Book Review

The Art of Showing Up by Rachel Wilkerson Miller


Genre: Nonfiction

I’ve mentioned this book a few times in past features because I’ve been savoring the audiobook for weeks. I usually listen while I’m sewing or cross stitching, but this book is so thoughtful and compassionate that I needed to ponder each chapter as I finished. A lot of this book has been tossed into the long-term back-of-my-mind Crock Pot. I’ll be thinking about pieces of the book, the work it asks of its readers/listeners, and the advice inside it, for ages.

The full title of the book is, The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. It pretty much does what it says it will, and I very much needed some of the ideas, suggestions, and very direct, compassionate advice I found inside. The audiobook is narrated by Robin Eller, and she is terrific. Sometimes nonfiction narration can be audibly dry, almost distant, or in a few cases I’ve experienced, really and unpleasantly earnest in its delivery. Eller strikes the same balance with her voice that Wilkerson Miller does with her writing: some parts move from warm and compassionate through funny and sarcastic before landing in the center of direct instructions and necessary advice.

I think one reason this book resonated with me is that it starts with the sections on showing up for myself. I’m sure you’ve heard about the idea that you can’t “pour from an empty cup,” that you can’t give your energy to other people if you have none to start with and you don’t refill your own energy reserves. The Quarantimes have made this message about showing up for myself more vital, because so many interminable days of relentless sameness are punctuated by emotional highs and lows that come out of nowhere. Sometimes they’re mine, and sometimes those peaks and plummets belong to the various mammals who are At Home All The Time Together. But as a spouse, parent, business owner (hi), manager, temporary education assistant, Pet Wrangler and adult human (I keep having to sign my name where it says Responsible Adult! What is WITH that?) part of my job is to keep everyone going along in some form of harmony, and, well, the book is dead right. I can’t show up for other people if I don’t show up for myself first.

The parts about how I show up for myself, how I replenish myself, treat myself with care and gentleness, how I personally and specifically recharge my internal batteries, were very needed. Yes, it’s important. And yes, it’s way easy for me to put those items dead last on my list of things to do because despite each day seeming so very similar to the one before it, my daily to-do list never gets any smaller. (What is WITH that?)

The narration poses questions and then gives many sample answers to try on and think about. For me, asking the questions is a major step toward re-identifying what I need to do to take care of myself.  What are the specific things that I do that refill my energy levels? Can I identify and write down what they are? What does showing up for myself look like? How do I feel when or after I’ve done so? What things am I doing that drain or replenish my physical, mental, or emotional energy?

Basically, for a book on friendship, I love that it starts with being a good, kind, compassionate and supportive friend to myself first. If I treat myself in a way that I would never treat a friend, well, that’s something I need to work on. And the narrative takes that approach several times, asking, Is this you? Is this something you do? You may need to take a step back, pay attention, and work on that. Because it’s not healthy. For example, maybe someone would recognize themselves as always being the “therapy friend” who listens to everyone’s problems but doesn’t have anywhere to take their own, or as finding oneself in the position of being jealous and envious of a friend, and not knowing what to do with those feelings. “Whoa, did that feel too close? Did that resonate in a not-good way? Ok, pause for a minute, think about that,” is a constant and crucial theme in this book.

Sometimes the level of mental work that I knew would be in the next chapter made going back to the audiobook daunting. I don’t know how I would have approached a digital copy of the book, or a paper copy, but there were times when my brain and emotional bandwidth were not capable of listening to another section, particularly after finishing a chapter. I’d switch to another audiobook for awhile before going back to this one, and I always went back until I finished it. I wanted to keep going, but sometimes it was a lot. It was, at times, like a really challenging workout: I felt great after completing a section, and appreciated so much the work I’d done to get there, but the getting through was sometimes really tough. Confronting how I care for myself, and how I care for others – and how I allow others to care for me! – can be difficult and painful, and when the book asked me to think about something, I did. That was sometimes very intimidating, but also rewarding. It’s not a book I could, or would want to, zip through quickly.

The chapters on navigating friendship were invaluable because, as the cover copy says, making friends as an adult is hard. The social rules keep changing, and the way in which we have friends and keep them in our lives is always evolving. It’s one thing to make blanket statements, for example, about how we’re all addicted to our phones and that screens get in the way of ‘real relationships.’ Well, maybe? But currently everything is screens or audio. Some of my friends who are closest to my heart are mostly on my phone because they live hours away and also Quarantimes. Wilkerson Miller talks about all the different ways we can be present for our people, and make true connections, including and not including technology.

There are also sections on finding your people, connecting and strengthening connections, addressing conflict, managing difficult friend groups, calling out or calling in friends and acquaintances on their behavior, evaluating friendships that have withered, and addressing whether a problem is you, or someone else. One of the most interesting parts for me was early on, in a section about how some social media like Facebook preserves and almost calcifies relationships that, in times prior to that technology, would have withered and disappeared because you no longer have things in common with that person. People have fewer relationships that end, even when they’ve been preserved beyond a healthy lifespan, and so folks may struggle to find new friendships that support and help them be who they are now. There are also sections on different levels of intimacy, friends that have specific roles in your life or in who you’re becoming, and on how to cultivate and level up being there for your people, plus advice on how to step back or break up with friends as well.

I appreciated how often this book goes into extremely detailed specifics, offering language choices, sample dialogue, concrete suggestions, ideas, charts (there’s a free PDF download of resources from the book that comes with the audiobook) and lists that help me think deeply and carefully about friendship, both with myself and with other people. Wilkerson Miller also cites sources that I now want to read, like There’s No Good Card For This: What To Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love. If part of this book is, “How am I showing up for myself,” the other part is, “Who are my people, and how do I want to show up for them?” And those are hard questions: How do I cultivate friendships with people who embrace who I am now, and who I am becoming as I age? How can I be a friend to those I care about, supporting who they are now, and who they become?

The Art of Showing Up is nuanced and specific, compassionate and inclusive, frank and extremely practical – which are traits I admire in my close friends, now that I think about it. It helped me move beyond the platitude-level veneer of “self care” into what caring for myself means for me and my self as specifically as possible, at a time when I needed it most. And it helped me identify what kind of friendships I value and want to cultivate, and how I can best do that with the people who mean the most to me. Being a friend to others and to myself has never been more vital, and I listened to this book at exactly the right moment.

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The Art of Showing Up by Rachel Wilkerson Miller

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  1. 1
    Kareni says:

    This sounds like a valuable book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Sarah.

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