When you’re feeling indecisive, instead of agonizing, or making your best guess, what if you choose arbitrarily to see what happens? If there’s no right answer, there’s no wrong answer. If there’s no wrong answer, there’s no way to fail. If there’s no way to fail, there’s no fear of failure.
Okay, say you have a decision in front of you. It can be a big one like which job to take, or a small one like what’s for dinner, doesn’t matter. You’re not sure what to do. It could go either way. What if, instead of trying to choose the RIGHT thing, when it’s really not that clear what the right thing is, you see it as “need more input” and just choose SOMETHING. Maybe the easy thing. Maybe the hard thing. Maybe the thing that you don’t usually choose. Maybe the comforting thing. Just something. You have 2 ounces of energy to spend on the decision making process, ready, go. Okay, have you chosen? Great. If you’d agonized over the decision instead, how much energy would you have spent? 10 ounces? a pound? 6 tons? (You knew the energy in your life was measured as a weight, right?) Is this decision worth that much energy? Would the wrong decision cause permanent damage? Is it really permanent, or is it something you can heal from or apologize and make amends and move on? Is this a safe place to fail? To be uncomfortable?
Now we’ve created a split scenario. In one, you’ve spent 10 pounds of energy making a decision with the intention of it being right; in the other, you’ve spent 2 ounces with the intention of gathering information. Now it’s time to act on your decision. You start to see that it’s not working out quite the way you’d imagined. When the intention is to get it right, and it’s going wrong, there’s pressure for it to be right, there’s energy to correct whatever’s going wrong or save face, there’s probably some beating yourself up for choosing the wrong thing, and maybe a side of anxiety around the next time you need to make a decision or do the thing again. When the intention is information gathering, then you can calmly observe the failure, see that maybe it’s not a failure after all, or maybe it is and you can laugh about it. You understand what’s going on better because now you’ve lived it, and when the time comes to make a decision again, it’s a bit easier because you remember what happened last time. When your intention is information gathering, you might feel a little younger, a little more like a kid, a little less in control. You might need to admit that you have more to learn, and that might feel uncomfortable. Or it might feel freeing, like a weight has been lifted. You’re experimenting in this moment, living in this moment, gathering your set of life data, getting better prepared for next time. You’re admitting that you weren’t prepared this time, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact, an observation. And geez, maybe the decision was just what to eat for dinner.
When the intention shifts from making the best choice you can to gathering information, it’s so much easier to laugh at your mistakes, forgive yourself (well, there’s nothing to forgive in the first place) and move on. You’re learning by experience and developing your intuition. Instead of expecting yourself to know it all already and rely on your rational brain to figure it all out, you’re approaching life like a kid again with an air of curiosity and joy of discovery. It means there might be mistakes, and there might be grand ones, but you’re not beating yourself up over them, and life moves on. You can apologize if necessary, make amends if necessary, and try again if necessary.
Where did we get this idea that it wasn’t safe to make mistakes in the first place? Why do we expect such high standards of ourselves? At some point it really was a matter of life and death that we get it right. Is it still? In every situation? At some point, it was society keeping us on the straight and narrow. But now don’t we keep telling our kids that it’s okay to make mistakes? That it’s about the journey? Yet it’s so hard for them, and it’s so hard for us. We’ve gotten stuck in this place of working so hard to do right and thinking we need to know or figure out everything, that it’s blocking our ability to be present in the moment, laugh at our mistakes, and save our energy for the important stuff.
How we make space for the important stuff and ditch the rest.
In our family of 5, we have ongoing lists of things that need to be done, and important things that keep slipping through the cracks. If I want a sense of calm and peace in the way we go about our days, I need to prioritize where I put my energy and how I plan my time. I do want calm and peace. I want my time to be valued and respected. And I want to respect my kids’ autonomy along the way. I’ve been trying to balance it all and this is what I’ve come up with so far:
We have the Must Do things that we’re committed to on a routine basis, the spontaneous extras we want to do (like making cookies, going to the movies, inviting a friend over), and the extras we want to add to our commitments (that extra class, that big project, the weekly teatime).
Of course then there are the things that we’re spinning our wheels with, taking up our time, that aren’t actually that important to us. Like 10 hours of legos and minecraft and facebook and Harry Potter a day. Not that those things aren’t valuable, just maybe we don’t want to be spending all day everyday doing them.
Are you familiar with the big rock analogy? It’s the story of the glass jar that fits big rocks and gravel and sand and water, but only if you put the big rocks in first.
The Must Do list is our big rocks, the extras are the gravel, and the spinning wheels is the sand. The things we mindfully want to be doing, vs the sand that we find ourselves choosing in the moment as the path of least resistance. On our Must Do list includes things that everyone needs to do (eat), things that only a certain person can do (practice guitar) and things that it doesn’t matter who does them so long as they get done (feed the dog).
