I’ve procrastinated writing this post for some time. There’s two reasons for this. Number one, feeling disempowered or lacking in autonomy can feel like a huge challenge to overcome. And admitting to the feeling highlights the need to rectify it. But, number two, because these feelings make me feel ‘selfish’. Putting these words in writing, or print, feels like I’m surrendering to narcissistic impulses about how I use my time or even who I am.
But the thoughts have been rolling around my head like loose marbles for a while now. Occasionally knocking into each other and making themselves heard or felt through inconvenient feelings. When it happened the last time, I realised that unless I processed them or at least acknowledged them, they’d always be there. Hanging out in the background threatening to unleash themselves.
It Starts with Overwhelm
For me, the feelings of living for others tend to happen when I feel overwhelmed. In a previous post about empathy, I likened the feeling to J.R.R. Tolkein’s ‘too little butter spread over too much bread’. I start to feel like I’m stretched too thin. It’s a sure sign that I’ve taken too much on and need to scale back a bit.
It’s happened quite a lot recently what with working full time, household chores, Covid-19 and pregnancy. I know I need to take a step back. But easy to say and far harder to do. Putting my feet up won’t lessen the number of things on my to-do list. And I find it incredibly hard to relax when there are things that need doing. So, frustration ensues as does that overwhelming feeling that I’m fraying at the edges.
Read more about the difference between sympathy and empathy here.
Read more about empathy fatigue and how to manage here.
Obstacles to Autonomy
To combat the feeling of overwhelm I need to take back some autonomy. And to do this I have to acknowledge the obstacles in my path. With much consideration, I’ve discovered these obstacles fall in to the following three categories
#1 Internal Pressure
Over time I’ve noticed that I put myself under a lot of pressure. Specifically to achieve and be self sufficient. This makes it hard to prioritize when I’m overwhelmed. Not completing a task, which isn’t a necessity, feels like failure to me. And I project this expectation outwards. Assuming that if I don’t achieve something or complete my to-do list I am perceived as a failure by those around me. Acknowledging this thought process is crucial to help re-frame my thinking. Critically that, most people are too pre-occupied with their own lives to be thinking about what I do or don’t manage to achieve.
#2 Helping Others
The second obstacle to my autonomy is additional responsibilities. We all have responsibilities in life, but, if we take time to really think. Ask yourself, how many of these items on my to-do list are important to me? Or mine to carry exclusively? You might be surprised by the answer! One example of this is household chores. There are two of us living in our house and therefore the daily minutiae of our lives should not exist solely on my shoulders. And yet, I do the bulk of the cooking and cleaning. We’ve fallen into unhelpful gender stereotypes which makes my blood boil. But also means I’m taking full responsibility for something that should be shared.
Above and beyond this, there are things I do for others. Because I’m a firm believer in kindness and being a team player. It’s part of my identity and how I define myself. I believe that we exist on earth in relation to other people. And we are who we act. So, I’m not prepared to give that element of my life up.
But that’s the advice I’ve received most often. When expressing feelings of stress or overwhelm. People invariably advise me to stop prioritizing other people. But that doesn’t feel right to me. I fear what it means to live only for myself and the slippery slope it can become. And yet, when my life is too dependent on others I feel like I’m losing myself and my independence. The key for me is to find a balance. Allowing myself to continue volunteering, being a supportive friend or a helpful member of the community. Whilst still having time to spend on investing in other areas of my life.
#3 Decision Making (or Not)
The third area where I’ve noticed my lack of autonomy is decision making. At some point I’ve stopped asking myself what I want. I struggle to prioritize myself and dictate my life based on others. For example, when I have time to spend on myself. I find my thought processes are paralyzed. And I delegate the decision to those around me. I’ll ask them what they think I should do. Or when they ask me a question, even ‘what would you like for dinner?’ or ‘should we go for a walk right now?’ I find myself saying ‘I don’t mind’ or ‘whatever you prefer’.
I can’t decide whether the hesitancy to decide is to make life easier. After all, it’s one less thing to think about. In the same way Steve Jobs supposedly wears the same outfit every day to streamline his life. Or whether I’ve drifted so far from knowing and prioritizing myself that I can’t seem to put myself first. Ironically, working out the root of this problem is another area of indecision.
I suspect it’s a mix of both. Because, on the one hand, when asked my opinion in a discussion I am often quite ready to give it. This suggests I am able to decide how I feel on a given topic. And therefore, when something is important I can make a decision or hold my own. So, perhaps, I just don’t have the energy to make decisions about the minutiae of my life if someone else can do it for me. It’s one less thing to do. But on the other hand, I’ve always deferred my feelings to the wants and needs of others. Putting my mental health on a back burner if someone else needs me. This is a pattern I can’t ignore either.
Read more on the importance of kindness here.
Taking Back Autonomy
All this thinking has revealed the truth that hides behind most things. The need for balance. I can’t live solely for other people. But I can’t live solely for myself either. I require a sense of autonomy with space to care for others. It can’t be 100% of one or the other.
To take back autonomy I need to recognise the importance of looking after myself. Prioritizing and investing in myself builds my capacity to complete tasks in other areas of my life. Far from being selfish, autonomy empowers and motivates me. It helps re-charge my batteries and keep going. Autonomy is like the Duracell Bunny (link). It’s a robust self-care mechanism. Allowing me to find the balance between living for myself and others in tandem.
So, our answer lies in balance but also a continual awareness of how we feel and finding a pattern that works for us. We must all determine our own equilibrium of how much we can give to others and when we need to reach for autonomy and possibly hold some difficult boundaries. Finding the balance between ourselves and others can be tricky. And our preferences may not always be possible. Especially if we’re managing a lot. So we will also need to be flexible within the equilibrium we find. And, as with most things, this is easier said than done.
Read more on prioritizing yourself here.
Read more on the importance of saying no here.
What are your thoughts about living for others? Do you find it hard to find a balance in your own life? Do you have a tendency towards it too? Let me know below!