lifestyles, forgetting that our loved ones are mortal. Maybe this is the hardest thing of all: to exist and not lose contact with life, while knowing I will lose everything I love. This reminds me of a metaphysical joke I once saw, a cartoon drawing in which a Buddhist monk stands with his little son in front of great emptiness, telling him: “One day, this will all be yours.”

Apparently, the only thing you can know for certain is your existence, and everything else could very well be just a mirage. When I ask my teenage daughter what we are going to do somewhere, she says: Well exist.

Children hold a mirror to us. My son Szymek once told me that when we go to a supermarket – quite a challenging experience for a highly-sensitive person – our shopping usually ends with me flailing between the shelves, screaming: “Not here, not here, not here!” Perhaps our children have some abilities that we lack.

How about empathy? What is it?

In my view, empathy means finding myself in the space of your life. I am present, or maybe I consciously travel to a place from which I can feel some things with you. Let’s say someone was let go from work. You might not know how it is to lose your job, but you have been rejected before. You know how it is when someone tells you: “I don’t want you.” High sensitivity means the mirror neurons work with more intensity, causing some people to experience involuntary empathy. And so, if someone else is crying, I’m crying, too. I don’t even know that I’m doing it. But we can also be empathetic by choice – I’ve made it my profession, in a way. I choose to feel you through myself because I am the only tool I have available.

I asked about it because I feel that we might be experiencing this need especially strongly nowadays. In your book, you wrote that we should be with each other, listen to one another. We became isolated, our opinions differ, and divisions have grown sharper. Meanwhile, empathy is not about my imagining things about someone else, but entering someones field, feeling their vibrations and emotions within them. Is that right?

I explore those concepts in my workshop ‘A Room of One’s Own’. The women who attend it are encouraged to say: “When I’m you, I feel…” I advise them not to speak until they can feel the other person’s energy. If I’m to speak about you before I can feel you, all I’m going to offer will be a review, some kind of feedback – and that will be of little use to both me and you. It will only anchor me in the erroneous belief that I know better. I’m allowed to speak about you only when I can feel your energy within my body.

Its all about the cooperation and alliance we discussed earlier. Our isolation and constant state of distance are separating us from other lives. After all, I can become a shed, a garden, a dog. In my experience, empathy is about becoming one with the world.

It’s the flow. Empathy isn’t about worrying about someone out of fear of losing their friendship. Such interpretation is wrong. Sometimes, I worried about what someone else would think of me, and I was looking for some ways to fit in. I pretended to think about that person but really, I was thinking about myself.

Or, to be more precise, about the part of you that is scared of being judged and of losing something. The things you write about, along with the pandemic and climate crisis, are an invitation to feel everything and to accept a different vision of reality.

We are not separate beings.

You spoke about facing the truth. If I decide to accept my life with all that it brings me, its no longer so hard to bear. I expect to feel various things rather than focusing on the messages sent to me by my brain my brain is trying to tell me, for example, that Im screwed because I have to look after my mother and kids on my own. Such a shift in perception is a source of incredible power.

It’s about accepting one’s life on an emotional level – not seeing it as a table or a list, but simply owning it. Here is my life.

In those moments, I stand on my own two feet

…and you don’t bother imagining some Harrods-like fantasies, expecting fresh roses to blossom in your snow-covered garden. Waiting for something like that to happen is a waste of time.

In your book, you write: Meek and mild, youre not even there: you have no needs, no boundaries, no opinions, no feelings. You have no idea what you need, who you are, what you think and feel because up until now, you were too busy standing still, trying to take as little space as possible, not even breathing. This is the worst state imaginable. But at the same time, knowing what you want most often makes you get it. Still, such an attitude can make you seem a she-dragon. What positive, attractive models are there?

I consider Olga Tokarczuk to be a goddess-like figure. I find it incredibly inspiring that a genius writer accepted her Nobel Prize in dreadlocks and a gown referring to the emancipation movement. I also know her to be a cool person. We all have our limitations, and we were all breathing air that wasn’t necessarily the best for cultivating our inner freedom. Nonetheless, you and I are now having this conversation in a popular magazine. There must have been some models available to us, something important we received from our mothers and grandmothers, our female ancestors and friends that brought us here. We both feel that we manage to stand close to our true selves.

Someone must have placed a seal over our hearts in some important moments when it was crucial to stand by our inner selves. We also need our freedom and independence. Still, I feel that many women while skilfully navigating the male-centred world agree to compromise on many every day, almost unnoticeable issues. They might not even see it themselves. Its like speaking fluently, but in your second language nevertheless.

‘Speaking our first language’ is what women are most starved for. I sit in my room by the open window and gaze at roses. At every workshop I organize, I meet 10 new women. And afterwards, I buy a rose bush. Many of those bushes had no flowers when I bought them, but now they’re all in bloom. Each bush represents 10 stories. Each of those women is struggling with her life, reclaiming her freedom. There are more and more of them, and I expect those numbers to keep on growing. I am deeply convinced that more freedom is coming our way, and right now, we must be ready to go out there and welcome it into our lives.


Natalia de Barbaro:

Author of the bestselling book Czuła przewodniczka. Kobieca droga do siebie [The Tender Guide: A Woman’s Path To Finding Herself] (2021), psychologist, poet, columnist. She runs her original women’s empowerment workshops ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and workshops for highly-sensitive individuals.

Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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Monika Kucia

is a journalist and culinary superintendent at sialababamak.pl. Monika likes to bring words, flavours and people together. She helps foreigners learn about Poland from the tastiest side. She also creates culinary spectacles in which she encourages participants to eat leftovers, breathe in the smells of the basement, and sprinkle food with golden dust.