I've had a few days recently when I have needed to verbally remind myself to breathe. "Just breathe!," I implore myself, as I find my stomach in knots and my chest painfully tight. I am far harsher with the kids than I want to be, far too short with my husband and unrelentingly judgemental with myself. In my stress, all I can think of is writing a to-do list in the hopes of easing some of my anxiety, in the hopes that all those rows of checked boxes will magically calm my heart. "If I can just get X,Y and Z finished, then I'll feel better," is my age-old reasoning. So I grab a pen and start my list:
1) Cleanup (straighten, vacuum, laundry) - 20 min
And then I am interrupted by another sibling squabble, and then the need to prepare lunch, and then a child needing help going potty and then...and then the list just sits untouched for the next few hours as life rushes on. I zip through our usual naptime routine, distracted, discouraged, desperate to get back to my list. When bodies are still and blankets are tucked, I all but sprint down the stairs and race toward that scrap of paper. I read number one, and think,"What was I thinking?!" Without even adding a number two, I realize I'll need to switch into my superwoman cape in order to accomplish all that cleaning within the time-limit I have allotted for myself.
I realize I have failed before I have even starting. I drop my head, slump my shoulders and heave a deep sigh.
This sigh turns out to be magical, because it causes me to pause just long enough to remember a section of a book I have recently read. In it, author Brené Brown talks about moments just like this, moments when every instinct inside us - pressured by a culture built on performance and parenting built on shaming - says to push harder. Brown describes her "dig deeper button," and how for years she would find herself in a low and depleted state, a place that actually was calling for to her to rest and to reevaluate, but instead she would push her "dig deeper button" and keep going, keep checking, keep plowing through her days.
I don't know about you, but I have always had my own "dig deep button" within arm's-length. I have always felt compelled to check off every box, no matter the cost, no matter how tired or depleted I may be. I have always defined success much more by "tasks accomplished" than by the state of my own heart and mind.
Later in the book, Brown talks about the midlife crisis all her digging deeper led her to, and how eventually she learned to slow down. My momentary sigh of desperation gave me just enough space to see that I was in a "dig deeper" moment - that all the shoulds of life were telling me to plow through my to-do list and rest later, to ignore my fatigue and just keep going. But I saw that I had a choice. Instead of plowing through and disregarding my soul's squeaks for a break, for once, I could stop and listen.
I wiped most of the lunch mess from off the floor, then headed to the bathroom where I took the hottest shower I could stand. I let the steam cleanse away my stress for all twenty minutes that I "should have been" cleaning. I realized, for that twenty minutes of clarity anyways, that should's are all too often self-induced prisons and that souls need much more breathing room than any should can offer.
I made myself a nice cup of coffee and then sat on the couch trying to relax. I stared at the greasy little fingerprints all over our front window and the crumbs scattered all over our living room carpet - and then I willed myself to stay right on that couch, to keep right on relaxing. But relaxing is hard work for a doer and a pleaser. At first, almost every time, it feels like pure torture to me. It is so unnatural, so against my "dig deeper" instinct, that every few minutes my mind would wander back to all the cleaning and the to do's and I would think: I should be vacuuming, I should be prepping dinner, I should...
Should has controlled my life for a long time.
Growing up, I saw authenticity and emotional wholeness laid at the foot of upholding duties; I saw creativity and questioning traded out for following rules; I saw true connection given up to attend meetings. I learned that Me is last on the list. Should sounded a lot like must.
I carried all these lessons into Christianity and soon became the girl who volunteered for everything. I began to find worthiness in service and in sacrifice. I didn't know how to say No and never really needed to: I thrived on being able to do it all. The doer and people-pleaser in me found a hundred new rules to follow and many more people to please.
At first, I loved living up to all the shoulds. I loved the attention and the sense of belonging. But all the shoulds left me increasingly conflicted and hopeless. I stayed busy, plowed through the fatigue and questions, and had lots of good days in between, but there was often a lingering sense of, Who am I? It never crossed my mind that I may need to rest or to stop and breathe once in a while. Doing what I should trumped everything.
It took years of life and loss, of reading and soul-searching to even be able to distinguish between the endless shoulds and the voice of my true self. And although it is true that when we know better, we do better, it is also true that old habits die hard. For me, it remains a regular battle to choose rest, to prioritize play or to listen to my own soul. But now, finally, I know I can. Now I know that life isn't meant to be a game of shoulds. Now I know that living up to others' expectations is an empty road. Now I know that sitting still on the couch, just staring at greasy finger-prints and listening to the sound of my own breathing, may be the most "productive" thing I do all day. And that feels like growth.
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