As a kid, I was a compulsive rule follower. Any deviation from the rules would leave me with massive guilt and remorse.
So much so that when I was 4, I broke one of the rules at daycare and then told on myself.
(Embarrassing but true.)
The rules at home included: No dessert before supper. Don’t hit your brother. Call if you are going to be late.
At the pool where I was a lifeguard, the rules included: No running on the pool deck. No diving in the shallow end. No chewing gum in the pool.
These rules were simple, straightforward and overt. I knew what they were and why they were there: to keep me safe and healthy.
Those rules were good for me.
As I got older, I realized I had another set of rules that I followed. These internal rules dictated how I made commitments.
I thought these rules were about being a good person, which seemed like a positive thing. But in reality, they were about avoiding the judgements of others.
These rules were not healthy for me and kept me stuck in a cycle of overcommitment until I made a conscious choice to start breaking them.
Here are the rules that kept me stuck in a cycle of overcommitment:
1. I’m not allowed to say no to a worthy cause or commitment without justification.
As I have mentioned in some of my other posts, I lived most of my 20’s and 30’s in a state of overcommitment. I felt really uncomfortable saying no to a worthy cause because I felt like if I had the time, I couldn’t say no.
I thought that I needed a reason (like “I’m already busy”) to justify why I said no.
In my mind, I needed the justification because if I didn’t have a VERY good reason for saying no, I thought it would imply I didn’t care.
What I have learned to do now (although sometimes this is still hard) is to say “I’m sorry, but I can’t make it. I wish you the best.”
That’s it. No justification.
2. It’s selfish to take time to relax and recharge if someone else needs me.
This one was particularly difficult for me. Many times in the past, I reached the point of burnout when I was working as a physical therapist. To recharge, I would plan a day spent in my PJ’s, watching movies and reading a good book, with no one to take care of but myself.
And freakishly often, on my planned day of isolation, I’d get a call from a friend who was in a bad space and wanted to talk or visit.
I would say yes, for two reasons. One, I really wanted to support them. Two, I labelled myself as selfish and a bad friend if I had the time available to help and didn’t answer the call.
I’m now a believer in the idea that taking time to relax and recharge has an “oxygen mask” level of importance.
Airlines instruct us to put our own oxygen mask on first, then help those who need us so we don’t become incapacitated and risk both of our lives. When we delay recharging our bodies, we risk our own safety (chronic stress has many significant health consequences) and impair our ability to help others.
While there are occasional emergency circumstances where I will choose to delay my own recharge time, I now put rules in place like “no answering or checking the cell phone” during times when I really need to rest and recover.
3. If I don’t say yes, no one else will.
I hear this one a lot from my clients. And I used to think that saying yes and “taking one for the team” made me a selfless and caring person, and a valuable teammate.
But I now question whether “taking one for the team” is really beneficial to the team (whether it is your team of coworkers or your team of family members).
Because as my friend and coach Elaine Bailey says,”When you agree to an unreasonable task or deadline, you are really just engaging in self-deception.” I believe we deceive ourselves because we either want the approval fix that comes with meeting someone else’s expectations, or we fear rejection and judgement if we say no.
Marilyn Monroe is quoted as saying, “Sometimes things have to fall apart so better things can fall together.”
When you believe you are holding things together, but getting burned out in the process, you are just slowing down the pace of things falling apart. Which actually delays the point at which a better solution can be found.
Breaking the unhealthy rules I created around commitment has made me a happier person and has allowed me to have more fun while also being a better coach and friend.
Are there any unhealthy rules you could break that would make your life more fun again?
PS- If you know someone on the edge (or over the edge!) of burnout because of their commitments, please share this with them!
PPS- My dog Jasper is a master of undercommittment. And naps. He is a good model of how to avoid burnout: