This semester, I’m learning quite a lot about over-commitment. Over the past month or so, I gave three talks across the country while trying to find time to teach, run the Race, Ethnicity and Inequality workshop at SBU, mentor undergrads and graduate students, fulfill treasurer duties for SREM, handle service obligations, write peer reviews and make progress on several papers and the book project. Oh, and then there’s also the writing group I’m part of, and, gosh, everything else. Finances. Self-care. Family. Social life. Romance. Unexpected crises. SLEEP. Or rather, insomnia. I got very, very little sleep during the entire months of February and March. When I started feeling the ill effects on my health, I realized it was time to take a step back and recommit to my well-being.
I’ve had to make tough, embarrassing decisions about cutting back on various obligations and deadlines that simply do not fit within my time-space continuum. But in so doing, I’m keeping notes and taking stock of what works, what doesn’t and making a conscious decision to strategically lower my standards.
Aside from complete and total exhaustion, one of the main reasons I haven’t written much here lately is the staggering sense of shame I feel about falling behind on several writing deadlines. On the upside, I’ve already written far more than I have in any other teaching semester since I started my job, thanks to the practices and support system I established by participating in the Faculty Success Program. But I haven’t done all that I hoped and dreamed. And you know what? Despite the very uncomfortable feelings that have come up this semester, I’m learning that this failure to meet my unrealistically high expectations is a really, really good thing. Here are three reasons why:
1) Over-commitment can help us learn how to make better choices. One of the best things about the discomfort I’ve felt these past two months is that I’m learning just how much is too much. Sometimes we don’t know our limits until we push ourselves a bit too far. If we commit to a daily practice of conscious awareness, then we are acutely tuned into unpleasantness as it presents itself in our body, mind and energy field. I’ve been very, very, very aware of the physiological effects of stress and fatigue that have manifested over the past couple of months. It’s to the point where I don’t even try to lie or hide it whatsoever. When folks ask me how I am, if I’m feeling shitty, I say so. I don’t even have the energy to front.
This acute awareness of my limitations is teaching me how to set more realistic goals the next time I do my semester planning.
2) Taking on too much can help us get clear on our priorities. As the semester progressed and I felt myself falling behind in variously stressful ways, I watched my self-care practice crumble and felt lost about how to get back on track. Thankfully, several support systems helped me assess and adjust. My girlfriend and I try to hold ourselves accountable for taking care of ourselves — something that’s not always easy to do in the midst of the urge to merge. Mom checks in to make sure I’m taking vitamins (I’m not) and exercising (getting better). My weekly writing buddy and I have an intentional practice of checking in about our self-care (or lack thereof) and trying to troubleshoot solutions for what physically and emotionally ails us. I also have a really great therapist that I started seeing again, after letting our appointments slide for several months.
All in all, I think it’s pretty fucking awesome that I caught myself mid-way through an extraordinarily stressful semester and made a conscious decision to prioritize my well-being.
This has meant, concretely:
- getting 8 hours of sleep every night no matter what (instead of the 4-5 I was barely squeezing in)
- making a commitment to either take a walk or go to the gym daily (after a 6 week hiatus)
- setting aside time to get my finances in order
- stepping up my spiritual practice (more on that in my next post)
- shifting back to a veganish lifestyle
- nourishing my creativity
- trying to respect some kind of boundaries with work (e.g. not letting myself work all night; not letting myself work all weekend)
3) Overcommitment can expand our capacity to love and forgive ourselves. I’ve had all kinds of shame come up this spring: Shame over not meeting all of my writing goals. Shame over missing and extending deadlines. Shame for having made the decisions that resulted in the consequences I’m now experiencing. But, thank God, as all of these shitty feelings emerged, I remained quite grounded in the bedrock of my spiritual practice — an on-going, conscious awareness of not only my thoughts, feelings and sense of beingness, but also a deep inner-knowing that none of this was or is a mistake. Life has unveiled to me again and again the fundamental truth that even when situations feel like a clusterfuck of a mistake — it’s still not a mistake. All of this is an intentional, divine unfolding.
I was, evidently, meant to attend all of those conferences and have those invigorating, exciting interactions with scholar-friends and colleagues. I was supposed to push myself past my comfort zone in order to better know myself, my boundaries and my priorities. I was supposed to aim a bit too high, and in so doing, write more during a teaching-semester than I ever have in the past. I was supposed to feel all of these uncomfortable feelings in order to transcend them.
I made a conscious decision to forgive myself for getting into this pickle and to extend love and acceptance to all that I am feeling and learning through the process. And so, I’m blogging tonight, despite the fact that my professional plate is piled too high, because I realize that writing and connecting with you is also part of my self-care. And for goddess sake, it’s Friday night. The Work will get done — or it won’t — but right now? I’m going to finish this whisky, get my eight hours and love myself something fierce.
If you’ve followed this blog since the beginning, then you’ll know that I used to have quite a thing for knights in shining armor. I often found myself falling for people – especially men – who could swoop in and take care of all my little problems. Exhibit A can still be found here, even though I’ve fought the urge to delete this post and thereby remove all evidence of past codependent tendencies.
