For much of my early life I felt very trapped. Of course as children most of us feel angry about the lack of autonomy we have. Later I felt like the power of choice was taken from me by an abusive boyfriend, and various religeous and familial obligations. Even when I became a mother people were always telling me what to do. It meant that I didn’t follow the career I wanted, and made a lot of decisions based on what other people thought was best, or what seemed like the kindest thing or the most economical thing at the time.
The thing is, that led to a life that wasn’t a reflection of what I wanted it to be. It was also often stressed and overloaded and permeated with a feeling of pointlessness. It’s good to be kind, and it’s good to take other people’s feelings and opinions into consideration, but you shouldn’t be doing that instead of following your own mind.
The reality is, no matter what your circumstances, you have the ability to choose. It is only a matter of what consequences you are prepared to bear.
I finally broke away from the abusive boyfriend, by owning the idea that he may say awful things about me to everyone, and he may rage and yell and try all the ways he can think of to manipulate me into doing what he wants, but that I was going to make a concerted effort to be okay with that. His power to manipulate disappeared overnight, because I was no longer afraid of the consequences. Or rather, I was still terrifed of them, but I had decided that I was going to accept them as the price of making my own mind up about things.
If it isn’t in your nature to stand tall and just take it when people give out, you can find yourself doing jobs and favours and making all kinds of decisions that bury your own feelings and leave your own ideas and wishes stifled or dead.
It can be a really hard step to be ‘selfish’ and make time for you, or say “no” to other people. But it does get easier with practice, and it doesn’t have to make you a bad person. It’s okay to have some time for you and your things, and while some people might take a short time to get used to the idea that you are an individual with agency and goals of your own, they will get used to it. And if they don’t like it, they weren’t such a great friend anyway. As for children, it is a far better role model for them to see someone who stands up for themselves and takes time to do their own things some of the time, than it is to see someone constantly capitulating to the desires of others. They have to see how you make some time for yourself and your goals, so that they can learn how to do it when they are older.
I have a small sign just below my monitor to remind me every day, “I have the ability to choose“.
Even now, I still have to remind myself sometimes that I have the ability to choose. Recently I backed myself into a corner with a job that I was finding particularly stressful. It took some time for me to remember that I could legitimately go and say “I’m sorry, I know I said I would do this every week until June, but I wasn’t anticipating how stressful I would find it and I am afraid I have to stop now. I’m so sorry.”
Yes, I would be leaving someone in the lurch. But it’s a pickle they will find a way out of. The consequence is that they may not want to rely on me so much in future. But there’s also every chance they will accept my apology and just sort it out and move on and not think much of it. Indeed, this is what I am aiming for when I apologise, and tell them that I understand I made a promise, but that I am having a hard time coping – I am hoping the honesty will ring true with them and they will understand. Perhaps it even means the next person will be more engaged and better at the job, and so it’s better for everyone if I’m honest. And I will save myself four days a week of panic and dread. On the balance scales, improving my mental health will improve my effectiveness with my other projects, and that is more important than the chance that this one person may think badly of me.
Of course, there are other factors to the decision, especially financial ones. But this idea that I can examine them and then choose is still important. The decision is mine, it is only a matter of what consequences I am prepared to accept. If I want to struggle to make ends meet so that I don’t have to feel that way, I can choose that. Or I can go and feel awful, but know that I chose that so that I could enjoy more money. I have agency either way.
And you do, too.