There she is. This is the “busy" girl. (Actually, this is a headshot from my first job out of law school — a so-called big firm job — that I landed in 1997. I'm not hallucinating thinking this is another person -- stay with me.)
That first job out of law school was a great experience. I met some extremely talented people, and learned a lot. I worked even more.
I remember the girl in this photo. She was excited, and very hungry. Hungry for approval. . . from anyone and everyone around her.
Combine approval-hungry with the mental energy and physical stamina of a 25 year-old and you've got yourself an hourly-billing machine. And that's what I became. Big firms love employees like that.
I worked long hours and received large doses of validation from the partners at the firm. We both got something out of the relationship. It was a win-win.
I would not have described myself as approval-addicted at the time. I didn't know what I didn't know about my own brain.
Me and the very "busy" girl in this photo co-existed pretty well in our relationship for a long time. Years. Decades, actually.
Add in a marriage and two children, a mortgage, car payments, all of the other things that life brings to you as you get older, and I started to resent my relationship with the busy-girl.
I mean, she was very demanding. She always needed more of my time. If I tried to slow down for even one minute, she was trying to fit in just one more little task on the to-do list.
She kept telling me that we didn't have a choice. There were all of these things that we had to to.
Even when I fit in the extra thing, and no matter how hard I tried, she always reminded me of something that we could have done better.
When we were at home, she nagged at me about all of the work that had to be done at the office.
When we were at the office, she whispered under her breath about things that were left unfinished at home. She told me that I was a "B minus" mother for waiting until the last minute to help the kids with a school project, and that I could just do a better job of planning ahead next time and work a little bit harder and longer.
And busy-girl was very sneaky. Even when I did plan ahead, she brought new requests to me. Stuff we didn't plan for.
When I resisted, she would tell me, "Listen, we have to do this. It won't even take that long. Just do it this time, and then next weekend we can relax."
She wasn't totally lying to me. If I scurried around and did the thing, she would be nice to me. . . . for like five minutes. Then she would whisper to me about something else we could be tackling right now with our "extra" time.
Until I landed in a place where I was very deflated, very tired. "Burnt out" is a cliched phrase, but that's definitely how I felt.
The busy-girl and I had achieved the goals that we'd thought about since we were teenagers. Why wasn't she happier?
She wasn't. She kept pushing us. She also tried to turn me against family and friends, secretly blaming them because they just didn't get us.
"It must be nice to be them," she would hiss. "They just don't understand what it's like to have so much to do every day. Maybe they should pick up some of the slack."
There was one thing that busy girl would let us do every once in a while. We loved to read.
Books about personal development, of course. I mean, duh.
Busy-girl was not having it. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," she said. "I don't know this person who wrote this down, but she obviously doesn't know all the stuff we have to get done every day."
But I was intrigued, so I continued reading and learning. I started to say no to some of the things that people asked me to do, even when busy-girl really wanted me to say yes.
Busy-girl did not like the way that I was stepping outside of our comfort zone. We were well into our fifth decade together, and she was not willing to let me go that easily.
Like I said, busy-girl could be sneaky. . . and mean.
She would say things like:
"Why are you doing this? Things are fine the way they are."
"But they're really not," I would tell her. "I've been working really hard, and it's just never enough for you."
She wasn't giving up. "You're going to ruin everything," she said.
That made me stop and think for a minute, but only for a minute.
Then I had one of those transformative life events that made me really sit back and take stock. It doesn't even matter exactly what it was. If you have one, you'll know it.
And I started thinking that it was time to break up with busy-girl.
She doubled down on us.
"You have totally lost your mind."
"You're not going to make it out there without me."
And then came the gut punch -- the comment that she knew would really hurt. "Do you really think these people will want us around when we're not taking care of all this stuff?"
That's when it clicked for me. “Busy” was something we made up.
We were never really that busy at all. And busy-girl wasn’t trying to be mean. Since she lives in the primitive part of my brain -- the part that thinks isolation means we might die -- she was just trying to protect us.
She was so anxious for the external approval because she really believed that we might die without it. (I'm still not hallucinating , by the way, I'm just speaking in metaphors. Thanks for sticking with me this far. Keep reading.)
And I was believing her. I absolutely loved the validation I got from busy-girl when I did all the things that she told me we had to do. That was totally on me.
And that’s when I knew it was time. "I'm not sure," I told her. "Maybe they won't want us around. But I have to find out. It's time for you to go."
When I stopped believing that I had to do things, I could just do them because I wanted to. When “no” was the right answer for me, I said it, and — total shocker — my life did not fall apart.
My relationships with the people that mean the most to me drastically improved. When I decided to be nicer to myself, it was a lot easier to be nicer to them.
Because the truth is that, whenever I was impatient with them or resenting them, I was simply projecting onto them what the busy-girl was telling me.
I know -- you're not sure if you believe me right now. That's okay. I believe enough for both of us.
And here's what I tell her:
I see you there, sweetie, lurking in the corner, telling me that I absolutely have to say 'yes' to that request.
But we're done. I meant it when I said we're not getting back together.
I know -- you think I can't live without you.
I'll still think about you every once in a while. After all, we've been through a lot together.
I appreciate everything you did for me when we were kids, but I've got to move forward now, and it's just not going to be with you.
I don't try to run away when I see her. I just let her sit there in silence, until she gets up and leaves on her own.
How long have you tolerated that relationship, even though deep down you know that it just isn't serving you anymore? And I'm talking now about the most important relationship of all, the one you have with yourself.
Talk to you soon.
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