Therapy, introspection, and a fantastic book on overcoming abandonment issues helped me uncover the roots of my attraction to men who could fix my life — deal with car stuff, lift heavy objects, make phone calls I didn’t want to make and generally do things I was too lazy, insecure or spoiled-brattish to do myself.
The truth is that while my ego enjoyed being waited on hand-and-foot, in reality these relationships were never anything even approaching healthy. At best, these Fix-It men actually made me feel disempowered and infantilized. At worst, we’d end up with a codependent hot-mess that reduced love to an exchange of transactions (“What have you done for me lately??”)
Looking back, it’s easy to understand why I wanted someone to be my knight in shining armor. First of all there’s that whole patriarchy thing. Then, there’s the fact that I’m an only child and was spoiled – yes, spoiled – by my single mom. At the same time, not growing up with my father meant that having men show up, be present and do things for me as an adult felt really good — even if the relationships themselves were shitty. And then there’s my profession, which requires me to be very alpha-female: assertive, independent – even aggressive at times. In my personal life, I wanted to just be able to relax and have someone else take care of All The Stuff.
And so, when a man would show up at a moment’s notice to solve my latest crisis, or drive two hours to drop me off at my home in the middle of the night when I missed the last train after our over-long date, or dutifully bring me coffee every morning, I felt loved — even if he didn’t love me. We might not have commitment, or mutual respect or a spirit-filled connection, or anything even remotely resembling what I actually want in a relationship but.. look! He’s such a
jerk gentleman. He showed up when I needed him that one time! Isn’t that sweet? Yeah, he doesn’t call like I’d want him to.. and sure, I guess it’s not ideal that he occasionally lies and doesn’t want to be monogamous.. but he’s so nice to me!
“..goddesses don’t need knights in shining armor, because we’ ve let go of the illusion that we’re damsels in distress..”
It took more than one transactional-not-quite-love relationship for me to realize the pattern of my own emotional wounds and mistakes. Ironically, the most important part of my becoming Self-sufficient was intentionally deciding to trust God, above all else — even and especially when I had no idea what I was doing. Stepping out on faith and affirming that the Universe would guide and provide for me was the the cornerstone of my new found confidence in my own capacity to fully embrace adulthood and handle life on my own.
These days, I’m learning, for the first time, what it means to lean on someone else in an interdependent (rather than co-dependent) relationship. This is a model of relating that is entirely new to me — progressively allowing myself to be vulnerable as we deepen our intimacy over time.. replacing my Knight in Shining Armor fantasies with the reality of building love and life with an equal. We are both attentive to the importance of remaining grounded in our own power while also sharing support, resources and energy. It feels balanced and beautiful and healthy, but at times, it’s scary too.
* * *
“I find myself feeling like I need you. And that’s really frightening, because I know what it’s like to be needy, and I never want to feel that way again.”
“I need you, too.”
“Yes . . . And there’s a difference between needing someone and being needy. I don’t experience you as being needy. But we all need other people.”
* * *
My girlfriend’s wisdom is one of the most attractive things about her. We’re both very clear that no one “needs” a particular person to survive or be happy — we’ve both risen from the ashes of enough failed relationships to know that this is not true. But at the same time, we’ve matured and grown into accepting that we do have emotional needs and desires — needs that we fulfill with self-love, yes — but also by connecting with others. And underneath the appearance of the particular person we find ourselves relating with, we know that it is always the One universal power providing for us, showing up for us in Its endlessly varied forms.
Even so, being real about my very human emotional needs can feel very uncomfortable. It is not always easy allowing her to see my unvarnished insecurities and fears. As much work as I’ve done on accepting my frailties, sometimes I’ll notice my spiritualized-ego whispering: “You’re supposed to be more evolved than this. Don’t let her know how upset/stressed/afraid you are.” My own awareness of this resistance to vulnerability has opened up conversations about how to build trust and intimacy. I’ve had to explain to her how I want to be supported when I’m in the grips of my own egoic projections or fears. She knows that in these moments, I want her to affirm that it’s okay for me to feel whatever I feel, to remind me of the truths I already know, and to help wake me up from my own momentary delusions. A fairly frequent exchange goes something like this:
Me:”Baby, if I’m the Big Bang, why am I so fucking worried about [insert worldly concern here]?”
Her: “You are the Big Bang. And you know deep down, you’re not actually worried.”
Me: “Yeah, it’s true. I’m not really worried.”
And then we move on to deciding whether we’ll be drinking the Malbec or the Shiraz.
That’s the beautiful thing about having a relationship grounded in spiritual equality. We both have the emotional capacity to hold space for our fears and weaknesses. The revelations and vulnerabilities that pushed past lovers away draw us closer and strengthen our bond. We’re not deluded into thinking that we need each other to “fix” our problems. But we’re also committed to being honest about what we do need — space to vent, a shoulder to lean on, help finding solutions, non-judgmental support and spiritual reminders of what we know in our hearts to be true. We show up for each other, knowing that we’re already whole, but ready, willing and able to lift each other up whenever and wherever we can.
What I’ve learned, quite simply, is that goddesses don’t need knights in shining armor, because we’ve let go of the illusion that we’re damsels in distress. But what we do need is the courage to admit our desire for authentic connection, the fortitude to settle for nothing less than the higher love we deserve, and, sometimes .. a really good cocktail and a foot massage.