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“Me Time,” “Them Time,” And The Big Picture

mothers-me-time

(Inspired by a comment I left on Stacey Shipman’s great post about me-time)

One common complaint I hear from people is that they don’t get enough “me time.”  That is, they spend too much time doing things for others, and not enough serving their own wants and needs, and they feel tired and resentful as a result.

Yes, many of us could use a break to meditate, watch the tide roll in at the beach, play with the dog, or do something else to relax.  And, I wonder if some of this “me time” problem results from how we tend to think about our day-to-day activities.

Is “Them-Time” Really All About “Them”?

Let’s look at the activities we tend to see as “them time” — as things we do for others rather than ourselves.  Common examples include driving the kids to school, going to work in the morning, and cleaning the house.  Our attitude toward these things tends to be “I don’t like to do it, but I will because others need my help.”

But are these things really just “them time”?  Do we do them purely out of self-sacrifice, just to be martyrs?  Or do we do them because, on some level, they fulfill our own needs and wants?

Take driving the kids to school, for instance.  Yes, from one point of view, this serves the kids’ needs, because they need to get to school.  But doesn’t it serve yours too?  Don’t you want your children to get an education?

And how about going to work?  Yes, you’re giving your boss, customers, or someone else what they want by showing up.  But what about you?  Didn’t you pick this career because you were interested in it?  Or, at the very least, don’t you want the money and benefits this job gets you?

What I’m asking you to do is take a step back and look at the larger reason why you’re doing the task you’re involved in.  What’s the bigger goal you’re trying to accomplish with what you’re doing?  How does it serve your own wants and needs?

When we get back in touch with the larger reason why we’re doing a task, we reconnect with the sense of mission that drove us to the path we’re on in the first place, and that can be a great source of motivation.  We can even feel inspired replying to e-mails and rearranging our folders when we’re in touch with the broader purpose behind those things.  In other words, even the time we spend doing those tasks can become “me time” with the right mindset.

The Cost of Consciousness

Of course, there are reasons why many of us prefer not to look at the big picture.  We’re afraid that, if we asked ourselves why we do something, we’d discover we really don’t know.  We might learn that we have no idea why we’re working this job, why we care about cleaning the house, or even why we decided to create this family.

Because we’re afraid of what we might find out if we took the big-picture view, it can seem easier just to treat everything we do as “them time.”  What’s more, when we view everything we do as an obligation, we get to feel like hard-working, responsible people (and maybe that other people owe us for our sacrifices as well).  The trouble is that, when we think of everything we do as “them time,” we feel stressed and frustrated, and our energy level and relationships suffer.

My point is that whether something we do is “me time” or “them time” is often a matter of perspective.  When you get back in touch with the bigger purpose behind what you’re doing, the sense of fatigue and irritation can fall away, and you can feel the inspiration that got you onto your path.

Do You Know What You Want?

Many people, including people who come to me for coaching, tell me they “don’t know what they want” in life.  Much of the time, however, this isn’t really true.  They’ve just fallen into the habit of saying they don’t know because they don’t feel safe telling people in their lives what they want.  They worry that others will judge them as irresponsible, selfish or unrealistic if they admit what they actually want to do with their lives, and the prospect of being harshly judged feels scary.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day that illustrated this point nicely.  She joked that she would be a terrible client for me because she’s never been able to figure out what she wants in life.

“What do you want to do?” I asked, as if she hadn’t said that last part about not knowing.

She nervously chuckled a little.  “Like I said, I don’t know.”

“What would you say if you did know?”

She laughed and hesitated a bit more, but eventually came around.  “Well, when I was a kid, I really loved to paint.”

As the conversation went on, I witnessed my friend’s quick, miraculous transformation from a woman who supposedly “never” knew what she wanted into someone who’d harbored an aching desire to be a painter all her life.  She told me about the paintings she did when she was younger, and the regret she’d felt for a long time because her other responsibilities had taken her away from her art.  As she talked about it, her nervous laughter and apologetic attitude faded away, and she became more willing to tell me how exciting painting was for her.

