There are very few things that we have no choices about. If you think about it, we have choices about whether to eat, drink, and even breathe. If you choose not to breathe, your body will send increasing signals to do so, and if you continue to choose not to, you will pass out and your body will resume breathing without your conscious participation. The same is true to a lesser extent with food and water. Eventually you will really WANT to eat and/or drink. People who manage to withdraw from life to the point of terminal starvation/dehydration are really proving the point of free will! But for most of us, it ought to be very comforting to know that even in meeting such basic necessities of life there is freedom of choice.
If we don’t “have to” eat, drink, or breathe, then how much less do we “have to” anything else?
We often forget that we have gotten to where we are by making decisions, some of which are so long-standing as to be assumptions. It can be helpful, therefore, to re-examine some of those previous decisions. I have a friend who holds herself to very high standards and often finds herself overstretched to meet all of the expectations and deadlines placed on her. She usually manages to fulfill those expectations, but at a very high cost to her health and well-being. She feels like she’s being ground into dust all the time, isn’t compensated well enough for it, and isn’t having fun doing even those parts that she might otherwise enjoy. And as soon as one set of objectives is met, others spring up to take their place, so there is no respite.
From an outside perspective, some of the choices that she has made are obvious, and in fact her friends and family are always suggesting options which she finds unsuitable. But for this discussion we will examine a few.
She feels that she must accept all of the assignments she is given and that she must deliver a product which is up to her high level of expectation. She feels that an outside agency has the right to dictate her deadlines and require multiple revisions of her work. She feels so driven by these requirements that she is willing to sublimate sleeping, eating and her desires to relax by working out, meditating and working on other projects.
Some, if not all, of this pressure is internally generated. Some could be relieved by substituting the words “I want” or “I choose to” in place of “I must”. In fact, that is one way of clarifying to herself that not only does she have options, but that some of the tasks she feels she “must” do are much less important than others, helping her to rank their priority. Underlying all of her willingness to take on this workload are the assumptions that she must work hard to get what she wants, that suffering will pay off in the end, that at least some tasks can be more important than feeling good, that she must always attempt to reach her highest quality and output, no matter what, and that others have the right to demand this of her.
So now she has a lot of things to look at. What can she say no to, or put other limitations on? If it is this hard to do what she is trying to do, is it really worth it? Other people of our acquaintance seem to be able to get what they want without suffering, so is that old saying a bad assumption? At what point does she tell the outside world to go hang so she can relax and feel good, or will she keep going until she crashes and burns? If so, what does that accomplish for her or her clients? This is a lesson many of us have to learn as parents, to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our children. It is ironic, in that situation, that we choose to learn how to feel better in ourselves for someone else’s sake.
At those times of feeling trapped, pressured, or frustrated, it is very helpful to remember what choices we made that got us there and then question whether it is time for making a new choice.