‘Doing’ Verses ‘Being’ and Other Irrational Thoughts

About 10 days ago my lower back began to ache, then the ache turned into sharp pains and overall agony. Now hurts to the point that getting out of bed is a challenge and getting showered and dressed is a feat in itself, nevermind actually ‘doing’ anything.  I’ve done everything people normally recommend: rest, massage, heating pad, visited my doctor and I am also now seeing an osteopath. But I still have pain and every time I go to get up, sit down, or basically move at all, I am hurting. I thought I was pretty good at dealing with pain; I can get through headaches that last for days and still get my laundry done and make dinner. I used to have stomach aches and cramps almost every morning but I still get to work on time.  But this pain is different. No matter how hard I try to distract myself from it, I seem to have no control over my reflexes and my reflexes apparently react very strongly to shooting pain.  The only thing I can really do is rest.

But isn’t rest is supposed to come after doing something? I earn my rest for accomplishing things. When I worked 9-5, I earned my lazy evenings and weekends, it was never an issue. When I could no longer work, I found myself focusing on laundry, dishes, groceries or baking. Once I did something on my list,  I could rest without guilt. I rationalized this so that I could maintain my sense of order.  I now see that I have this ingrained, irrational belief that people need to do ‘their part’ to earn they place (impossible for me to define for others, but it is very clear to me when I don’t do mine). I don’t know if it is nurture or nature, but regardless it is very real in my mind. This started to be clear to me when I had to give up my career, I felt immense shame from no longer contributing to my community or feeling productive as I had done for years. I came up with a new system of doing small tasks throughout the day so I could feel productive, albeit in a different way. I eventually accepted this as my new norm. But this backache has taken it to a whole new level.

I think this time it wouldn’t be such a problem if I knew it was only going to last a few days or even weeks. I could just let things go and know I’ll get back on my feet quickly. But as it gets close to 2 weeks, things are starting to pile up, literally.  Even though everyone is my house contributes to the maintenance of it, I take on my share of chores. This has worked out as it fulfills my need to feel productive. But now that I can’t even do those things, I realize how attached I still am to the belief that I need to ‘do my part’ to earn my downtime.

This belief is so powerful that I find myself sliding down a slippery slope of negative self-talk. “What good am I if I can’t ‘do’ anything?”  “I will become a burden if this continues?”  And then the dreaded “what will people think?” mantra starts repeating in my mind.

I feel like I need a quick ‘productivity’ fix to stop these pointless thoughts from whirling around and making me feel worse than I already do.

Even as I write this I secretly hope (or not so secretly) that I will get a sense of accomplishment by writing. However, I also feel my eyelids are getting heavy and that I could likely nap if I allowed myself to close my eyes. But how can I rest when I haven’t done anything today?   So do I try to push through in the hope that I come up with some inspiring conclusion of how I will get over this slump?  Well, I don’t. So perhaps I should just nap and hope my back feels better tomorrow.

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Stop Trying to Change Who You Are

If you are born with short legs, or big feet or any other physical trait that you don’t particularly like or doesn’t fit with the current trends, you may complain about it and wish they were different but you likely not to spend too much time or energy on trying to change it. And if you did worry about it, the people that care about you would probably tell you it’s just the way you were born and they love you that way.

However, if you are born with a tendency towards being very introverted, anxious or melancholy then well-intentioned people often show concern and offer suggestions on ways to improve these aspects of your self.  For the shy child, we try to get them to come out of their shell. Or the sad and teary child, we try to cheer up. Or even the loud or hyper child, we try to quiet them down.

So what can be learned from this? Is it that big feet are not your fault and don’t hinder your life, and therefore don’t need to be ‘fixed’?  But a person born with personality traits that don’t fit in the spectrum of ‘preferable person’ (whatever that means to you), efforts should be made to improve the aspects seen as lacking?  Of course, no one overtly says this, but I still believe that most of us hear it loud and clear.

As a child, I remember commenting to my mom that she would act differently when different people were around. She did not seem happy with me commenting on this observation as if it was some kind of secret that I shouldn’t speak of, and then she simply said I was making something out of nothing. I also remember from my high school and university days how I tried so hard to ‘fit in’ with the fun crowd; laugh at their jokes, or pretend to be interested in the latest gossip.  I spent a lot of energy on trying to be more like other people because I believed that there was something wrong, or at least not desirable, about who I was (or the way I was born). I would wonder what was wrong with me and how can I fix it.

