Choice vs. Obligation: Intention is Everything

What’s the difference between being a yes-person and being a kind person? I was faced with this tricky question recently. Afer pondering it for a little while, I came to the conclusion that it is all about intention. As I have talked about before, I am a recovering people-pleaser. I used to constantly say yes when I really wanted to say no. I would feel obligated to do whatever would make the other person/people happy, no matter how miserable and resentful it might make me feel. And in my experience doing something for someone else when you don’t want to almost always makes you miserable.

Have you ever said yes to a party invitation when you really desperately just wanted to veg out on the couch? How much did you enjoy that party? And how much did you add to the party for the host and other guests? My guess is not much on both counts. So it wasn’t a kindness to the other party-goers and it certainly wasn’t a kindness to you. Saying yes to everything and anything is just not healthy.

So how could a year of kindness (essentially consciously trying to make someone else happy each and every day) actually be good for a chronic yes-person? Because for me it meant that giving is no longer an obligation, it is a choice. A choice that I make over again each day. I decide to look out for opportunities to be kind, and then if I am sure it will be no skin off my nose, and that I expect nothing from the recipient, I take the opportunity. If it feels like an obligation or a chore, I simply don’t do it. If I have a day when I feel so overstretched that I don’t have anything left to give, I decide to take it easy and be kind to myself instead.

After starting this project I quickly realised that if I’m feeling obligated to be kind then I am far more likely to take it personally if the recipient of my kindness is ungrateful or unappreciative. Giving with a negative intention (because you feel you “should”, to get something out of it, to make someone think better of you) is not really a kindness to anyone. Because eventually you will feel so resentful you’ll explode, or you will burn out, or you will simply forget that you actually have any wants or needs of your own. And all of these scenarios will actually prevent you from giving fully to others.

So the next time you are about to say “yes” to something, please stop
and ask yourself, is it because you feel obligated or can you genuinely say is it an easy and happy choice?

The World Can Only Change From Within

“Now is the time for the tribes of Sydney to gather, collaborate, be entertained and accelerate this revolution toward a more kind, conscious and sustainable world.” – Jono Fisher, Wake Up Sydney

This weekend I was lucky enough to attend a conference called Time for Renewal: The World Can Only Change From Within. It was held by Wake Up Sydney!, whose mission is to inspire a kindness revolution for ourselves, each other and the natural world. It was two days of music, inspirational speakers, meditation, and workshops focusing on how to be kinder to ourselves. It was a truly amazing experience for me to discover a whole “kindness community” I never even knew existed and to realise I really seriously need to start doing more kindnesses for myself. Here are the biggest lessons I took away from it all …

Don’t wait for a Big D.
Big Ds are the life challenges that everyone is faced with at some point – death, diagnosis, disaster, divorce, depression, disease, downturn, destruction… They are things that rock us to the very core, make us question who we are and why we are here. If we survive these Big Ds, we are forever changed. The suffering they cause breaks us open to answer the greater questions of our existence. If we had not experienced them, we would not have been forced to get to face truths about ourselves and our lives. They require us to develop new ways of being in the world. Hopefully they make us live a more grateful, more purposeful, more kindful life. But why wait for a Big D to live this way? Why not be consciously aware each day of the preciousness of life? Why not start thinking right now about what we want to achieve in our lifetime and how we want to be remembered?

Live all the seasons.
Everyone wants to be happy. But even the happiest of people experience anger, sadness, frustration, regret … Just like summertime comes and goes, so too does happiness. No one can live a summer life all the time. We must accept negative emotions for what they are and think about what we can learn from them. This lesson really hit home for me. When someone very close to me died a couple of years ago, I felt very much like I should try to remember the happy memories and not wallow in sadness because that was not what they would want. However, denying the negative feelings was not making me happy. In fact, the suppressed sadness was like a weight on my chest, making it hard to breathe, hard to sleep, hard to do anything much at all. Then a friend of mine gave me the most wonderful gift – he gave me permission to be sad. He told me sometimes really sad things happen, and you just have to let yourself be sad about it. So I did. And at first there was so much sadness I thought maybe I would never pull myself out of that well again, but after a long time of allowing myself to sit with that sadness without pushing it away I felt it gradually ebb away on its own. Trust that you are strong enough and resilient enough to get through any negative emotions and that embracing them will allow you to emerge more appreciative and more positive.

Make time for stillness.
Inner peace does not mean happiness all day every day. In practical terms it means embracing the moment regardless of the challenges it presents with an open heart and a quiet mind. In order to develop a quiet mind, we must make time for stillness in whatever form fills us up. It doesn’t have to be sitting cross-legged with eyes closed saying “ommm” (although this works great for many people) – it could be listening to beautiful music, writing in a journal, walking in nature, people-watching at a cafe… Whatever makes your mind calmer and clearer and allows you to gain perspective. Make it a priority by deciding that your own wellbeing will come before all else, because it is the foundation for success in every other aspect of life.

