We tend to put others first—and it's time to break that contract and start living a life that is full and wild and precious.
Recently, I was teaching a workshop on spiritual sexuality. We were talking about the sacredness of pleasure and erotic energy, the power of desiring something and going for it—whether it has anything to do with sex or not. We did some yoga together, and my instruction was to go into each pose exactly to the point of pleasure and ease, to give yourself exactly as much or as little of that pose as felt right in that moment.
This was an interesting experience for the workshop participants, as it has been for me in the past. Some of them found it incredibly difficult to do something purely because it felt good, not for a need to push or perform or make their bodies different. One participant said the question popped up in her head: “Do I deserve to have that?”
Many of us have been conditioned to put our own needs last behind everyone else’s. We’re so used to feeling dull or uncomfortable or even in pain because we know whatever we’re doing or not doing benefits someone else. We’re willing to do anything to help or protect someone we love, but we don’t do the same for ourselves.
When we encounter a deep yearning in our lives—getting a divorce, going back to school, having babies, moving away, quitting a job—we keep our mouths shut because it might inconvenience someone else. It will make someone feel bad or leave someone with more work to do or, God forbid, make someone angry. We’ve been working so hard to keep ourselves safe by making ourselves small that we’ve forgotten our sacred duty to mindfully choose how we want to live this one wild and precious life (to paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver).
When we do not stand up for our boundaries or ask for what we truly need, we feel angry. A constant, low-level simmer of resentment slowly cooks our insides, making us sick, and sad, and despondent. We do not fully show up to our work or in our relationships because our vital energy keeps getting buried underneath the labor of not saying what’s really true for us. As Glennon Doyle recently told Brené Brown in reference to her new book, Untamed, we know there’s a cost to going after what we really want, but we don’t often consider there’s a huge cost to not going after it. That cost is our lives.
Of course we must approach all the choices in our lives with consideration for the people around us, but we often forget kindness and love aren’t the same as self-sacrifice. When we refuse to do someone else’s work for them, they get an opportunity to do it themselves. When we teach people where our boundaries are, they learn that it’s okay to stand up for their own. When we model a life filled with light and passion for our children, our children learn how to live that same kind of life.
Many of us are operating with an internal contract that basically says, “In order to keep myself safe, I must put everyone else’s needs before my own.” It might be time to break that contract.
This can be a gentle breaking. Perhaps it starts with exploring genuine pleasure in a yoga practice, refusing instead to push and perform. Perhaps it means choosing to eat foods that are both nutritious and also nourishing for the body. Perhaps there’s a small “no” that needs to be said to someone we love, bolstered by the courage to feel some discomfort when they get angry with us.
Living a life that is full and wild and precious requires a lot of courage, because it’s not the way we’ve been taught to live our lives. Choosing pleasure, then, choosing to break the contract to keep swallowing what we really want and need, is a radical choosing.
Read more on putting yourself first.