I’m having one of those weeks in which I don’t have much free time and I’ve got a lot to do. As a result, I’m tired, a bit overwhelmed, and overall a little depleted. I haven’t had time to exercise, I’ve been eating more than I should of things that aren’t good for me, and I haven’t spent much quality time with Jodi. If someone else told me this story, I’d laugh. Then I would pat them on the back and tell them to be kind to themselves. I would urge them to just get through the stressful time and then do what they can to get back on track. With myself, I am much harsher. And I don’t let go of this position easily.
When I was a kid, I learned early on that I couldn’t depend upon people around me to ensure that life would be steady and dependable. As a result, I made up a lot of rules for myself that would more or less guarantee (at least to me) a sense of control over potential chaos. Most of these rules had to do with me losing weight, getting my homework done, being nice to my parents, and being a more ambitious person overall. As I got older, the rules varied, of course, but they were always focused on “improving” myself.
I’ve been my own taskmaster for longer than I can even remember.
In many ways, despite being in my late 60s, I still hold onto fairly rigid tenets as they apply to my own behavior. I need to watch my weight, work on my writing, have a plan for my life, make my bed, go to the gym, save money, and take care of the people in my life who need taking care of. I’m not great at all of that—which adds a whole other layer of rules—seek improvement, be better, don’t slack off. Needless to say, it’s exhausting. In due order, the exhaustion tempts me to throw the rules in the air, lie on the couch and eat potato chips while I read People magazine.
Just tracking the process like that demonstrates the many problems inherent in this life approach. But old habits die hard. One night last week, tired from a long day at work, I zoned out and watched bad TV, while eating too much for dinner and at least a whole bag of popcorn after that. I kept reminding myself that it was fine, that I just needed comfort and that my whole life wasn’t falling apart. And yet, when I got up the next morning, I had the dreaded “self-indulgence hangover.” I felt like I had done something horrible and my first inclination was that I needed to go overboard in the other direction. In other words, more strict rules and more emotional self-flagellation.
More than ever, as I ride the wave closer and closer to the shore of 70, I find myself wanting to live in a different way. I don’t need to move to Europe or hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but I would like to give myself more room to just be where I am and do what I feel like doing. It is such a shift for me because I’ve been my own taskmaster for longer than I can even remember.
But I think the key is starting small and realizing that it will take constant reminders for a while. The last thing I want to do is to be hard on myself about being too hard on myself. We really are all works in progress. It’s simple for me to take that approach when it comes to other people, but difficult when it comes to me. My goal for the time being is to be gentle with myself. Try some stuff, see how it goes, and realize I’m just a human being trying to live a full and authentic life. It’s the process that counts, of course, and that process is so much sweeter if I just let it unfold.