Overcommitted and Overwhelmed? The Self-Care Choice: Nourishment Over Obligation

“Ok, wait, give me the dates?” I asked my partner through the phone line as we talked on his work break. He lists out several meeting dates and we discuss a conflict of overlapping meetings. I asked how he was going to choose which meeting to attend and he began listing out other people’s priorities and then described how he could best accommodate them. “Umm yea,” I responded. “But what do you want? What nourishes you?”

This conversation reminded me of a debate I’ve been curiously following in parent blogs and magazines about how much to schedule kids’ activities. Beyond running the parents ragged going from soccer practice to cello practice to home and bed, there’s the outstanding question of time for play. Where is the space in the schedule for kids to use their own resources to entertain themselves? What nourishes kids more, play or structured activities? How do we support what nourishes them the most? I’m waiting to see where this debate goes, but it did make me wonder why we aren’t having this same debate about adults. Maybe not between play and structured activities, that’s another conversation, but maybe just starting with what activities we choose to do. How do we prioritize the time we want to commit to our many issues and relationships? For those of us who work a day job and use evenings and weekends to support activist causes we believe in, how do we go about making these decisions? One place to begin is to examine if what we are doing is nourishing or if we only doing the activity out of obligation.

It can be difficult to figure out when we are doing something out of obligation versus doing something which actually fuels us. Yet, if we can figure out for ourselves obligation from nourishment, then we have the best information to make a choice about our activities. One way to notice between the two is when you find yourself using “shoulds”. When you hear yourself saying, “I should do ____.”When you hear yourself saying this repeatedly (maybe even with a feeling of dread or despair), you are making a decision out of obligation. This is great information to help you understand what you actually want and what might be draining instead of nourishing.

What supports your nourishment?
Nourishment is that which fuels us. Ideally, it leaves us feeling energized and excited. We feel connected to others and ourselves. However, especially in social activist work, what is nourishing isn’t always easy. Sometimes what nourishes us is a commitment that takes time. Sometimes nourishing work can be confusing and uncomfortable, the cost of the birthing change into the world. We may take the results of activity more personally because what is nourishing can sometimes be more challenging than activities we feel obligated to. We may feel more emotionally invested in what fuels us and this can lead to worry and anxiety. Yet, when we participate in nourishing activities, it feels “right”. If it is challenging, it challenges us in a way where we grow. If we are worried, it is a worry that comes from a hope that we can help create change. When we are doing something nourishing, it is often fun and our heart wants to return.

Once we make a choice to honor and do what is nourishing instead of what we feel obligated to, we are left with the question of how to back out of the obligations. (This may sometimes not be possible, some obligations are just part of life, but often we do have a choice in what we commit to with our time.) How does one back out of obligations gracefully, you may ask. Backing out of obligations is always hard. The best tactic is honesty. 

Be honest that you’ve overcommitted yourself. You can apologize if necessary, but be clear that, for example, you are no longer available to make the cookies for the bake sale or present on a panel. The key to backing out of obligations gracefully is the art of still attending to your commitments. Try to give as much time as possible for people to know that you can no longer follow through. Secondly, try to find someone else to take your spot. When you are no longer taking advantage of an opportunity, other people then have a chance to participate. Could you find someone else to bake cookies? Could you open up an opportunity for someone new to present by asking your network, colleagues or friends if anyone is interested in taking your place to present on the panel? After being clear that you are no longer available, describe what you are doing to try and fill the gap and then give a deadline that is respectful as possible. For example, “Hello _____, Unfortunately, I’ve found myself overcommitted and am unable to present on the panel next month. I will ask around to see if I can find a replacement presenter. I’ll let you know either way by next Friday. Thanks again for extending the opportunity to take part on the panel. I’m sure with your knowledge and expertise it will be amazing.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m writing a book on self-care, but I’ve had several people back out of commitments “in the interest of their own self-care”, leaving the response at that. It is a deeply unsatisfying response. It may be truthful that it is in the interest of their self-care that they back out, but this reason doesn’t acknowledge the consequences of the situation. It is important to name that we are backing out of something that we had committed to. Honesty and accountability are important, especially where we want to maintain relationships.
Our primary relationship is with ourselves. If we don’t honor ourselves, then we are left with feeling unsatisfied with how we are spending our time. We start taking out this dissatisfaction on those around us, getting crabby at our friends, partner or kids. We might show up to the obligation with a bad attitude and ruin the time for others. Like it or not, we usually have the signs we need about whether we are committing to obligations instead nourishing activities. We just have to learn to listen and practice honoring the right choice for us.   

By Naomi Ortiz (c) 2014