ten commitments to mental fitness | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Finding Quality Time With Yourself

Do you pay regular visits to yourself?
Don’t argue or answer rationally.
Let us die,
and dying, reply.


In college, I spent a lot of time—in fact, probably too much time—studying.  But even after my reading for school was done and it was late at night, I’d usually do some outside reading or journaling.  I called those moments my “sacred time”—remarkably, I came up with this name even before I went all spiritual and new-agey.  :)  Any reading or writing I did during this time was purely for serving and understanding myself, rather than to please my professors, parents, friends, or anyone else.

Those moments were some of the most memorable and rewarding of my college days.  I still do this today, and in working with others I often recommend they spend at least a few minutes of each day alone with themselves—whether they’re meditating, or just sitting in silence.

It’s hard for some people to understand why I’d advise spending time by themselves.  “I’m already lonely,” some people say.  “What I need is to find more people to be with.”  Or perhaps they feel frightened when no one else is around, and they have trouble seeing why I’d want to put them in a scary situation.  When I talk to these people, my sense is that, although they may be spending time alone, they aren’t using it in a way I would call “quality time.”

Non-Quality Alone Time

This is because their attention is not really focused on themselves when they’re alone.  Instead, they are being self-conscious—basically, fretting over how other people see them, and suffering over all the ways they aren’t getting others’ approval.

For instance, maybe they’re worrying about issues with the boss, how their significant other seems to be pulling away, how they can’t seem to relate to their children, or something else.  Perhaps they’re even concerned that others will think they’re antisocial or “losers” because they’re sitting by themselves.  When we’re self-conscious, in other words, our opinions of ourselves depend on how we think others see us.  I don’t think Rumi had this in mind when he recommended “regular visits to yourself.”

Another way we often spend our alone time is to fill it with distractions—to watch TV, surf the Internet, switch on the stereo, or find some other means of electronic companionship.  But we aren’t really being with ourselves in these moments.  We’re merely using our computers and other appliances as substitutes for other people—perhaps because we’re too tired to deal with real people’s wants and needs in those moments.

So What Is Quality Time?

What, then, do I mean by quality time with yourself?  To my mind, it’s about getting to know yourself—what you really want out of life, what’s important to you, which people you deeply cherish, and so on.  For example, you might ask questions like:  is what you’re doing in your work, your relationships and elsewhere in keeping with your vision of how you want to live?  Are you taking care of yourself in the ways you want and need?  How is your body feeling in this moment—does it feel spacious, tight, warm, or something else?

The importance of our own wants and needs often gets lost in the shuffle as we struggle to meet our work, family and other obligations.  By giving thought to questions like these, you get accustomed to treating yourself, and your feelings and wants, as significant—or, we might say, to valuing yourself.  As psychologist Vicki Berkus writes in Ten Commitments to Mental Fitness, “just checking in with yourself lets your subconscious mind know that you count, your feelings count, and your thoughts count.”

At a deeper level, I think, our minds and bodies thrive on receiving our attention.  Just bringing our awareness to what we’re feeling in our bodies is a deeply loving act.  If we just take a few moments to notice the sensations in our hands, for instance—perhaps a tingling, warmth, pulsing, or something else—we experience a calm and focus that’s unfamiliar to many of us.  In these moments we are, as Rumi puts it, acting as a warm, welcoming “guest house” to whatever sensations arise within us.

So, to me, quality time with yourself just means paying close attention to what you’re feeling, thinking and wanting.  It’s kind of like treating yourself as an honored guest in your home—making yourself comfortable, and getting curious about how things are going for you.

Review Of Productivity From Within

I pointed this out earlier to my newsletter subscribers, but I wanted to make sure you’d seen the recent review of my book, Productivity From Within, by Judy Clement Wall of ScribeGirl.  It’s a thorough and helpful introduction to the book, and I hope you enjoy it.

Do Your Desires Matter?

Many people believe finding career satisfaction is simply about having a clear idea of what you want and the drive to go for it.  I think these are important qualities, but they aren’t enough by themselves.  To find a career you’ll feel joyful about and fulfilled by, you have to believe that what you want actually matters—that you genuinely deserve to pursue your goals and dreams, rather than someone else’s agenda for what you’re supposed to do.  The story I’ll tell you here nicely illustrates this point.