Realise everything you have ever done was the right thing.
Wow. Really? But what about …? And even that time …? Yes. Every decision we make takes us in a new direction and helps us to change, learn and grow. The moments we don’t want to face are the ones that offer the chance to heal like no other moment can. The past has brought you to right here and now, armed with all the lessons you need to go forward. It is not possible to change anything that has already happened, but it is very possible to change your perspective of it. Did someone stomp all over your heart, and you are left angry and resentful that you didn’t see it coming? Why not re-frame the scenario to be incredibly grateful to that person for showing their true colours and setting you free to find someone who will give you 110% like you deserve? The greatest gift you can give to the world is your very best self, and that means accepting yourself and your past completely. That way you can move forward with a peaceful mind and channel all your energy into what you are meant to contribute to the world.

Stay on your own mat.
Sometimes when attending an exercise class its hard not to look around at other people and compare your own flexibility, or speed, or strength to theirs. But really, these comparisons don’t help us to perform better and usually end up making us feel bad about ourselves because there will always be someone who has more flexibility, speed or strength than us. The same is true in life – everyone is on their own path, with their own strengths and weaknesses. So we need to stop comparing ourselves to others and keep our focus on our own mat. Forget about what everyone else is doing, and concentrate on being the best version of yourself.

Be grateful for bees.
As I said in the introduction to the previous post by gorgeous Lesh, one of the most striking moments of the whole conference for me was being told that one bee works their whole lifetime in order to produce just a quarter of a teaspoon of honey. If we want to be truly kind to ourselves, that means rediscovering the rhythms of mother nature and recognising that we are connected to all creatures. We have a responsibility to not only feed our bodies with the cleanest, most nourishing foods but also to consider whether we are taking only what we need and doing so in a truly kind and ethical way. And that leads me to …

This week’s kindness challenge: Make food choices that are kind to animals and planet earth. Check out Lesh’s guest post for lots of simple, practical ideas (and check out her blog for awesome vego recipes if you are so inclined!)

The Need-To-Please Disease

Worrying what other people think of you. Needing approval and praise to feel good about yourself. Constantly saying and doing things simply because you feel obligated. Becoming anxious when someone doesn’t like you. Thinking other people’s opinions are more important than your own … These are all symptoms of the ‘need-to-please disease’.

In my not-remotely-scientific opinion, I think 90% of people suffer from this disease, often in silence, and sometimes for their whole lives. There are very few people who like to be criticised, unrespected or disliked. But does saying “yes” to everything and putting everyone else’s happiness before your own really equate to everyone liking and respecting you? Hardly.

I used to be a chronic people pleaser. I felt personally responsible for other people’s happiness and if someone was rude or nasty to me for no apparent reason I would try even harder to make them happy, assuming it had to be my fault in some way. I am definitely getting better at not taking these things personally, and accepting the only person whose happiness I control is my own. I now realise that most of the time nastiness is the nasty person’s problem and actually has nothing to do with me at all.

However, like most people I don’t think I will ever find being criticised or disliked easy to deal with. So when we are overcome with an attack of the People-Pleaser, what can we do to cure it? Psych Central has come up with a list to answer this very question, all scientific-like: 21 Tips to Stop Being a People Pleaser. I’ve adapted the list down to my top 8:

1. Realize you have a choice.
This is the most powerful ah-ha moment a people-pleaser can have. You are not obligated to say yes to everything. You have a right to say no if you do not want, or are not able, to do something.

2. Stall.
Take time to think before you agree to something. Imagine saying yes and consider how it would make you feel.

3. Set limits.
If you choose to say yes, qualify it with boundaries. Let them know if you can only help on a certain day, or with a specific part of their request.

4. Consider if you’re being manipulated.
Don’t say yes if you feel the person is taking advantage of you. Say what you want and how you feel (it’s hard, but you’ll feel better when you do, and they might even respect you more for it.)

5. Use an empathic assertion.
If you say no, let the other person know that you have listened to them carefully and empathise with their situation but simply cannot fulfil their request.

6. Don’t give a litany of excuses.
It’s hard not to feel the need to justify yourself but its not necessary to give a long drawn-out explanation for why you can’t do something.

7. Be realistic, not dramatic.
Usually the consequences of saying no are far less significant than we imagine.

8. Remember that saying no has its benefits.
You can’t be everything to everyone. It is important to have time and energy for yourself and those closest to you. Saying no to things you don’t want to do is giving yourself the opportunity to do things you truly enjoy and value.