I didn’t do anything complicated or magical to induce this change in my friend.  All I did was express genuine interest in what she truly desired, and refrain from shaming or mocking her when she revealed her wants.  It doesn’t take much beyond compassionate listening, I’ve found, to create an environment where people feel safe expressing their wishes.

As easy as it sounds to listen to someone’s wishes without judging or criticizing, many of us don’t have—or don’t think we have—access to a person who will listen to us like this.  Many of us grew up in situations where telling others what we needed and wanted, for whatever reason, didn’t feel safe.  Many of us fear that our loved ones today would ridicule or scold us if we told them what we really desired.  However it happened, at some point we lost our trust in people’s ability to hear what we want and need without attacking or abandoning us.

If we fear that no one will be receptive to our wants, it may look like the easiest thing to do is keep our wants to ourselves.  If we never tell anyone what we want, we believe, no one will ever insult or get mad at us, and our lives will run smoothly.  Unfortunately, our wants don’t disappear just because we don’t admit they exist.  Part of us resents it when we don’t express our desires, and this resentment accumulates in our bodies and renders us prone to rage and depression.  Duke Robinson aptly describes this problem in Too Nice For Your Own Good: How To Stop Making Nine Self-Sabotaging Mistakes:

In order to keep quiet, we expend a great deal of emotional power we could be using to tell others what we need.  We also burden ourselves with a lot of regret as we wonder “why didn’t I ask?”  In the end, we both resent those from whom we don’t get what we want and are angry at ourselves for not speaking up.  This anger, suppressed and turned inward, puts us in danger of depression and serious illness.

If we have unfulfilled desires, it’s better to at least acknowledge them to someone instead of holding them in.  Even if we don’t end up pursuing some of the things we wish for, simply admitting them, without explanation or apology, helps release the anger and sadness that build up around a neglected want.  As we reveal our wants more and more often like this, we regain our trust that the world will accept and support us in pursuing our goals.

I’ll make a suggestion to anyone reading this who doesn’t think they know what they want in life.  Find someone—whether it’s a loved one, a close friend, or a coach or therapist—whom you trust to listen to you without judgment or criticism.  Have them agree to keep what you tell them in confidence.  Once you’re in a safe environment, I think you’ll surprise yourself with how much you actually know about what you want, and how relieving it is to be in a place where you can finally reveal it.  And who knows—maybe this will even have you feel inspired and trusting enough to go for it.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/seventh-edition-carnival-improving-life.)

But You’ll Be “Unemployed”!

I have a friend who would like to start her own business as an interior designer, and leave her current 9-to-5 job as a computer programmer.  She’s convinced that she has the skills, the startup capital, the contacts and so forth to make it happen.  But she’s still too scared to make the change.  Why?  Because, she says, if she leaves her current job she’ll be “unemployed.”

At first glance, my friend’s belief seems strange.  If she makes the transition she wants, she’ll be the owner and CEO of her own company, with total control over the operation of her business.  She’s saved up enough money to pay her expenses while she builds up a client base.  And she’ll have made a career out of doing what she loves.  Why would she think of that situation as “unemployment”?

The answer is that my friend simply can’t accept the idea that it’s possible to have a career that doesn’t involve going into an office every weekday, remaining there between at least 9 and 5 o’clock, being gradually promoted through a large corporate hierarchy and drawing a steady salary.  All the jobs she’s held during her working life have had those features.  Anything else, to her, is “unemployment,” and her family and friends—having had the same type of work background—are likely to feel the same way.

When I told people in my life I was leaving the legal profession to be an author and success coach, I learned that some of them shared this attitude.  “How’s unemployment treating you?” one asked.  “So when do the unemployment checks start rolling in?” another teased.  I explained to them that I was not “unemployed”—I was simply going into business for myself.  They smiled and nodded, but it was clear what they were thinking—“yeah, make all the excuses you want—you’re still unemployed in my book.”

