I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
I have always had a problem with acknowledging and accepting my limits. My mind is extremely active and driven, and I have a huge appetite for things I want to do–things I could do if this silly old body didn’t get in my way! As a child, I never wanted to stop playing, to the point that my parents had to cajole and bribe me to stop and do necessary things like eat, sleep, and use the bathroom. The will of my mind has always spoken louder to me than the needs of my body.
In some contexts, this trait might be a strength; but in the context of trying to live a healthy, effective life, it is a serious weakness. Contrary to what my brain apparently thinks, the fact is I am not Superwoman. My body needs rest. My mind needs downtime. When I drive myself past my limits, I suffer the consequences.
It doesn’t help that I’ve grown up with the American mantras of “Never settle for less than your dreams,” “Don’t take no for an answer,” and “You can achieve anything if you set your mind to it.” I’m sure those messages are helpful for some people, but they were not the ones I needed to hear. I’ve got enough ambition, self-esteem, willpower, and determination on my own–and, left unchecked, it nearly killed me.
The message I needed—the message I still need—is this: “It’s great to have goals and ambitions, but they are meaningless if you don’t have the ability to think realistically and take care of yourself, to stop when you need to, to relax and let things go sometimes, and to breathe and just enjoy life.”
In the past few years, I’ve found that what helps me most with this problem is cultivating an ongoing dialogue of self-parenting. As I mentioned last time, self-parenting (at least in my definition) means viewing myself as having two sides: a child side that’s ruled by desires and impulses, and a parent side that protects and nurtures with grown-up wisdom. This perspective allows for a helpful dynamic of inner dialogue between the two sides. For example, when my body is exhausted but my child side wants to keep playing (e.g., working on a project), the child will say, “I’m almost done–I’ll quit as soon as I’m finished!” But my parent side says, “No, it’s time to stop and take a break now. You can come back to finish this later. You’ll feel more refreshed for it then, anyway.”
Sometimes the willful child in me refuses to obey, and I keep working so long I end up with a migraine (as I’m prone to). But sometimes I do manage to stop working on the project and take a break. Then, I praise myself (or my parent side praises my child side): “Good job! Way to take care of yourself! Good girl!” I know it sounds silly, but it helps.
Other times, it’s harder to acknowledge or even see my needs and limitations. For example, my ambitious optimism will prevent me from seeing the reality that I am just not going to be able to get something done by a deadline I had in my mind. Even as this reality becomes more and more obvious, my tendency is to ignore it and stubbornly yet vaguely cling to the belief that I’m going to meet the deadline, rather than swallow the disappointment and adjust my plans. Then I end up feeling stressed out by the impossible pressure I’ve put on myself with my unrealistic expectations.
(For example, a few years ago I decided I was going to try to knit everyone in our families something for Christmas, with the result that in the days leading up to Christmas, I ended up knitting around the clock, literally–even knitting in the bathroom and staying up all night several times in order to accomplish my goal. It was truly insane!! I did post some photos of my projects at the time if you want to see, by the way.)
But when I can stay in the self-caring, self-parenting mindset, I’m more likely to see and admit the reality of my limitations before things reach that point of stress and overwhelm. It might sting a bit when my parent side has to say to my child side, “I’m sorry, honey, but the reality is you just can’t do all those things in that amount of time.” But making that realization frees me to realistically assess how much I can accomplish and then make better plans, setting new goals that I can actually fulfill. Then my life is both more peaceful and more productive! (As an example of this process, see my post “Trial and Error: The Story of My Self-education Plans.”)
It often comes down to simply saying no to myself. For example: “I’m sorry, but no–you just can’t take on that project right now.” Or: “You may choose one of these weeknight activities to commit to, but no more.” I think of this as setting boundaries or limits for myself, the same way a good parent sets healthy boundaries for his or her child. I find it incredibly hard to do–it’s so much easier when someone or something else provides the limits or the structure within which I must work. But I’m learning, gradually, how to be that someone else. (I narrate a detailed example of this self-boundary-setting process in my post “Discovering My Need for Self-parenting.”) As I begin the new journey of motherhood, it will be more crucial than ever to parent myself well, so I can be a good parent to my children.
So in ways such as these, a gentle self-parenting dialogue is the major tool I have found to overcome my problematic mind-over-body instinct. The more practice I get at acknowledging and accepting the limits of my reality, the better I get at it, and the freer I am to thrive.
Can you relate to this struggle at all? In what ways do you need to parent yourself better?
Coming in my next Self-care School post: a simple and practical shortcut I have found to help myself maintain this self-parenting mindset when I make to-do lists!