Why We Overcommit
Illustration courtesy of Quentin Monge
Not smart enough. Not strong enough. Not assertive enough. These are just a few of the things we start telling ourselves when we’re overcommitting, burned out and not getting what we want out of life. But the problem isn’t that we’re lazy (even though that’s what our minds like to tell us). It’s the opposite, says psychotherapist and psychological astrologer Jennifer Freed.
Overcommitting is what keeps us from getting what we want: We’re doing too much for other people, Freed says. In her work and in her life, she finds that many of us are quick to dismiss our own goals but will rush to help other people achieve theirs. And she says that we push our aspirations away because we don’t have the energy. Yep, it’s a cycle. Now, let’s get to the part about how to break it.
Why Can’t I Get It Done?
For thirty years, I’ve had variations of the same conversation, mostly with women. They start with: “I can’t get my creative dream off the ground.” “I want to do something big, and I have a vision, but I keep putting off even getting started.” “Why is it so hard for me to stay on track and follow through with my ideas?”
The subtext: “I have a strong desire to do something, to fulfill something, but my vision keeps getting waylaid, deferred, postponed. What is wrong with me? Why am I such a loser?” They usually conclude that the problem must be a lack of confidence in themselves and their dreams.
When we don’t find ways to express our talents and gifts in the world, we don’t feel great. Yet so many of us don’t push beyond this. And worse, we compare ourselves to the few who seem to get it done so easily and handle so many things. We generally have no idea why others are so “high-functioning.” We imagine that, somehow, they are just built better than we are.
I was walking with my brilliant Scorpio friend who is launching a clothing line but keeps procrastinating and shaming herself for it. She asked me, “When did you learn to become focused and disciplined? Or were you always this way?”
It’s true that in my own life, I have had success with moving my unique dreams and visions out into the world. I thought about what makes that possible for me, knowing that I wasn’t always like that. At one time, I was a gifted and scattered dilettante who rarely kept my mind on any one thing for too long. I bounced around and internally felt like a fraud. And then I got myself on track. What changed?
Before I turned thirty-eight, my personal core needs—for affection, understanding, companionship, touch, acceptance, personal reflective space—were not met. I was always distracted by those needs, and they would outweigh any disciplined agenda I had in mind. I was great at showing up for others or getting the assigned job done, but when it came to fulfilling what I had promised to myself, I repeatedly failed.
By the time I turned thirty-eight, I had learned how to meet my own core needs. I had more energy and attention freed up for my creative ideas. And I could finally keep my focus on something important to me and work through the frustrations, emptiness, and insecurities inherent in any endeavor.
“We all need to ensure that our nonnegotiable core needs are met if we are to accomplish our work in the world.”
Women are wired to be relational and tend others. Many of us would do for others herculean feats or tasks that we would not do for ourselves. When a friend is sick, we rush to their side. When a friend is expecting a baby, we put on a baby shower. When a relative has a big birthday, we put it all together. Many of us believe that one day, we will somehow be done taking care of everyone else, and then, finally, we will have the focus and diligence to deliver our gifts. The sad thing is that by the time most of us have that free time—if we ever do—we rarely have the energy or self-centered habits to dig into our art or business concept.
I’ve noticed that women with significant planets in the signs of Libra, Virgo, Scorpio, Pisces, and Cancer have an extra difficult time staying on course with their own creative desires. (If you’re not sure whether you have these signs with your personal planets, you can get a free natal chart online or book a session with an astrologer.) These particular energies are by their nature responsive, not initiating. When you are born with three or more planets in these signs, you are generally designed to serve, respond, and empathize. Then, at the end of the day, you say, “What the hell did I do all day?” My partner, who has this pattern in her birth chart, will sit down to dinner with me and say, “Why am I so, so tired? I haven’t done that much.” What I know is that she has spent the day soothing dozens of people.
