We talk a lot about how important it is to be able to set boundaries and say no to others. And while I’m all in about this, I recently had an experience that reminded me of how important it can be to say no to yourself too.
It all started with a perfectly constructed list.
Numbered. Important tasks highlighted. Estimates of how long each would take. A precisely penned roadmap through my day. What I would do and when. Where I would be and when.
I felt a budding sense of accomplishment as I put the finishing touches on it. I imagined how great I’d feel as I neared the end of the list and sat down for a late lunch at my favorite little cafe.
And then something happened to take me out of my reverie. As I was holding the list, my fingers began to grip it a little tighter. I suddenly felt tense. And almost exactly at that moment, a voice within me asserted itself.
No, said the voice. Distinct, strong, almost parental. No.
This is not how you’ll spend your day. This is not what you need today. What you need to do right now is put down the list and say no to yourself.
Without thinking too much about it I decided to take the voice of “no” seriously.
I scrapped most of the list, although I did make it to my favorite cafe for a late lunch. But what happened before I got there was a complete departure from the original plan.
I pointed the car towards the coast. Stopped at a woodsy coffee house for a latte and some writing. Walked the bluff trail. Savored the expansive views of waves crashing onto sculpted rocks. Inhaled the nothing-else-smells-like-it ocean air. Felt the sunshine on my back, breaking through clouds.
All in all, a very good day. Exactly what I needed to replenish and renew myself.
The same topic came up a few days later at a workshop, when the presenter said something like this:
If you find it difficult to stop and take time for yourself because there are other things still to be done, then it’s about something deeper. It’s not about focusing more or better time management.
I thought about this a lot when I got home. Many times, when a conversation about doing less, taking breaks, putting your needs first comes up in sessions with clients (or in my own life), there is almost always an acknowledgement that this would be a good thing.
And then, there are often words of resistance. Yes, but…
- Things would fall apart.
- I wouldn’t get anything else done.
- It would be selfish.
- I’d fall behind and it would just make it harder to catch up.
- What would people think?
Then I remembered that when you say no to yourself it isn’t always about stopping the critical voice within.
When you say no to yourself it’s often about pulling back from an almost trance-like compulsion to keep doing.
And the presenter was right: when resistance appears, it’s an invitation to look deeper, to look at what’s underneath.
I suspect that lurking beneath the compulsion to keep doing is a deep archetypal story. In fact, a series of such stories.
Stories that want to be recognized and unpacked. That need to be aired out. Stories with both shadows and light, that often show up like this…
- The Caring Woman’s story, telling you that you must take care of others first, that your own needs can wait.
- The Responsible Woman’s story, telling you that you must constantly maintain control and always be on top of things.
- The Depleted Woman’s story, telling you that resources are scarce, and putting your needs first could never make a real difference in the long term.
- The Wounded Woman’s story, telling you that you’ll never be enough and others will judge you as a lazy slacker if you dare to get off the treadmill.
- The Creative Woman’s story, telling you that it’s overwhelming to consider all the possibilities if you did put your needs first, so how could you even choose just one?
- The Rebel Woman’s story, telling you that if you open this door, who knows what other crazy, radical, revolutionary things you might do?
Maybe you see yourself in one or more of these stories?
If so, you’re not alone. And contrary to what you may have heard, it doesn’t mean you’re in the grips of a limiting story that you need to let go or rewrite.
Because the truth is, these stories, these inner characters, will always be there. They exist beyond our experience or history. They’re universal. They don’t go away. That’s the nature of an archetype.
But the good news is we can change our relationship with them. We can dialogue with them. We can learn to say “no” to them when they undermine our deeper needs.
And by looking underneath the surface and giving them a voice, we can partner with them to discover which ones are most present for us. Rather than unconsciously letting them run the show, we can discover other voices within to help moderate them.
That’s exactly what happened for me a few weeks ago. And it was good, but not in a way that I had to be good in order to get things done. And in some ways its was the opposite of how we think about “being good.”
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. –Mary Oliver
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