A man came to see me recently because he was dissatisfied with his current job and wanted to explore other possibilities.  However, he said, he hadn’t quite nailed down what he was looking for yet.  To get an idea of what career path would best serve him, I asked him some questions about what he enjoyed and what frustrated him about his current job.  We also discussed what he was passionate about in life.

As we talked, he began fidgeting and playing with his pen, and I sensed that he was getting uncomfortable.  Eventually, I asked him if he was nervous or upset about something.  My instinct turned out to be right—he was getting angry, and he let me know why.  “Why do you keep talking about how I feel?  I’m here about my career, not my feelings.”

“Does it matter whether you feel good about your career?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he insisted incredulously.  “My job is about supporting me and my family—not about making me ‘feel good.’”

Ah, I thought.  Now we’re getting somewhere.  “When did you decide it didn’t matter how you felt?”

His body tensed up, and it seemed for a moment he was going to blow up at me again, but suddenly he slumped in his chair and fell silent.  “A while ago,” he finally answered.

As he went on to reveal, he’d believed that what he felt and wanted didn’t matter since his early childhood.  His father, a military officer, demanded the same obedience from his children that he required from his subordinates.  My client remembered a few times when, as little kids often do, he told his Dad he didn’t want to do some task.  His father had angrily responded “it doesn’t matter what you ‘want.’  Now do what I told you.”  And my client would ashamedly slink off and obey.

Since then, my client said, he’d had trouble telling people about his emotions and desires, as he couldn’t shake the conviction that people didn’t really care about them.  When someone asked him, as I did, what he wanted, his first instinct was that he was being mocked or deceived.  No wonder he got angry, I recognized—since he thought there was no way I could actually care what he wanted, he figured I was patronizing or taking advantage of him.

This belief also explained why he wasn’t satisfied in his present career.  Because he was convinced that his goals and dreams “didn’t matter,” he—like many people—had chosen his career based on what he saw as other people’s expectations.  He’d taken a job that was relatively lucrative and prestigious, because he believed it would satisfy his father, his wife and kids, his friends, and others in his life.  But since he’d given no thought to his own happiness, it’s no surprise he settled into a career he was unhappy with.

It took a little coaxing, but ultimately I was able to convince him I actually cared what he wanted, and I wouldn’t scorn or ridicule him if he told me.  When he began to trust that he had a safe place to reveal his desires, his seeming confusion about what he wanted evaporated, and we quickly arrived at a list of career possibilities that he resolved to look into.  He knew what he desired, and he had the talent to make it happen—he just needed reassurance that it was okay for him to have desires in the first place.

I’m consistently struck by the number of people I meet who get uncomfortable talking or thinking about what they want in life.  For various reasons, they’ve learned that it’s unsafe or shameful for them to consider what they want.  These people come to me thinking they need more direction, or to improve their skills, if they want to find a fulfilling career path.  But they often discover that, when they become able to seriously put some attention on what they want, deciding their next step becomes easier.  In short, their problem isn’t a lack of motivation or experience—it’s a lack of self-respect.

If you’re experiencing career dissatisfaction, the first step to take in addressing this issue is to ask yourself what you want out of your career.  Pay close attention to the reactions that come up when you ask this question.  Is it okay for you to think about this issue?  Or does it feel dangerous, selfish or irresponsible?  If you experienced some anxiety when you thought about your desires, you may have hit upon the reason you’re feeling unfulfilled.  If you didn’t take your own desires into account when you chose what you do for a living, it’s no wonder your current job isn’t meeting your needs.

How do you overcome this feeling that what you want isn’t important?  I’ve found that becoming able to acknowledge and follow your desires is like building a muscle.  One way you can strengthen that muscle is to consistently ask yourself, as you go through your day, what you want in each situation you get into.  When you wake up in the morning, for instance, ask yourself “what do I want to do today?”  When you go to the grocery store, ask yourself “what do I want to buy?”  In your intimate relationships, ask “what do I want out of this relationship?”  And so on.

Keep repeating this process, and you’ll likely begin feeling more comfortable with recognizing and expressing what you want.  As psychologist Vicki Berkus writes in Ten Commitments To Mental Fitness: Accept The Challenge To Change, “[j]ust the exercise of checking in with yourself lets your subconscious mind know that you count, your feelings count, and your thoughts count.”  You may find that, as you develop this “wanting muscle,” the doubts and confusion that used to plague you about your career begin to fade away, and peace and clarity take their place.