I won’t deny it– I am energized by a productive Saturday of completing projects around the house or running errands. I get a thrill from crossing things off a list, just like the next person. But I have been guilty, in the past, of killing any sense of joy that could have come from said tasks. If you weren’t helping me, you were merely in the way. If I had a look on my face that indicated I was about to do battle with clutter and disarray, people in my life scattered. I could be heard muttering things like “Am I the ONLY one in this family who thinks it strange we have 17 bars of soap in 5 different places??”
If I have been dedicated to one thing my entire life it has been to the creation of order out of chaos. One Christmas in my 20s I even requested a label maker (I still have not lived that down with my mom’s best friend who thinks it’s hilarious) and went about labeling everything from shelves in my kitchen to the boxes of keepsakes in my attic. Entertaining guests sent me into a whirling dervish of unnecessarily meticulous preparation. The worst part is that I often expected everyone around me to have the same urgency to, say, prepare for an afternoon BBQ at 9 am.
Recently I started asking myself if the pace I was keeping, and often expecting others to keep, was serving me and my family well. The answer was a resounding ‘NO’.
Why had I become this way? What drove me to race around obsessively tidying up? Why did I need to control so much of my environment, and the people in it? The conclusion I reached was this:
Some of my behavior was situational. For 10 years we lived in a very small home, so keeping a semblance of order was necessary to feel less crowded by our belongings. Staying organized also made it easier to find things in our moment of need. My husband and I both worked in Manhattan so we were gone from our home 12-14 hours a day. That left little time to search for car keys– A place for everything and everything in its place was my motto, born mostly out of necessity. In addition, we were impacted by the pace of life around us. Our town, a suburb of New York City, was full of ‘hustle and bustle overflow’ on the weekends. The feeling was personified by over-caffeinated moms and dads rushing from Starbucks to soccer to ballet rehearsal with the words “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” on their lips and lead weights on the gas pedals of their SUVs. The anxiety of having an invisible standard to “do it all” was palpable. I can hyperventilate just thinking about it now.
But the person I’d become wasn’t just born of necessity. It had been there far earlier, the result of hundreds of messages from all over that I had received and internalized about my worth and my value. The world looks for capable people. The more capable you are the more praise you are given. The more praise you get the more motivated you become to produce. As a teen there were a lot of things I wasn’t— I wasn’t tall, graceful, or beautiful. I wasn’t particularly artistic or athletic. But I was smart and eager to please. A first-born female, I respected that society was comprised of rules and I honored them. When you are young and uncertain it helps to know there are expectations and all you have to do is meet them to be accepted. And those good-natured behaviors can be learned and manipulated. Being well-mannered, well-spoken, and reliable were easy for me and gave me the positive attention I sought.
Also, I deeply disliked disappointing people so until recently I have often said 'yes' to things to earn approval or acceptance. Having something to offer gave me a place to belong, and that place was valued and safe. But if I’m honest, my identification as a kick-ass-do-it-all-and-never-let-them-see-you-sweat woman also fed my ego. That ego clung to its identity—probably worried about what I’d be left with and loved for if I was no longer the dependable Sarah who could be counted on to fill a vacant Board of Trustees position or deliver a last-minute craft to school.
I learned to control people’s perceptions of me while creating and maintain order in an effort to avoid chaos. The result was a sense of certainty I could count on because I’d manufactured it. The more I could control, the better I felt because it left less uncertainty to worry about. The downside is a person can become too dependent upon certainty and their own ability to control outcomes. And this is where I began the dangerous practice of trying to create a life that matched the pictures in my head. The wake-up call came after I had willed the picture-perfect life into being, but I was absolutely miserable. Surprise! Authentic living doesn’t come from creating a life you think you want, it comes from allowing life to unfold as it should and accepting what comes.
Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it eludes you. Only when you turn your attention to other things does it come and sit softly on your shoulder. – Henry David Thoreau
It is true leaving the fast-paced lifestyle of the Northeast has significantly decreased the amount of stress we experience as a family. And that feels wonderful. So if you are feeling a similar burden from the way you are living, it’s worth the effort to look around and identify possible ways to change your particular circumstances. It might not have to be as big of a change as we made. Sometimes carving out a little quiet time for contemplation is all a person needs to start their days off in a calmer way.
We all know people who allow the stressors of life to follow them, even on vacation. They spend their lives running from appointments to volunteer meetings to soccer practices. They thrive on looking, feeling and talking about how frazzled they are. They one-up you about how crazy their life is and how much they are managing and they claim there is no way to make it any different. My question to them is “Why?”. Are they really so busy? Do they perceive themselves as performing better under pressure and therefore create chaos? Are the chaos and busy behaviors serving their ultimate goals? Perhaps it is. But if children are involved, one has to ask what messages are being sent about life. What are we showing them is valued—- stress? hustle? anxiety?
Lets not glorify busy.
What has made the biggest difference for me is stillness. It took meditation for me really dissect why I had the need to buzz around like a frantic hummingbird, perpetuating the myth that a rapidly moving, overscheduled life is required to feel alive. The answer turned out to be that I often kept that pace to avoid having to think about or look at the aspects of myself I didn’t like.
Here’s what I was avoiding: