“Build a puppy house,” my toddler says to me, and I hesitate. It’s almost her bedtime, and I sense that this will end in tears.
“Build a puppy house!” she cries again. She clutches her stuffed puppy – the one I picked out last Christmas – and gives me her best Bambi eyes.
I prompt her to say “please,” but we both know: I’m giving in. Much of my time and attention has been redirected to her new baby sister, and I feel guilty about this.
And so we sit in the midst of our cardboard “bricks” on the rug. I was up in the middle of the night with the baby, and now I am so very tired. Nevertheless, I am trying.
In the process I am forgetting what I know, which is that martyrdom isn’t what my girl needs from me. She does not need me to kill myself to appease her whims; rather, she needs to see me take care of myself, even as I take care of her.
But alas, I have forgotten. For this little girl I love beyond words, I am pushing myself past capacity. And it’s not enough.
“No! No! NO!” she says, her face falling, her voice tipping into a whine. The same puppy house that brought her joy when we built it this morning is a travesty this evening.
Taking a deep breath, I say, “I hear you, honey. What would you like? How can I help?”
She can’t answer me. I see frustration in her face. At age two, she’s putting together some impressive sentences. But she can’t tell me what she wants just now, and I can’t read her mind.
No matter what I try, it’s: “No! Not RIGHT!”
This scenario presses on old pain points. The quickest way to make me feel crazy has always been to tell me I’ve done something wrong and then not allow me to fix it.
All at once I am furious. I start a silent tantrum: Seriously? I am building the damn puppy house! I am trying to give her what she wants, when I don’t even have what I need! I hate this!
The next day, I tell my closest friends Brooke and Tam about how the puppy house that worked in the morning didn’t work in the evening, and how crazy I felt. I tell them that I kept my temper, but barely.
And then Brooke says: “Well, you could put the bricks away at night.”
I start laughing. Of COURSE we could put the bricks away at night! It’s obvious! And yet, this never occurred to me. (And I’m a coach who helps people trade perfectionism for possibility!) Not for one second did I think: We could opt out of building at bedtime.
The thing is, when you’re addicted to something, you think it’s the solution to every problem. When you’re addicted to alcohol, drinks are your default. And when you’re addicted to proving yourself, “try harder” is your go-to.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Pause here and ponder: What are your “bricks” – the things in your daily routine that sap your strength and will to live? And how might you lighten that load?
That said: Seeing new possibilities is only half the equation.
The other half is giving yourself permission to take action. To actually do less, not just talk about it.
And for those of us who hustle for worthiness, this feels terrifying. It opens up this vast canyon of big feelings and fear.
I’ve wrestled with overwork for most of my life.
It’s a persistent pattern, resisting myriad attempts at change. I’ve inadvertently re-created overload in different environments: at school, at work, in parenting. In DC, and in Alabama. (In a car, on a train, in a house, with a mouse …)
There have been times when I’ve purposefully used overwork to hurt myself. (I talk more about that in my book, You Don’t Owe Anyone). Yet even though I don’t do that anymore, I still tend to pile on additional responsibilities. I still find it extremely hard to un-commit, even for good reasons.
When a coaching client comes to me with a problem like this – an issue that persists despite repeated, well-meaning attempts at change – then I know that we’re dealing with an emotional-level issue.
Typically, we do a version of an exercise that I outlined in my book, called “follow the energy back.” (If you’re feeling stuck, give it a go.)
When I coached myself to follow the energy of overwork, it brought me to this early memory.
I am sitting at the kitchen table with my children’s church lesson booklet before me. Usually I’m diligent about completing the booklet before church each week. Just like my elementary school homework, it always gets done.
But today, something is different. Today, I’m so very tired. (Have I been sick, or am I just exhausted?)
Either way, I ask if it’s okay, just this once, not to finish. The answer I get is No, Caroline. You need to do the lesson now.
And so I obey. I take out my markers to color the illustrations in the book. I color the feathers of those birds, the curve of Noah’s ark. And I understand that no matter how I feel, there can be no exceptions to the rules.
I am praised for doing well, but I feel … angry. For the first time in my young life, I don’t want to be told that I’ve done a good job. I want to have not had to do the job at all.
The next day, I bring my lesson book to church. Our teacher checks it. But my friend Eva hasn’t completed her lesson, and the teacher simply asks her to finish it for next week. No drama, no guilt, just a free pass.
And I feel a shot of longing, powerful as a punch to the stomach. Why does Eva get more time? Why is it okay for her not to finish her work? Why not me?
It’s like that Bible verse: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In this moment, I want mercy so much.
Then I feel bad for feeling that way, so I push the whole incident down and away. I don’t think about it again for twenty-five years.
Of course, it wasn’t just that one time. That memory is representative; it symbolizes an entire religious and cultural message that I “heard” a thousand times: “It doesn’t matter how bad you feel; just get the job done.”
And for so long, I lived by that principle.
But this year, it broke down in earnest.
This year, I parented a toddler while pregnant while healing from big-time trauma while running my own coaching business while contracting as a coach for another business while launching a book (and recording an audiobook) in the middle of a pandemic.
Granted, I am fortunate to do work I love, with wonderful people, and that buoyed me.
But then I had the baby. And in the three months surrounding the birth, we withstood three major medical crises in my immediate family.
(Thankfully everyone’s well now. Here’s newest Little One, rocking ballet slippers.)
Needless to say, I got to a point where I could no longer work my way out. I wasn’t sleeping enough to feel stable, and I spiraled. It wasn’t dramatic on the outside, but inside, I knew I was in trouble.
Thankfully I got help, and I’m feeling better now. But when my old try-hard strategy failed, it felt like the end of the line.
When I reconnected with my younger self – the one who asked to postpone her children’s church assignment – I asked her what she needed to feel safe and loved.
The answer was simple: She needed reassurance that it was okay to leave some tasks undone, sometimes. She needed to know that the rules were different now.
Most of all, she needed to know that I loved her if she was a human being instead of a productivity machine.
She needed mercy from me, right here and now.
With my eyes closed, I imagined holding her the way I hold my babies. I told her that she mattered more than any church lesson book. (I believe my actual words were, “Oh honey, I couldn’t care less about that stupid lesson.”)
We laughed and then we cried, because that’s what you do when you reconnect to the self that you’ve given up for lost.
As I prepared to return from maternity leave this summer, I had a choice to make.
Would I continue the old way, taking up a heavy workload while pushing aside my needs and feelings? Or would I be merciful to myself, and do much less than felt “right”?
That’s the thing about breaking a longstanding pattern – to your trained mind, it feels taboo. The trick is to listen to your body, heart, and spirit.
Does your choice feel freeing? Does it feel liberating, even as it scares the living daylights out of you? Then you can trust that.
So that’s what I did. I decided that I would do less than I thought I could, and much less than I thought I should. I decided that for this specific season, I would press pause on many of my usual activities.
I would not start a new book or a new interview series, much as I loved working on those projects. I would not resume my long-term coaching gig, much as I loved working with those people.
Instead, I would focus on just three things: healing my body, taking care of my kids, and serving my existing coaching clients. Nothing more.
It’s less than I’m capable of, sure. But that’s not a point worth proving anymore.
(The first time I “suited up” for coaching again. I was so excited to get dressed and back on Zoom with beautiful people.)
In that spirit, I am taking a sabbatical from writing these missives. I plan to return in January 2022. I’ll miss you, but I know that pressing pause is the next right thing. And I hope that doing so inspires you to do your next right thing, too.
I’ll leave you with these lines, inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to build the puppy house at bedtime.
You do not have to kill yourself to prove a point,
or stay loyal to a story about who you’re supposed to be.
You only have to trust the part of you that has no words for why
it loves what it loves.