“For years, I now realise, whilst trying to please others, I had been repeatedly disappointing myself. I had willfully ignored what I wanted. No wonder I’ve struggled with feeling good about myself. I had been repeatedly telling myself to shut up and put up.”
How often do you do something because you think it is the right thing to do, rather than it being something you truly, honestly want to do? How much is your life dictated by ‘shoulds’? I think I used to be mostly driven by worries about letting people down or upsetting others; that’s how I had learnt to make decisions. Ironically, I don’t think my way was actually fit for purpose. Afterall, the way I see the world is uniquely mine and even if I tried my very hardest to ensure my decisions were finely-tuned to avoid everyone else’s suffering and inconvenience, I had no idea how people would actually react to what I was doing. I was acting in a way I thought, they would think was acceptable. Written down, that sounds bonkers.
Navigating decision making is so tricky when we try to second guess everything and attempt to make others happy. It doesn’t work. We need a different way. What I have discovered is that when I listen to my knowing, that quiet voice of inner truth, I get to hear what I really want. I have found starting to trust myself has given me real contentment. It feels luxurious to tune out the noise, and the inner chatter and listen to my real wants and needs. I now recognise I have spent most of my life, almost oblivious to this voice of guiding truth. I guess at times it has been listened to but, I didn’t classify it as a different voice to the rest of the nattering going on in my head. Thinking back, I suppose the moments when I have heard her are the ones that have been accompanied with a feeling of surety. They will have been the times I have felt quite definite about something, even if those around me might have had opposing opinions and yet, I just knew something was the right thing to do. I think I would have called it instinct or a gut feeling then. I wonder how many of us growing up have learnt to outsource our opinions and trust external ‘authorities’ rather than going with what we know. From now on, I’m going with my gut. It’s a simpler, less exhausting way to live.
Choosing what you want and living in that truth is certainly not about being selfish and self-centred and it’s not the easy option either. It simply boils down to authentically doing what you want, when you want, with who you want and not doing the things you don’t want to do. I have found it hardest when I am turning down other people in some way, perhaps I haven’t had the capacity to help at a school event and decided to say no. It’s hard because we have to face the possibility of causing someone else to feel disappointed and that’s uncomfortable. However, I have found saying no can be done in an honest, kind human way being sensitive to the others impacted by your decision. In fact, I have started to wonder if modeling that ‘it’s ok to say no’ might be a gift to the other person; perhaps it allows them to turn inward and start to find a similar freedom from expectation? It is also possible that choosing to implement new boundaries might elicit reactivity in others. Think about it, we all judge other people for their decisions every day and I’ve certainly done my fair share. My brain has often worked overtime to criticise the well-boundaried humans in my life who have bravely said no or not taken on more than they want to. The noisy critic in my head has moaned, ‘It’s not fair, why am I running the local toddler group, when that woman who doesn’t even work, is just swanning around not volunteering for anything?!’. And there’s the clue – the thing that’s not fair is the thing I wanted. I wanted to be able to say no and not take on responsibilities that I didn’t truly want part of. My thought has nothing to do with the other lady, who is not martyring herself volunteering to help the community. It is about what I wanted. Life is always giving us clues to our deep desires. We only have to tune in to the right frequency. Then, we get to choose curiosity over anger and learning over jealousy.
I have found living in a way that is true to myself really liberating, but at times exhausting. Doing what you ‘should do’ is a strong habit to break because society highly values selflessness, especially in women. Living aligned with my true values means stepping away from my people-pleasing past and it’s uncomfortable. It’s about having clear boundaries and being willing to action our decisions however difficult that feels. Brene Brown put it best, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.” I’ve got this quote up in my hallway to remind me that living this way is ok. For years, I now realise, whilst trying to please others, I had been repeatedly disappointing myself. I had willfully ignored what I wanted. No wonder I’ve struggled with feeling good about myself. I had been repeatedly telling myself to shut up and put up. Now, since I have decided that I am the most important person in my life, I think it’s only fair that I prioritise listening to myself. In actual fact, whilst the thought of saying no, turning people down or declining invitations has felt scary, in general no one has really minded all that much. Or if they have, they haven’t told me. It has had no impact on the relationships I value. It’s ridiculous then that I’ve spent years tip-toeing around doing what I think other people want me to and it turns out people don’t care what I do. Why would they? They’re too busy working out their own stuff.
I recognise that I have caused myself huge amounts of suffering by not listening to my inner voice and choosing not to follow my deep desires. Suffering arising from the insult of not listening to myself repeatedly. Suffering arising when I knew my decisions were not authentic. Suffering arising when I had to do the things I didn’t want to do. It just seems that way of doing things was never going to bring me joy. So, from now on I pledge to stop and listen to my knowing as the first stop on the journey to any decision. Perhaps this is the most radical act of self care any of us can offer ourselves?