I had this idea of the type of mother I would be. Like my mom, I would be there for all the things, and everyone would be neatly dressed. I daydreamed about homemade bread and handmade Halloween costumes. The other day, after realizing I was scolding myself for not changing an appointment so I could volunteer at my kids’ school, I had to reconcile with a hard truth: I am not that mother. My responsibilities are too big, and I am already worn down.
As a (mostly) reformed perfectionist, I have learned to get clear about what I need and value and let go of the rest. As a psychotherapist, I help my patients do the same. We work on this when what they think they should be doing begins to interfere with their sense of peace, joy, and meaning.
By clarifying our values and identifying which of our “have-tos” are imaginary, we can be more present and live more wholeheartedly.
Old habits die hard. Outdated ideas of who we are—and our attachment to who we think we should be—can work against our hearts’ true desires. We grow, we change—it can be hard to keep up.
And we are products of our environment. Everywhere we turn, there is a message to do the thing, buy the thing, or fix the thing. We have the voices of parents, friends, teachers, and old versions of ourselves saying, “But you should…”
Here is how to start getting clear and start letting go.
1. Check in with yourself. To better understand what you can let go of, start by tuning in to what’s happening in your mind and body. If we are spinning like a top, everything can feel like a have-to. If we are feeling blue, it can feel like nothing holds value.
Start by doing a body scan: From the head down, notice what is going on with your body. Shift your focus from your external awareness to your internal experience.
Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land, ask yourself: How would I describe my mood? How do I know I feel this way? (Like: I know I am anxious because my stomach feels tight.) What is the nature of my thoughts? (Are they quick, repetitive, negative?)
Reminder: There is no right or wrong way to be. You are just noticing what is.
2. Ask yourself what you need. Not “What do I need to do?” but “What do I need?” Maybe it’s as simple as a glass of water—or something more substantial, like a long walk and catch-up with a dear friend. We are often oriented toward problem-solving external tasks, which makes it easy to overlook internal needs. Take a moment, quiet the world around you, and let some space exist around centering yourself.
You can check in with your body, mood, and thoughts again. Notice whether anything has shifted.
3. Create a list of your values. Start writing a list of all the things that you value. What fills you up and brings meaning into your life? Let the list run long and wild.
To get you started, try answering these prompts:
- What matters to me?
- At the end of the day, I always feel good when I…
- If I got to spend one month doing as I pleased, I would…
If you are having trouble with your list, here is an exercise to get you going: Imagine a person, activity, or place that feels good to you. It could be noticing flowers bloom next to the sidewalk, your morning cup of coffee, or dinner with someone you love. When you imagine this feel-good thing, what happens in your body? Take time to observe your heart rate, your breath, and your emotions. These are the cues that will attune you to the things that fill you up.
When you feel you have gotten everything down on paper, go back and highlight your top 10 items and drop them into a new list. These are your guideposts: the values you return to when you are making a big decision or when you are feeling depleted or overwhelmed.
Ask yourself regularly: Are the choices I’m making ones that honor my values? Change might be slow; think of this as a practice, like building a muscle. These questions are a gentle reminder to yourself that you are the protector of your time, energy, and joy.
4. Identify your imaginary have-tos. Many of us struggle not to give all our time away to things that drain us. Of course we have responsibilities, and not everything we do is going to fill us up—but how much time is spent doing things we might not have to do? Understanding what lies behind those imaginary have-tos can help you let go of them.
Here is an exercise to help you gain more clarity: Think back on a time when you were so focused on other people’s needs that you took your own out of the equation. What do you remember feeling and thinking? These are cues that will help you identify what drains you.
- Notice what stands out: Is there a particular need you neglected? Is there a specific energetic way you engaged in those tasks? Is there a thought process attached to this way of being?
- Be curious: What do you think was driving you? Where does that pressure come from? Where did the idea of showing up in this way start?
- Be your own advocate: If you were to offer yourself some advice on how to move through that moment with more balance or grace, what would it be? If I were to give you permission to create a boundary for yourself at that moment, what would you say?
• • •
When that to-do list starts ramping up, when you are feeling overwhelmed or spent, or when you feel some self-judgment because you didn’t read that book, try that restaurant, fix the broken towel rack in the bathroom, get to that mediation class, visit with that tricky friend, attend that night out (it never ends!)…that is when I want you to try to get grounded.
Before you take off to do the thing, be curious about whether it is an imaginary have-to. Ask yourself: Does this align with my values? Does this fill me up or drain me? In the scope of my day, week, or month, is this something I need to do? If so, how can I engage with this appropriately, with more peace, and give it the relevance it merits? How will I then fill myself up?
At certain stages of our lives, we experience the necessary losses that come with making big life decisions based on our evolving values. We feel the reverberations of these choices in big and subtle ways. You choose to pursue one career, relegating the path not taken to a hobby or a source of longing. You marry X—and therefore will never know what you could have been with Y. You thought you’d be the one who was always socializing and in the know but realize that all that living outwardly wears you down. We must reconcile who we thought we would be with who we are presently.
You can become more attuned to the imaginary have-tos. You can slow down. You can investigate what it would be like to reject old ideas of what success looks like. You can be curious about where your sense of self comes from. How old were you when those ideas sprouted? How do you judge yourself and others? Would achieving what you thought you wanted really fulfill you?
And what if you—as you are right now, in this moment—are enough?