Just Don't Do It

Just Don't Do It

Do you do certain things only because of fear and anxiety? Give yourself permission to stop.

A feel-good moment in countless fairy tales, songs, advertising jingles, children's films and other ostensible vessels of inspiration comes when the narrator, hero/ine, singer and/or star exhorts: You can do it.

Or: Do whatever you desire. Wish upon a star....

Which is inspiring, theoretically. I was inspired by cartoon figures telling me authoritatively that I could sail the seven seas, survive wars, move to Mars, live inside hollow logs, walk hand-in-hand with friendly ghosts, and fly.

These messages meant everything to a suburban child struggling with self-loathing but surrounded with possibility: Its sparks flickered on afternoon TV and in the busy blue-and-silver harbor we could almost see from our front yard.

Just-do-it exhortations are a crucial part of growing up. They build the courage, hope, faith and imagination without which the real would might prove unendurable.

Just-do-it exhortations are so obviously positive, so no-brainerishly encouraging, that we neglect the power of their opposites:

Let's call them de-firmations. They boil down to: Just don't do it. And they are magical, too.

Scribbling notes the other day, planning for my future, I found myself listing not "things to do" but "things not to do." Ever. Again. Unless I really wanted to.

Writing down a certain activity that has become a major source of income, I felt a sudden whoosh that made me write, on the next line, I never have to do that again.

I can't even begin to explain to you how transformative that felt: the writing, the realization, the resolution, the revelation that this was true.

Then I wrote down another activity, not work-related but lifestyle-related. Something basic that I do almost daily, that almost everyone does. Then I wrote: I never have to do that again.

What. A. Rush.

It felt like fifty million thorns being plucked simultaneously from my skin. Sirens stilling to serene silence. Dawn.

But why?

Because I was realizing how many things we all do for the wrong reasons, not because we want or need to do them—say, to feed our families or survive—but driven purely by self-loathing or anxiety. Onto my list went more and more things I've done for years—only because society expects it, because I feared the alternatives (which sometimes would have been stillness, that fearsome absence of activities), because I believed that I deserved no better and/or because I was incapable of saying no.

The more we unexaminedly persist in doing things for the wrong reasons, the more we despise ourselves. It happens subtly, incrementally, but happens nonetheless.

As my list grew, my inner critic raced in circles like a dog chasing its tail. Some of the items on my list were arguably fundamental. So of course I have to—

But I don't. Nobody's life depends on it. No one will suffer (much, if at all) if I stop. I never have to do that again is a sentence but also a vow. An invocation. An anthem. A spell.

Its power-phrase is "have to." If you saw a child with no musical inclinations being forced to study piano, and you could free that child to pursue something else, imagine the relief and gratitude in that child's eyes upon receiving the gift of your permission to stop.

You are that child.

Feeling frozen out of doing things we want to do is tragic. Feeling driven to do things we neither want nor need to do is tragic too.

Take a deep breath. Now start your just-don't-do-it list.

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