Every day, first thing, come the Must Dos. These are our biggest rocks, our highest priorities. Once all of the Must Dos are either done or scheduled into the day (I trust they’re going to happen – for example, we don’t have to be done with dinner by 10am, but we *do* need a dinner plan before moving on) we can move on to the Priority List. This is the list of extras that we want to do. The “Mommy will you…” list. “Mommy, will you…?” “Yes, as soon as we’re set on the Must Dos.”
When we’re on top of the Must Do list, getting it all done painlessly, we can add extra activities and commitments to it. When we’re not finishing the Must Do list, then we start simplifying our commitments and making more space for the stuff that matters most. In practical terms, this means dropping an activity, or decluttering the stuff that’s taking up physical and mental space in our lives, until we are really keeping up.
A note, all of these things are limits that I’m setting for myself. This is what I need in order to maintain my peace and calm. I am not willing to commit to paying for/transporting to extra activities until I know that the things that we’ve declared are the most important are being taken care of. I’m not willing to go out of my way for someone else until I trust that my needs are getting met too. Ooh, that’s hard to say without feeling selfish. But the more bandwidth I have, the more I have to give, and everyone wins. I’m not telling the kids what they can and can’t do – I’m showing them a window of what I am and am not willing to commit myself to. If they want a class that they have the means to make happen completely without my help, I won’t stop them from doing it. If they want me to drive them there however, then it needs to fit into my structure for me to say yes.
So that is the bare bones structure. I can imagine it getting adapted in all sorts of ways, depending on each individual’s personal priorities.
Here’s how it looks for us:
My kids are 22 months, 6 years, and 10 years old. My main priorities include quality meals, improving our circadian rhythms, a reasonably tidy house, hygge family time, and project time. And so our Must Do list includes things like eating, getting outside, having a meal plan, dishes, laundry, tidying, taking care of the dog, and the fun things that keep slipping through the cracks, like reading books together, one on one time with each kid, board games, family adventure days.
The ongoing Priority List has all the one off things. Some of them are boring, like returning stuff to the store or calling the dentist and others are fun like making cookies or going to the movies. Anything can be bumped up to Must Do status if it becomes time critical. For now, things on the Priority List only happen once the Must Dos are completely taken care of. As we build up routines and trust stuff will get done, I bet we will open up more space to mix in some of the extras during the day.
We also keep an ongoing list of Activities that we would like to add to the Must Do commitments. This is stuff like Scouts, Theater, weekly Poetry Teatime, and bigger projects like learning to sew a dress. The way I’ve been balancing Activities is, we start at 0. At the end of the day, when we’ve checked off all of our Must Dos, then we add (+1). If there are any Must Dos that we didn’t get to, we subtract (-1). If we get up to +5, then we’ve proven that we have space to add to our Must Do list, so we can add an activity (and reset to 0). If we get down to -5, we’ve proven that we’re overcommitted and so we drop an activity, or else clear out a big box of stuff that isn’t sparking joy anymore.
Future notes: I can imagine a more advanced version of this, where different activities have different weights based on the commitment involved, and where boxes of stuff also have weights. And activities and decluttering can be traded out as priorities become clear. You really want to do theater (4 points) but don’t have the time to add that many activities? Trade out one smaller activity you’re already doing (2 points) and help clear out two big boxes of stuff (2 points). We’re not ready for the extra complexity yet though. Another issue that’s coming up is, how do we make it fair when one person is pulling all the weight and others are just reaping the benefits? I don’t have a solid solution for that one yet that balances honoring the person doing the work without leaving behind the person who can’t find it in them to help out.
When I talk about boundaries, I’m talking about a sense of self and also of self worth. Knowing where you end and ‘other’ begins, what *you* need and where *your* limits are. There are the obvious physical boundaries – what’s my body and what’s yours. This covers babies learning that they are their own person, and not just an extension of mama; and it also covers parent/kid relationships (corporal punishment and forced hugs and kisses, etc) as well as romantic relationships – nobody is “owned” by someone else. There is a lot of conversation around this right now, and it’s important. There are also mental boundaries – what is my motivation vs yours, what is my desire vs yours, what is my mistake vs yours, and the list goes on. It probably maps pretty well to the needs I’ve outlined in the framework of this site. The conversations about these boundaries are starting to pop up and they’re critically important, too.
And then there’s self worth. How much can I take, how much can I give, how much space can I give myself? How much am I worth? What’s too much to keep track of?
I have a mental picture of a circle. A bubble around an individual. The bubble represents where you end and ‘other’ begins. The volume of the bubble represents your self worth. The shape of your bubble isn’t always a circle, though. Unhealthy boundaries come when your bubble is too small (and you don’t take what you need for yourself, don’t feel like you deserve it) or when you overreach into someone else’s space (the controlling or abusive personality) or give away what is rightfully yours (the pushover/accommodator). These last two look like bulging arms reaching out, or like caves carved in to your circle.
