I know I am not alone. There is a whole industry producing self-help books, meditations and page-a-day calendars for people like me. I have them all sitting on my shelf without enough time to read them.
The pattern of overdoing was set very early in life in response to fear which proved very adaptable. In elementary school, my fear was rejection by my teachers. In junior high, my fear became not getting into college. I started studying for college entrance exams years early and stressed over every assignment. By high school, the fear extended to not earning a scholarship. College was then dominated by the fear of losing that scholarship. By the time I graduated, the fear had become job insecurity in a bad economy. As my career has matured, the fear has shifted to failing to make a real difference. Throughout my life, overdoing was supposed to deliver security. Of course, it never has.
Naturally I sought out a career that was custom made for overdoing: climate change policy. Here is a problem of monumental proportions with potentially devastating consequences and practical solutions with obvious co-benefits which society is largely ignoring in a form of global self-sabotage. Overdoing to the rescue! For the past 20 years, my work has been fascinating, rewarding and totally exhausting. I joke that my life would be just fine if only I had an extra twelve hours in the day. But even that would never be enough.
The pattern of overdoing persisted despite my best efforts. However, I had a breakthrough experience…or at least I hope so. Working with a compassionate healer, I brought fresh awareness to the drivers of my overdoing. I assigned each of them a persona:
- The Healer who wants to help people and the planet;
- The Inventor who wants to create something special and fears losing the inspiration;
- The Competitor who fears that someone else will do it first and do it better;
- The Taskmaster who believes that things must be done right now;
- The Scheduler who underestimates how long things will actually take;
- The Scholar who always wants to learn more; and
- The Student who still thinks she will flunk out of life if she doesn’t know the answer.
These parts of myself evolved to support me, but they no longer serve me when taken to extreme.
The breakthrough happened when the healer asked me, “So where is the part of yourself that ensures your self-care?” In my mind’s eye, I saw that part of myself huddled in a dark corner and overwhelmed by the domineering energy of the others. When I gently brought her into the foreground, she stood peacefully and then started to glow. She looked beautiful. A clear thought flashed in my mind: “The most important contribution I have to make in life is the gift of my very being, and my sacred light has to be protected above all.”
What I took from this powerful experience is that only through balanced self-care can I achieve my life’s highest purpose. The simple truth is that there are limits to what I can do as one person. If I want to thrive, I have to be willing to live within the limits of being human or I will become so depleted that I will not be able to function.
Could there be parallels to the challenge of global sustainability? Our society has made its purpose, security and self-worth dependent on economic growth and we are driven by relentless fear that without continued growth, our needs will not be met. No amount of economic growth will ever be “enough” to make us feel safe and content but we still strive to reach that goal. By refusing to accept the true implications of unlimited fossil-fuelled growth, we will continue to deplete our ecosystems and overload our atmosphere to the point where they will not be able to function in the ways we currently depend on. Collectively, we are neglecting our self-care. In fact, we are in the process of destroying the very things that we seek: security, endless possibility and our ability to thrive as a global community.
We can choose a different way. With overdoing, the answer is clear: work smarter. With global productivity, the answer is clear: grow smarter. In both cases, wisdom lies in choosing quality of being over quantity of doing, focusing on fundamental needs and accepting limits.
I strongly believe in the principle that I can’t pass on what I don’t have. If I want to be an advocate for global sustainability then I need to be living sustainably myself. That has to include protecting the sacred light of my being through gentle balance. It also has to include minimising the environmental footprint from my life that will pass as my legacy to future generations. My heart is telling me clearly that in both cases, less really will be more.
I would love to hear others’ reflections on the dimensions of personal sustainability.