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A revisionist history …

One of my clients, a career woman named Mary, wife and mother of two school-age kids, has been feeling so overwhelmed that she wants to request a 30% reduction in her workload. And she’s willing to take a 30% reduction in income. In the past few months, she has created several maps of how her life would look, less this 30%. She likes what she sees.

Here’s the hitch. Part of her just can’t say “No” when there’s work to be done. She’s always taking on more. Even when she has no energy for the extra effort, a voice deep inside is urging her on.

So she knows that unless she actually says no and does less, she’ll be feeling overworked and overwhelmed again, even at 70% … and earning 30% LESS for the privilege!

Mary knows this voice well. It’s the voice of duty, of loyalty and service. It helped her reach the top of her career ladder at an early age, and it has kept her in a predictable cycle of getting overextended and exhausted ever since.

In the past several weeks, she’s been listening to this voice differently. Rather than just reacting to its familiar chatter, she’s distancing from it, listening with curiosity, and paying attention to the energy charge that comes with it. Twice, this new approach has rattled Mary’s worldview and given her some choices she didn’t know she had.

She chairs an advisory committee that supports a new system-wide collaborative effort.  The project is run by a director hired last fall; he’s a man she knows and has some doubts about. In December, Mary sent the committee’s recommendations to him.

A few weeks ago, she and her committee met with him. One of the committee members asked him about the status of their recommendations. He wiggled and squirmed, and didn’t answer the question.

Mary told me, “I’m thinking, ‘Uh, oh, I really dropped the ball here. I should’ve been following up and keeping this on track.’ So I started defending this guy, even though he’d clearly done nothing with our recommendations.

“Another committee member jumped in and said to me, ‘We’re an advisory committee. We did our part: we advised.’

“That’s when it hit me. Wow, maybe it’s NOT me! Maybe my doubts about this guy really ARE legitimate. Maybe it’s OKAY that I didn’t follow up!”

Normally Mary’s quite tempered in both tone and actions. But as she was telling the story, her face was bright with discovery. She was waving her hands and, literally, grabbing the air as if she were snagging the next scene to offer up.

“Then this guy turned to me and said, ‘I hoped you’d take over this other program for me.’ It’s a program he brought when he took this job. Normally I’d just suck it up and say, ‘Okay.’ But something about this moment made me step back.

“Maybe it was the other committee member saying we’d done our job. Maybe it was you pushing me to watch the stories I tell myself. I don’t know. I just know that I got a whole new perspective. I thought, He’s got more than he can handle and he wants ME to take him off the hook. I’ll do all the work and he’ll get all the credit.

‘So instead of my usual, “Yea, I can do that,” I said, ‘I’ll pass.’

“And suddenly, everything looked and felt different.

“In that moment, I saw how I heap all this stuff on myself! I assume that I’m the one who has to pick up the failing project … keep the committee rolling … make sure nothing falls through the cracks … even though I don’t like doing ANY of it. I’m looking at the stuff I didn’t do and feeling like I let this guy down … while my colleague’s looking at the stuff we did do and saying, ‘We did our job. What have you done with yours?”

It was a revelation for her, this discovery that her self-talk is just a story. It’s not Truth or Reality. It’s just a bunch of assumptions about how she should be and what she should do that she has never questioned. And it runs continually, dragging her down a well-worn path to exhaustion and depletion.

It’s like getting an unexpected glimpse of yourself, from an angle you never see, in a full-length mirror or storefront window. The image [“THAT’S what I look like!?!”] can be a shocker.

Mary’s second example, which she dubbed her “revisionist history,” came 10 minutes later.

“So I’ve been miserable for months, overwhelmed, exhausted, and treading water until a couple of big projects come to an end and I can relax. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s almost here. And what do I do?

“I revise my own history! I look back and tell myself, ‘It really wasn’t that bad. It was okay. I got through it. I can do it.’ And then I tell myself, ‘I SHOULD be able to do it.’” She paused for several seconds. “When I get out of a situation, I lose the sense of how much I struggle.”

This is her other huge discovery. She actively revises her story to minimize her own suffering. She has no idea why she SHOULD be able to do something; it’s just ‘the way I’ve always been.’ And the crazy thing is, the ‘shoulds’ have nothing to do with what she WANTS to do–the stuff that excites and thrills her.

Awareness is curative. Now that Mary knows how she undervalues her own experience, she has some wiggle room. She can watch herself. She can catch herself in the act. Oh, there I go again, thinking it’s my job to do it all. Oh, I’m doing it again: telling myself I should be able to juggle all of this.

When she shifts to this other vantage point, she has choices that don’t exist when she’s locked in her “I have to do it all” story. She’s learning to shift vantage points and to use them to rewrite her stories.

So let’s go back to her 30% plan. She has worried about not being able to say “No” at work. It’s a legitimate worry when that inner voice is calling the shots.

Now she’s playing with saying “Yes”: yes to commitments that energize her, yes to a lifestyle that includes her kids’ soccer games, stress-relieving morning swims, growing interest in a promising new technology and a collaborative relationship with a new colleague. She knows that the inner voice is just one voice. She can activate others.

Which one does she listen to? The one that gives her energy. The one that quickens her voice and sends her arms flying excitedly through the air and launches her into each new day with a sense of curiosity and interest.

Is the road really this easy? Of course not. And yes, of course. It takes mindfulness to remember we have a choice. It takes the willingness to suspend judgment about next week or next year and to reset our anchor in here and now. It takes the courage to act on our own behalf as an integral part of serving others.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed and under resourced, listen to the stories you’re telling yourself. Then try a few rewrites. What do you have to lose?

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