I would say that healthy boundaries feel really good to an individual. That is the lowest energy state, and leads to the highest default happiness with life. I would also say that most everyone doesn’t have perfectly healthy boundaries. Some are healthier than others, for sure, but it takes work. You see, life is an attack on your boundaries. There is a nonstop stream of assaults, and figuring out your needs and limits is a learning process, complete with the need to make mistakes. Any time there is an assault that you’re not sure what to do with, it can dent in your circle a bit, and it stays there as trauma until you can process it. The starting shape of your boundaries is passed from parent to child, and from friend to friend. It’s contagious, because it’s defined by what we can validate for each other and what space we can hold for each other.
So you go through life, and there are assaults, and if you don’t have defenses or ways to process the assault then it sticks around. And you have a dent. A trauma. But it doesn’t always affect your self worth – the volume of your bubble. This means that if you have a big dent in one place, you’re going to want, to need to overreach in another place to maintain your self worth. And self worth feels even better (to some?) than a healthy sense of me vs you.
Now we have people with unhealthy boundaries waking around in their funny shaped bubbles, overreaching in some areas and not believing they even can reach at all in other areas. There’s not much of a issue until there’s an overlap between two peoples’ bubbles and then the conflict is brought to light. Limits are set and hopefully people move on. But limits are HARD. They can make you really upset. Because if someone tries to smooth your bulge, where else is the space in your bubble going to go? What about your self worth? Do you need to overreach somewhere else instead? Or are you not actually worthy? Panic! Anger! Fight back!
What’s happening is, either you are being traumatized by someone else’s bulge denting in your bubble, or else someone is trying to lop off your bulge and it feels like trauma (even if you can logically see that they’re right. In order to make sense of this, you need to either reduce your self worth so you can fit in this new shape (ouch!), or you need to change the shape. Changing the shape means either overreaching somewhere else (ick!) or finding a dent and popping it back out (HARD, painful). If you know what to do, you can get straight to it through tears or laughter or talking, but if you feel stuck, it’s likely to come out sideways as anger, depression, anxiety, stress, coping mechanisms. Any way you turn, it’s work.
I’ve been observing myself and my kids and how we get stuck, a lot, some of us more than others. Limits used to be painfully hard for me, but now I’ve figured them out – only they’re starting to cause more pain than growth. And so I realized, it’s time to find those dents and pop them back out again. I can’t set a limit on self care very easily, without really muddling up the self vs other lines. It involves reaching into the bubble of another and claiming ownership. I see dents in my kids’ bubbles though (it’s so much easier to see in others than myself) and now it’s time to pop those dents back out. My plan involves games humor and lots and lots of laughter, completely unrelated to anything else going on, and definitely no limits (besides the rules of the game). My hope is that by popping the dents out into a circle again, the bulges will shrink on their own, with relatively few limits and meltdowns. Or at least the meltdowns will be productive rather than stuck.
As I ponder the love languages, I personally have trouble with a few of them due to boundary violations. The five languages are: quality time, acts of service, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, and physical touch.
It has been groundbreaking recently for me to figure out something that would really be helpful, that would truly be of service to me, and to not only identify it, but to ask for it and then receive it. Wow. Bliss!
Up until recently, acts of service, to me, has meant being grateful for the things that others are doing for you. Which doesn’t particularly feel like love if it’s not something I wanted in the first place, and can kind of feel like twisting a knife if it’s something I specifically wanted/needed to do myself.
There’s a boundary and self worth thing going on here. A few things. Knowing what’s me and what’s the other party is a big part of it, and then there’s drawing a line against the stuff that I don’t want, and drawing a line asking for the things that I do need.
I’m learning, there are a few facets to the nebulous concept of “boundaries.” There’s understanding what’s me vs you, what’s my motivation vs your motivation, my needs vs your needs. Where do I end and you begin? And then there’s finding the needs and limits and enforcing them – making sure that I don’t overextend or take on too much, and making sure that I get what I need and the help I need.
So when someone does something for me in the name of love, but it’s not something that actually services me, it blurs the line between me and you (why *are* you doing this “for me”? And begs for stronger lines, clearer communication. “Thank you for doing that, but I’d actually rather do it myself. What I could *really* use help with is ______.”
And then there’s the love language, words of affirmation. Another that I bristle at. But there have been times where I soak it up like a dry sponge. I think the difference is when words of affirmation is being used as a manipulation tool. If we’re in agreement that my job is to get on your track (as some see child-parent or employee-boss relationships) then words of affirmation are great – they confirm that you’re on the right track and you won’t be shamed. (Me vs you is getting seriously blurred here) But if you see people as separate, with their own needs, desires, motivations, then words of affirmation just degrade that sense of self. Another boundary violation. Alfie Kohn has a lot to say on the topic in his book, Punished by Rewards, and Kelly Bartlett has some alternatives in her book, Encouraging Words for Kids.
So in order to *feel* loved by the various love languages, you need to be able to accept the love offering. And in order to do so, healthy boundaries are a must. Without them, “love” can degrade your sense of self, and make it hard to figure out what your own needs and desires actually are.