I’m attending a 3 day online mindfulness retreat this weekend. The teacher just told us this story about the “cow path” and asked us to reflect on our own cow paths. If you aren’t familiar with the story, here’s a summary:
A farm boy noticed the cows had a hard time getting back to the barn at night. They had many obstacles along the way like bushes, rocks, and rivers. So, the farm boy created a path for the cows to use when returning to the farm. It weaved around all the obstacles in the cows’ way. Years later, the farm boy went to visit the farm and found that the cows were still walking that same path back to the farm – even though those obstacles no longer existed. The cows could walk a straight, shorter path directly to the barn, but instead were still following the same old path over and over.
Sometimes we create our own cow paths that protect us and help us navigate around obstacles at that time in life, but how many of those cow paths still serve us years later? One cow path that I think I’ve created is around socializing and connecting with people. As a child, I was outgoing, talkative, and free. I loved acting and singing and didn’t mind being the center of attention. In contrast, as an adult, I am isolated, don’t speak up unless I know I’ll be accepted, and I’ve struggled with social anxiety the majority of my adult life. The thought of social events with people I don’t know is terrifying. Even turning my camera on for a zoom meeting invokes extreme anxiety, let alone talking on a zoom call. I tell myself: I’m just an introvert. I have social anxiety. I just never learned how to do the social thing. I don’t really like or need the social thing. The narrative plays over and over every time a social interaction comes up. It’s an automatic response. It’s a cow path that I’ve been following for over 20 years.
When I think back on creating this cow path, I see that it started in my adolescence. Many family members remarked about how talkative I was. My dad called me “motor mouth” and even after moving in with other family members – my talkative nature was made fun of by family. It was unintentionally hurtful, but either way it was something I internalized. Family is supposed to be people who you can feel safe with. They are supposed to be the people you can be your real self around. However, in my childhood, I was repeatedly hurt, let down, abandoned, or betrayed by family. Family was actually quite dangerous to me because their opinions meant so much, and I needed them in order to survive.
I lived with six different family members growing up. Although they loved me, I was often a burden to those that took me in. So, I learned that the people I needed the most, were also the people who didn’t necessarily want me around. I also learned that while family is supposed to be the people I can trust and count on, often they were really just people who hurt me when it mattered most. I learned being myself wasn’t acceptable. I learned that being talkative was annoying and that what I had to say was not interesting or worth listening to. I learned that having a different opinion than those that mattered was dangerous and not worth the trouble it would cause. I learned I should just be happy that I had a place to live rather than a life. I learned that I did not belong and that I did not really have anything of my own.
When thinking about these “lessons”, no wonder I created this cow path. No wonder I took the winding, long path of isolation, quietness, and avoiding connection. Who can really be trusted when your own family can’t be? But here’s the thing – that cow path no longer serves me. I’m a grown adult. I’m successful, interesting, thoughtful, and caring. What I think about matters. My opinions come from a place of love and sincerity. The people in my life are people I have chosen to be in my life not people burdened by my presence. If someone doesn’t appreciate me, I don’t have to keep them in my life. I don’t need them to survive. I can take care of myself. The pain of being disconnected from others is not worth the repetition of this old unnecessary cow path.
Lately, I’ve attended recovery meetings online, I’m in grad school, and I just attended a 3 day mindfulness retreat this weekend. My goal in these events is to stop the “I don’t socialize. Socializing is terrifying” narrative that my mind automatically responds with. Instead, I’m going into these with the mindset of “What if something great happens? What if I just give it a try? I can always leave”. Guess what? It’s not easy, but I’m learning that a lot of people feel the way I do. And it helps knowing that I’m not alone. Also, most people aren’t as fucked up as my family LOL. I spent 20 years following that old cow path, until I didn’t anymore. I spent so long trying to avoid this painful “what if” that I forgot to ask “what if it’s not like that”. I have enough experience with anxiety to know that, most of the time, it’s not like the “what if” I’ve imagined.