“Unemployment” has nasty connotations for most of us.  We often associate it with being lazy, not being good enough to “make the cut” at work, being on the government “dole,” displeasing our families and friends, being unattractive to potential mates, and so on.  Thus, for many of us, the fear that we will be perceived as “unemployed” is enough to keep us in conventional 9-to-5 jobs and prevent us from doing anything entrepreneurial, even if the latter is what we truly desire.

If you’re thinking of leaving your current job and starting your own business, I don’t want the fear of “unemployment” to stop you.  If you’re struggling with this fear, take a look at the observations I make below and see if they do anything to change your perspective.

First off, if going into business for yourself makes you “unemployed,” the “unemployed” of this world are quite a distinguished bunch.  The founders of Apple, Google and Microsoft—who, as most of us know, are now some of the wealthiest people in the world—were also “unemployed” by this definition during the startup phases of their companies.  If they’d worked conventional 9-to-5 jobs instead of striking out on their own, their ultra-successful businesses wouldn’t be around today.

My larger point is that no conventional 9-to-5 jobs would even exist if no one had been willing to start a business in the first place.  If no one had taken that initiative, there would be no companies to employ the massive legions of salaried office workers in our society.  Someone’s got to take the financial risks associated with entrepreneurship for our economy to operate at all.

I think that, on some level, most people who fear entrepreneurship because they view it as equivalent to “unemployment” are aware of this.  It’s not that they think going into business for oneself is inherently bad or impossible—they simply think it would be “arrogant” or “unrealistic” to believe they could do it successfully.  They predict that, if they started a business, they would end up in the circumstances we typically associate with unemployment—i.e., broke, “on the dole,” having nothing in particular to do, and so on.  “Bill Gates may have done it,” they think, “but I’m not Bill Gates.”

In other words, people who suggest that they’d be “unemployed” if they started a business are really just expressing feelings of inadequacy about themselves.  And if someone says the same about your entrepreneurial aspirations, they’re probably motivated—at least in part—by envy or resentment.  Because they don’t think they have what it takes to strike out on their own, they feel that you’re acting like you’re superior to them by doing what they couldn’t bring themselves to do.

But what if you recognize this feeling of inadequacy in yourself, and it’s preventing you from pursuing your business idea?  I recommend that you start by contemplating what would happen if you started your own business venture and it failed.  Suppose your company consistently failed to generate enough revenue to cover its costs.  What would be true about you, and what would happen in your life, if that worst-case scenario came to pass?

I’ve asked this question in the past to clients who were considering career transitions.  Interestingly, their fears surrounding failure don’t usually concern their survival or their financial circumstances.  They’re not afraid that they’ll starve to death, be unable to support their children, lose their homes, and so forth.  Whatever happens from a financial perspective, they’ll probably find ways to get by.  Instead, they’re afraid of others labeling them in hurtful ways.  They envision their loved ones, friends, acquaintances and others saying or thinking things like “I always knew he’d never amount to anything,” “see, she’s nothing but a bum,” “he’s like a daydreaming child with no common sense,” and so on.

However, people usually don’t examine why they are trying so hard—even to the point of stifling their career aspirations—to avoid the possibility of others’ disapproval.  When I ask them what would happen if their business failed and someone else attacked or ridiculed them for it, they typically give one of two answers.  Sometimes, they can’t quite pinpoint what bad things would happen if someone disapproved of them—they just have the gut feeling that they need everybody to like them.  At other times, they find themselves coming up with an answer that is irrational or ridiculous on its face—for instance, that they’d die if someone else disliked them.

Either way, when people seriously consider this question, they usually start to doubt that their fears of “unemployment” are a sufficient reason to avoid going off on their own.  Understanding what they’re truly afraid of gives them a feeling of freedom to explore career possibilities they hadn’t thought were open to them before.

I invite you to try this exercise.  Ask yourself what you’re really afraid will happen if you start a business venture and it fails.  I think you’ll find that your fears surrounding “unemployment” aren’t as reasonable or convincing as you’d thought.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Success and Abundance Mindset, located at http://www.thehomebasedbusinesscenter.com/blog/success-and-abundance-mindset-042408.htm.)