No one told me I should act differently or be like someone else. In fact, I had a very loving family growing up and I had more freedom than most to explore who I was. But somehow I still got the message (and I believed it) that what was going on in my mind and my natural tendency towards soul searching, meditation and emotionality, were not traits to be celebrated.  Even now that I know this is not true, I can still occasionally find myself trying to ‘fit in’. It is not an easy lesson to unlearn especially since our society still seems to prefer certain types of behaviors in certain groups of people.

Sometimes I wonder if all this ‘acting’ didn’t contribute to my eventual breakdown and major depression five years ago.  I could only sustain this appearance of good mom, wife, daughter, friend, employee/ manager for so long, especially when my husband was struggling with PTSD and I was struggling to care for him and our kids.

I also wonder if this isn’t part of what’s causing the increased rates of depression and anxiety that we are seeing in our communities today.  If we are feeling the need to hide parts of ourselves only to bolster others or act one way with some people and another with others, this is not sustainable. It is confusing enough to figure out who we truly are and want to be in life without having to think about what everyone else expects from us. IMG_0588

Justification for ‘Good Person’ Status

Since I was a kid I really liked ginger ale, however, since I try to minimize my sugar intake and it is full of sugar, it’s not something I usually have in the house. But while at the grocery store last week I saw it on sale and spontaneously bought it (thanks to good product placement).  So when my teen saw it in the fridge she asked ‘what’s the special occasion?’ jokingly.  I immediately said it was on a special, even though I don’t think she expected an answer.  No big deal, right? But why did I have to explain why I bought such a simple thing? Would it have been somehow unacceptable had I bought it at full price? Certainly not to my daughter or anyone else I care about.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times I tell myself that I don’t care what other people think of me or my choices, I am apparently still stuck in this cycle of trying to predict people’s thoughts and planning an acceptable response.

I first had a clue this was an issue for me when our kids were little, about 15years ago when we decided to buy a minivan. We only had a small car and it could not fit a 3rd booster seats in the back seat, so I could never drive any of my kids’ friends anywhere (since they use booster seats till they’re almost in high school these days this was very frustrating).  That was my justification for the minivan. But when we finally found one that met our needs, it had leather seats.  Oh, and they were heated leather seats.  How could I justify this? Well, it was a used van with low mileage, in good shape, in our price range and there weren’t many around.  But leather?  And heated? That seemed like a luxury that was beyond me (at the time I was a stay-at-home mom married to a corporal in the army). My husband convinced me that it was a good van for us so we did end up buying it. But I couldn’t justify it no matter how I tried. So although I didn’t recognize the feeling at the time,  I never felt good about that vehicle and was relieved when we sold it several years later. Now that I look back, I can see that the feeling was shame.  I had unconsciously decided it was an unnecessary luxury and one I did not deserve. No one ever said this to me, or even implied it, but somehow I did not feel deserving of such a vehicle and therefore could not feel good about having it.

I don’t expect to understand or agree with other peoples life choices nor do I expect them to explain their choices to me.  I believe in a “live and let live” philosophy, and yet that’s not the end of the story. I still find myself trying to justify myself even when no one is expecting or asking me to. In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that most people really don’t care about what I’m doing or buying, they have their own lives to worry about after all. But knowing that is obviously not enough to end this pattern.

So why am I sharing this?  Simply because I can no longer deny it’s impact my overall mental health and I am quite sure I am not alone.  This pattern of thought implies that we do not feel worthy just for being ourselves. That we feel a need to justify why ‘we do what we do’ and that our personal feelings are not sufficient reasons. As if there is some imaginary board of examiners that will decide if our choices are acceptable (whatever that means to you) and if we get to keep our ‘good person’ status (or whatever your preferred status is).  I know this sounds ridiculous and intellectually I know it’s absurd, but unfortunately, that doesn’t make it less real.

Have you found yourself wondering what people might think when making a decision? Or justifying your choices even if they do not affect anyone else?

PS. I am not looking to get your support or seeking reminders that I am worthy.  This is just an old pattern I’m aware of and working towards changing.

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