Most of us are good people who are trying to do all the right things. So, why is all that effort not being rewarded with fabulous feelings of achievement, contentment and satisfaction? Why instead, do so many of us feel utterly exhausted, stretched hopelessly thin and like we are failing at everything?
The list of things we can blame is long. You may point the finger at our ridiculously fast-paced world, stupidly high living expenses, pointless politicians, the pervasiveness of social media or your own love/hate relationship with gluten. You can also choose to get extremely annoyed at Gwyneth Paltrow, people who can afford nannies and all those tanned, fit-looking people who somehow find the time and energy to go kite-surfing on a Tuesday afternoon. Sadly, getting frustrated is not going to help.
Instead, it may be helpful to start with a little life audit. Just how much are you actually taking on? If you are one of those good, conscientious people, you will most likely throw yourself into your work, putting in extra time, picking up slack and making sure everything gets done. Perhaps you are also a dedicated parent, going to great lengths to ensure your progeny are not completely raised by iPads. Maybe you are studying, performing caring duties or have a second job/side project that is taking up time and energy. Quite possibly, you are also valiantly trying to stay on top of all those adult things such as keeping the house tidy, paying bills, maintaining relationships, dressing semi-respectably and preparing something slightly more gourmet than baked beans on toast for your evening meal. Somewhere in amidst all this you may be trying to squeeze in a social life, boxercise classes, a skin care regime and a few minutes of that mindfulness thingy which is supposed to be really good for you.
Once you complete this life audit, you may come to the shocking realisation that you are juggling a great deal of stuff. Quite possibly you are also attempting to live up to some fairly unrealistic ideals. Maybe you could get it all done, but that would undoubtedly require the assistance of a cleaner, a nanny, a personal trainer, a stylist and 26 other professionals you will never be able to afford on your salary.
At this point, it may be helpful to practise some self-compassion. Acknowledge that you are human and that you are doing your best. Realise that you do not immediately have to complete your tax return, plan that birthday party or attack any of the other 1001 things on your to-do list. A far better option would be to you run yourself a bath (if necessary, give your kids an iPad to keep them occupied) and allow yourself to just be for a while.
As you sink into this precious moment of peacefulness, stillness and silence, your mind may bring up some interesting questions, such as “what am I doing all this for?” and “is there a less exhausting way to do it?” and “when was the last time I cleaned this bath?”. We’d like to provide you with 5 useful pieces of advice regarding the second question.
1. Set strong boundaries
When you are a good person who does the right things, it’s likely that you will be extremely generous with your time and effort. You will be generous at work, at home and with friends. While all this generosity may seem like a wonderful trait, without proper boundaries, it’s easy to give and give and give until you feel overloaded, worn out and resentful.
While generosity may be in your nature, it’s important to keep something in reserve for yourself and also to be very careful of what becomes normalised. Are you for instance, always staying back or doing the work of others? Do you regularly check emails after hours? Is your free time consistently filled up with chores? Do you exhaust yourself trying to support others?
Setting boundaries is a wonderful act of self-compassion. Recognise that your time is a precious, limited commodity and make sure you cordon off a healthy chunk of it for yourself. By doing so, you will protect your physical and emotional health.
2. Establish your non-negotiables
What are the things that fill you up, energise and inspire you? Are they regular activities, central in your life, or are they somewhere at the edges, just waiting for the chores to be done, the kids to have moved out and the mortgage to have been paid off?
If you love to paint, make painting the first thing you do. If you feel better when you meditate, make sure nothing gets in the way of it. If Wednesday night netball is your highlight of the week, don’t let anything stop you from pulling on that bib and getting on court. Establishing non-negotiables is not selfish. Rather, it is treating yourself as worthy and ensuring you don’t miss out on those things which energise you and bring you joy.
For our lives to become richer, more enjoyable and more fulfilling, it makes sense that we should focus on those things which deliver richness, enjoyment and fulfillment. Ensure the activities that fill you up energetically and emotionally are non-negotiable… the rest you can sort out later.
3. Stop being the glue
The problem with being the glue that holds everything together is that you get stuck in the one place. If you want to progress, branch out or grow, you need to learn to let go.
If you are the only one who ever re-fills the toner on the office printer, go on holidays the moment it is empty. Eventually, someone will work it out. If it always falls to you to organise group catch-ups, politely pass the baton on to another friend. If you are tired of being a taxi for your teenager, introduce them to public transport or remind them of that bike you bought them last Christmas.
While it may feel nice to be needed, it’s an even better feeling to be free from a bunch of chores you never really signed up for. It can be extremely liberating to empower others rather than enable ongoing reliance.
4. Don’t immediately say yes
As a good person who’s trying to do the right things, your natural inclination may be to say ‘yes’ the moment you are asked a favour. Later on, when you have just returned from an intense interstate business trip and begun baking lamingtons at 2.00 am for the next day’s school cake stall, you might suddenly wish you had provided a different answer.
“I’d love to help out, but I will have to check my diary” could have been a more suitable response. By pausing, you will have the chance to consider what you are willing to sacrifice in order to say yes.
It’s also okay to say no. Another perfectly acceptable response would have been to say “unfortunately, I am stupidly busy right now and I also suck at making lamingtons, but I applaud all your effort and I hope the cake stall is a raging success!”
Learning to say “no” can also be important in other situations. If for instance, you are asked to stay back on Wednesday to fill up the printer toner you could say. “no, I’m on my way to netball and I can’t miss it, but it’s pretty simple, you should have no trouble figuring it out.”
5. Consult your values
A scarily large proportion of our precious time can be wasted doing things which don’t particularly serve our values. We run ourselves ragged chasing impossible ideals, rather than stopping to consider what really matters.
Having a full diary is very different to having a full life. When you pursue your values, you start living with purpose. The great time-saving benefit of this is that some things which once seemed terribly important become almost irrelevant and can be cheerfully chopped from your life.
Perhaps you stop worrying about being in with the cool kids. Perhaps you start working towards having a happy house, rather than a big one. Perhaps you have an epiphany that you actually love baking lamingtons far more than you love tiring interstate business trips.
Remember, it takes practise
You’re a good person, so be good to yourself! After all your hard work, you deserve better than exhaustion and overdoing. Remember, self-compassion is very different from selfishness. Practise saying no, standing back or setting a boundary that honours your own needs. With these small, simple actions you can often start a significant shift. By consulting your values and establishing your non-negotiables, you can also ensure far more of your life is spent doing what matters most.