If you’re a close friend of mine, you know that there’s no point in calling me, because my ringer is always off and I’m not going to answer. You want to get a hold of me? Text me. I’ll get back to you, at some point. If you want a quicker response, let me know.
I’m done with making myself wrong for not responding to other people’s needs on their timeline instead of my own. It’s not that I don’t care about other people, it’s that I’ve finally learned that I have to care about me first.
How’d I get to this empowered place? Well, many years ago, when landlines were still a thing, I would jump at the ringing of the phone. It didn’t matter what I was doing—sleeping, cooking, bathing a cat—I would literally leap up from whatever I was doing and launch myself at the phone to answer it. No joke, I have sprained an ankle in an attempt to get to the phone before the second ring.
One day, after bemusedly witnessing just such a gymnastic event, Adam casually asked me why I responded to a ringing phone that way. “You don’t have to answer the phone just because it rings.”
Um, Adam? YEAH YOU DO. Do you even understand Life? Because you sure don’t understand PHONES.
From that moment on, though, I became aware of the fact that when the phone rang, I could feel a kind of panic bubbling up within me. It was like I HAD to get to the phone, lest someone need to be waiting longer than seven seconds to get what they wanted or needed from me.
What was going on? Who did I think I was? Superman? Wonder Woman? Bound by sacred duty to leap into spandex and action to meet everyone in the world’s needs and answer every ringing phone?
I was Anne Hathaway in Ella Enchanted, cursed to be amenable and obedient and instantly do whatever anyone asked of me, even if it was inconvenient to me or I didn’t want to do it all. I was a very good girl and I always said yes. I had absolutely no boundaries, not even for telephones.
I began to wonder: what if I didn’t need to answer every phone that rang? What if I didn’t need to abandon myself and my preferences in favour of anything anyone else wanted in any given moment? What if the planet wouldn’t spin off its axis if I didn’t respond to every request made of me?
I slowly began to realize that my tendency to leap into action at the slightest indication of another person’s needs or desires wasn’t virtuous and didn’t make me a good person any more than not abandoning myself to answer every call made me a bad person. After all, I didn’t expect others to do the same (I very rarely would allow myself to impose myself on anyone to ask for help or support).
My knee-jerk response to a request wasn’t a contractual obligation or a duty, or a law of physics: it was a trauma response.
Deep inside, when a phone rang (or anyone asked anything of me, ever), I would leap into action because if I didn’t, I was afraid that something bad would happen and it would be my fault.
Just in case it’s unclear, that is not an enjoyable way to live life.
And I assert that a lot of us are living that way when it comes to reacting to our feelings and our fears.
Wanna know a secret? Most of the time, when you’re experiencing some strong feeling, like fear or anger, all you need to do about it is: absolutely nothing.
Nada. Zilch. Zero action required. You can go ahead and archive that message.
Omigod what a relief, right? I KNOW.
We know this. We know that if you feel really angry, it’s probably a good idea to wait a while before responding to that email or telling that person just what the hell is wrong with them. We know that when someone is wrong on the internet, the thing to do is LEAVE IT ALONE.
We know that when we’re feeling down, online shopping is probably not a great activity (I’m pretty sure it’s not just me). Or that when we’re feeling sad or heartbroken, hitting the wine hard is probably only going to make us forget for a few hours, and we’ll feel worse come the morning.
Feelings are messengers. That’s it. That’s all. They deliver information. Some of it is useful information, but a whole lot of it is really just an FYI and doesn’t require any action or attention. It’s spam. You get more of it than you’re aware of, but sometimes it slips through the filters.
Same with fear, though of course, there are times when you want to listen to your fear. Say, when you feel that prickle of fear and realize there’s a bear in the vicinity, or that, yes, this balcony really doesn’t seem sturdy, or this person following me in a dark alley makes me uncomfortable. Also, what are you doing in dark alleys? Come on now.
Those kinds of fears are important to listen to. They can save your life, or the lives of others near and dear to you. Thankfully, those incidences are fairly few and far between for most of us.
All those other fears and feelings, though? The ones that leave you just casually wondering, for a friend, if maybe you aren’t good/strong/smart/attractive enough for your job/romantic relationships/friends/family, et cetera? Those ones aren’t usually all that helpful. They’re just noise. You can ignore them.
Here’s the thing: “My feelings made me do it,” isn’t a great defense in a courtroom or, it turns out, our day-to-day life.
If your actions are governed by your feelings, you’re probably used to feeling jumpy, reactive and a little afraid of your feelings. You might be worried about what others are doing and thinking, because you already know how you’re going to have to react when you find out.
I imagine this is exhausting. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it; I know that living in reaction to fears and feelings is exhausting because I did it automatically for about three decades. I know what it costs, and the impact it has on the felt experience of life.
And I know it can change. You can learn to take a breath before responding. And in the space provided by that breath, there is room to examine the message sent by our feelings, including our fears, and decide if they require any attention, let alone any action. Most of the time, they don’t. So we can stand down, because being on guard for a lifetime is no way to live.
This is about creating boundaries. Not only boundaries for others, but also for ourselves, and honouring them, to create and preserve the experience of life we want to be living.
As Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
All you need to do is find that space. And the good news is that it’s not hard to find, because you can create it yourself. All it takes is a breath and practice.