We asked executive coach Ann Mehl about this, and here’s what she shared: “In my coaching practice, I often see people who are dying a little every day because the life they are living on the outside clearly does not match who they are on the inside. They tell me they are exhausted. I think one of the reasons they are exhausted is that they are not wholehearted about what they are doing. They’re doing it because they have an abstract idea that this is what they should be doing.”
It takes constant vigilance to live the life we intend for ourselves. We have to ask ourselves some tough questions about what we do and what we take on. But if we are sincere in the asking, the answers can lead us to be more courageous, fulfilled, and connected to our life and the people we share it with. We all have duties and obligations that are not of our choosing – there will always be some things we just have to do. And some obligations will take us where we really want to be, such as getting through a difficult class to get the degree we want. But we need to feel we are being our true selves, living the life we choose, most of the time. Here are some questions that can help clarify areas of your life that are obligations versus choices:
1. In what areas of my life am I unhappy? Why? Is this a temporary situation, or something that could continue indefinitely?
2. Where am I not getting my needs met? What is this doing to me? What would I need to change in this area?
3. Whose approval am I seeking? Why is that person’s opinion so important to me? What would happen if I let this go?
Wanting to please others—parents, boyfriends, teachers, friends—is a common tendency, especially for women. Many of us are taught early on that the needs of others should come before our own, and we bend ourselves into pretzels accordingly. Nice girls don’t cause a fuss, only selfish people put their needs before others, and so on. Of course we are all part of a community, and thinking of others isn’t a bad thing in itself. But it doesn’t do you or anyone else any good to silently keep the peace while giving yourself an ulcer from seething resentment. Learning to express your own needs, clearly and without blame, is the first step toward re-claiming your life for yourself. And as you start doing this, one day at a time, you’ll see that the sky doesn’t fall, and that other people can handle more than you think they can.
To get started, listen to how you talk about activities in your life. Learn to distinguish between “shoulds” and “wants.” Things we say we“want”to do are choices, while things we think we“should”do are obligations. “I want to go to the meeting tonight” is very different from “I should go to this meeting.” Notice how activities that stem from choice feel uplifting, while those that stem from obligation feel deadening. Obligation happens when your heart is not in alignment with an activity. Try to do as few of these as possible. Are you saying yes because you want to, or because you’re afraid of letting people down if you say no? There’s a world of difference.