Today has been one of those days when I have to constantly remind myself to breathe. My stomach is in knots and my chest is tight. I've been harsh with the kids, short with my husband and unrelentingly judgemental with myself. As nap time approached, all I could think of was writing a to do list in the hopes of easing some of my stress - I always feel better when there are boxes to checkoff. So I started:
1) Cleanup (straighten, vacuum, laundry) - 20 min
Yes, that's all the farther I got. Some sibling squabble called my attention away and then it was lunchtime and then Kyler needed help going potty and then...well, you get the picture. I rushed around for the next hour and then zipped through our usual nap time routine, desperate to get to my list and away from the kids. I all but sprinted down the stairs and found the scrap of paper I'd started writing my to do list on once the kids were down. I read number one and thought ,"What was I thinking?"
I'd need to switch into my superwoman cape in order to accomplish all that cleaning within the time limit I'd allotted. I'd failed before even starting.I dropped my head, slumped my shoulders and gave a deep sigh. Uugghh...
That sigh turned out to be magical. It caused me to pause just long enough to remember a section of a book I'd recently read*, where Brene Brown talks about moments just like this. She describes her "dig deeper" button and how for years when she'd find herself in that low and depleted state, she'd push the button and keep on going, keep on plowing through and making life work.
I've always been good at keeping on, at pushing the "dig deep" button. I check off every box, no matter the cost. I often end up empty and resentful and totally exhausted. At least once a year I lose it completely.
But then Brene talks about the midlife crisis this kind of soldiering on led her to and how she learned to slow down and choose a different way. I could sense that I was in a "dig deeper" moment - that all the shoulds of life were telling me to plow through my to do list and rest later, but that my soul was squeaking from somewhere deep to please, please take a break. This time, miraculously, I heard the soul-squeaks and decided to choose a different button. A kinder, gentler button.
I wiped most of the macaroni and cheese from lunch off the floor then headed to the bathroom where I took the hottest shower I could stand. I let the steam cleanse away my stress for all twenty minutes that I "should have been" cleaning.
I finally decided should's are all too often self-induced prisons and my soul needed more breathing room.
So I let myself breathe and then write and then drink a nice cup of coffee. I sat on the couch and stared at the greasy little fingerprints all over our front window, the crumbs all over our living room carpet, the milk stains all over our couch. And then I kept right on writing and drinking my coffee. The kids were determined to ruin my Zen by waking up every ten minutes and insisting they were done napping. I told them I was just as determined to get my full two hours, then gently kissed them and locked them in their rooms. Kyler responded to this with a half hour of whining and kicking his wall. Havyn fluctuated between crying that she wanted her mommy and screaming out at me in anger. I almost got up to retrieve them a million times. I kept thinking: I shouldn't leave them upstairs. Maybe they only needed a short nap today. I should go get them. Then my mind would wander back to all the cleaning and the to do's and I'd think: I should be vacuuming, I should be prepping dinner, I should...
Should has controlled my life for a long time.
I've always been a rule follower and a people pleaser. Growing up, I saw authenticity and emotional wholeness laid at the foot of upholding duties; I saw creativity and questioning traded out for following rules; I saw true connection given up to attend meetings. I learned that Me is last on the list. Should sounded a lot like must to me.
I carried all these lessons into Christianity and soon became the girl who volunteered for everything. I began to find acceptance in conformity and worthiness in sacrifice. I didn't know how to say "No" and never really needed to: I thrived on being able to do it all. I found a hundred new rules to follow and many more people to please. At first, I loved living up to all the shoulds. I loved the attention and the sense of belonging.
I loved being the poster child, the one others tried to emulate - except that, deep inside, I felt completely worthless and suffocated...even though I knew I shouldn't.
All the shoulds left me increasingly conflicted and hopeless. I stayed busy, plowed through the fatigue and questions and had lots of good days in between, but there was often a lingering sense of, who am I? I had no sense of a soul inside that may need to rest and breathe once in a while. I defined myself by productivity and thus, I often felt alone and exhausted. Doing what I should always trumped doing what I wanted or even needed.
It took years of life and loss and reading and soul-searching to even be able to distinguish that there are in fact two separate voices: the nasty shoulds and the true self. I think there's truth to the old adage that knowing is half the battle. That when you know better, you know better. That there is life beyond shoulds and conformity and people pleasing. That sometimes the "dig deeper" button is best left alone and that it's okay to listen to the soul-squeaks from within.
Today, I gave up on should. I turned my ear to a faint squeaking and gave my "dig deeper" button the afternoon off. I let my soul breathe.
*Brene Brown talks about her dig deep button in her book, Gifts of Imperfection.