So if I’m a recovering need-to-please addict, you’re probably thinking that a Year of Kindness is not one of the recommended twelve steps. Here’s the thing: pleasing people is a great thing. Needing to please them is not. In light of that, this weeks kindnesses have all been completely annonymous, thus making it solely about pleasing others and removing the element of praise/approval. I put coins in public telephones and expired parking metres, bought coffees for two people and then slipped away before they found out, left money scratchies for people to find on park benches, and made a conscious effort to be a super considerate driver on the road. I was worried that the “annonymous” nature of these acts would indeed make them less enjoyable, but I’m pleased to report that simply knowing these things would brighten up someone elses day made me just as happy as if they had expressed direct praise and gratitude. Kindness is not an obligation but a conscious choice, and choosing it makes me happy.

Chocolate and Rainboots

I adore the above poem by spoken word poet Sarah Kay. The honesty, the optimism, the beautiful metaphors and striking imagery. Mostly I love the idea that although every mother wishes they could simply pass on the lessons of life and save their child all the hurt and the heartache, unfortunately each one of us must learn the hard way that “getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air”.

This kindness week was all about positive affirmations, to remind my friends and family of their beauty, strength, intelligence and value. I wrote kind messages on post-it notes and sent messages of encouragement every day. These included: “All you have to do is believe in yourself and follow your instincts, and you will end up exactly where you are meant to be” and “You are strong, kind and beautiful. Every moment is an opportunity.” As each person recieved their individual affirmation and repsonded so positively, I realised that while its true that thoughts create words create actions, sometimes it happens differently. Sometimes reading or hearing positive, kind things about yourself from someone else can actually shift your own thoughts. One post-it note that I put on the bathroom mirror at work simply said “You are beautiful”. The next day I saw that someone had added their own comment: “Thankyou for reminding me. :)”

Imagine if everyone knew beyond any doubt their own strength, beauty, compassion and innate value? And for those that didn’t know it yet, imagine if they all had cheerleaders around them to remind them every day of their unique contribution to the world until they did realise it for themselves? Life will always throw enough curve-balls to ensure the necessity of chocolate and rainboots, but maybe being our own cheerleaders can allow us to face the hurts and the heartache like the little girl Sarah describes who just keeps on singing, whose eyes keep shining, who never stops asking for more.

Are You Happy Yet?

This week something awesome happened, something that I had been wanting for a really long time, something I was sure would bring me a lot of happiness. With the typical dramatic irony of the universe, it happened during one of my rare anti-Pollyanna weeks when I was ruminating on the fact that maybe nothing good was ever going to happen. (Melodrama seems to go hand in hand with negativity.) I know that happiness comes from within yadda yadda yadda, and for the past six months I have been all about listening to my own instincts and learning not to expect happiness to arise from anywhere but my own mind.

However, it seemed logical that working to create my own bank of natural happiness would in turn produce more positive outcomes in my life which would create more happiness. It’s practically a foolproof scientific equation. The only problem is that life is not always logical or scientific. And if karma exists, sometimes it takes such a long time to come around, its almost impossible to say whether it is karmic reward/punishment or simply random chance. Either way, its always nice to recieve a positive in life and I certainly had one this week. The strange thing was, immediately following my spontaneous happy dance around the room, my next thought was: “Now if only this would happen, and that would change and the other thing would turn around, then I would be so happy that I would never ask for anything else ever again.” Hmmm.

It’s the old cliche: I would be truly happy if I got a promotion/lost weight/got married/owned my own home/bought that dress … Buddhists call it ‘Attachment’, the natural human tendency to “grasp at a particular thing, person or situation, believing that this ‘thing’ will make us happy- a belief system that is fundamentally flawed.”* Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert claims that in almost all cases, within three months of experiencing a dramatic event – good or bad – it will have no significant impact on our level of happiness. In fact, he cites a study which has found that one year on from their life-changing event, paraplegics and lottery winners are equally happy with their lives.** Impossible to believe, right?

All of this got me thinking about happiness in terms of the kindness project, since when I really think about it the idea of spreading kindness is ultimately to increase happiness. It’s easy to do things in an attempt to make other people’s day a little brighter – this week I bought a coffee for someone, donated warm winter clothes to the homeless, took a bunch of flowers to a friend who was feeling down, bought lunch for someone and donated to Beyond Blue , the national depression initiative. But ultimately I have no control over how any of these people react to or percieve these kindnesses (as was so evident with The Flower Incident). Maybe the kindness would not make it onto their happiness radar because they have convinced themselves that the only way they will ever be happy is if they have a new handbag or a wealthy partner or are five kilos lighter… It seems that it’s only human nature.

So what object, person or thing is your happiness dependent upon? And, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for ya?” Are you happy yet?

* ‘Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in an Uncertain World’ by David Michie, 2004
** For more on this see Dan Gilbert’s TED talk ‘Why Are We Happy?’.