While this astrological setup seems to create particular challenges, none of us gets a free pass. We all need to ensure that our nonnegotiable core needs are met if we are to accomplish our work in the world. Where they are not met, these needs will always dictate our behaviors and delay any other plans we have for ourselves. These needs will push their way into our psyches no matter how we try to ignore them. And attempts at satisfying them through unhealthy, reactive habits can eat up a whole lot of energy and time.
For example: When I was younger and didn’t know how much touch I needed, I would binge eat. Before I knew how much quiet time I really needed, I used to get sick a lot more, which gave me space. In the past, when I could not acknowledge how much reassurance I needed, I would spend a lot of extra time flirting and sucking up to people to get affirmation. Before I realized that I have to get thirty to sixty minutes of exercise every day to feel sane, I would get so emotionally dysregulated that I would spend hours in some type of feelings-related drama every day, and I would pull other people into my mess. All I really needed was to push some stuck energy out through my body to gain emotional balance. Until I had ways to wind down and calm down from a hectic day, I would zone out for hours on TV or drink too much.
“In order for us to discover this individual spark, develop it, and deliver it to the world, we need to make sure we have our internal and external support in place.”
It took me years to understand that saying yes to everyone’s invitations was not kindness. It was insincerity, and it did not actually bring me feelings of closeness. Learning the difference between a true “yes” and an obedient “yes” has been another breakthrough. I had to start telling the truth about my real emotional attention span and my need for reflective and quiet time.
Let’s make a commitment to be more transparent about our relational limits. Let’s stop the ruse of giving ourselves away to be “nice” because, frankly, I know far too many “nice” and “helpful” women whose undeveloped aspirations are dying on the vine.
So many of us have been stuck in the cages of our obligations and loyalties to others. Then we wonder why we can’t just run up the pole and plant the flag of our inspirations. It’s an awful, vicious loop to want to do something and not do it because everyone and everything else seems urgent, to feel horrible about ourselves for not doing it, and to then lose energy for it because we feel behind or defeated, and then push the inspiration away because we feel too ordinary, incompetent, or old.
Each of us has a kernel, at least one original contribution, that only we can make with our particular gifts, flaws, biological histories, connections, environments, and personality arrangements. In order for us to discover this individual spark, develop it, and deliver it to the world, we need to make sure we have our internal and external support in place.
Here is my noncomprehensive list of what we need and what must be let go of in order to break the cycle of procrastination and to enter into inner authority and dream-completion mode.
Regularly scheduled, uninterrupted quiet time
The ability to state and release our emotions clearly and make assertive requests
Friends and mentors to whom we are accountable and who support us
A consistent, nonbendable scheduled time to work concretely on realizing our dream
Daily movement to get the blood pumping, ideally in fresh air
Regular, consistent acknowledgment from a few key others about the worthiness of our goal
Limit irrelevant screen time to a maximum of one hour per day
A plan for setbacks and falling off of the above and starting again
Things to let go of to stop overcommitting:
Thinking that other people need you more than you need yourself
Saying yes to tons of social obligations to be nice
Being busy to avoid yourself
Mindless screen time
Comparing, comparing, comparing (this will always cause suffering)
Shaming yourself for setbacks
Any reason you think of for why you are not made to do whatever it is your heart is calling you to do
Detractors and doubters (they have their own clubs anyway)
Discipline comes from the joy of being yoked to something that is both of yourself and beyond yourself. Once we realize that the common denominator of this equation is ourselves, we can see that we come first. Our core needs are never even an arm’s length away, and they need primary focus. Once that is handled, we can incubate originality. When we give ourselves first what we truly need, we can honor our innate gifts. We can tap into intrinsic motivation and see our plans through.
As a recovering distracted, dissatisfied creator, one of the biggest surprises is this: Turning toward myself has improved my relationships with others and made my time with them more meaningful—and fun.
Psychotherapist Jennifer Freed, PhD, is a national trainer for parents, teachers, and students in social and emotional learning. She is the executive director of AHA!, which is dedicated to uplifting the lives of all teenagers and families. Freed is also a psychological astrologer; you can reach her at [email protected]