Superwoman Syndrome: How to stop doing everything all the time

I used to suffer terribly with this.  My schedule was jam packed, I was working the equivalent of full time plus studying full time AND I was a single mother on top of that.  The candle burning at both ends, I would frequently fall apart under the weight of it all.  Little spack attacks.  I still remember throwing my chopping board across the room in a fit of over-exhausted rage.  I just couldn’t keep up.

I’ve been at that place in my life a number of times.  It’s not just a mother-thing obviously - it’s a human thing...  Something inside of us starts with the ‘you’re not good enough just as you are’ crap. You begin to doubt the value of who you are and what you’re doing, and because you feel like you’re not enough you feel like you don’t do enough either so then you get the big scoop out and put too much on your plate.  You begin to tie your worth into your ‘achievements’ and because of this you need to be constantly doing, or achieving.  “I’m just so busy”, becomes your war-cry, as if it actually stands for “I’m important and valuable”.  It doesn’t. 

We then fill out schedules to the brim and go and go and go, convincing ourselves that if we stop we are failures. It’s only when we begin to feel like we’re going to have a freaking nervous break down and end up in a psych ward that we stop and take check.  

“The world is literally going to continue without me isn’t it?  So stop pretending that you can’t delegate.  Stop pretending that the world needs you to be constantly ‘on’.  Learn to pace yourself”. Wise wisdom from the inner voice… but how exactly do I implement that?  

Learning how to pace yourself is a huge thing.  Especially as a parent.  Because if there’s not enough of you to go around, who is the first person that usually suffers (besides you - you’ve been suffering for ages before you actually burn out)?  It’s the kids. Or your spouse.  If you’re a single parent on top, it’s definitely the kids.  Then you have parent guilt on top of all that feeling worthless crap and it compounds.  Because you haven’t yet figured out that busy doesn’t equal valuable or important, then sadly what happens is the desire to achieve something valuable becomes even more driven. You buy into the lie that if you just do more then you’ll be a better parent. Or a better human or a better wife or husband or neighbour. You’ll be better and more valuable if you do more. I love the one that says if you buy more for the kids then you’ll be a better parent.  Then you need more money and you need to work even harder and then, you’re less present with the kids and you have more guilt and you need to do more...  

This shit is a trap and it’s just so easy to fall into, especially if you haven’t actually acknowledged the trap that it actually is. For some parents it’s even this idea that you have to be the best parent possible and give little Johnny every opportunity to do everything.  It doesn’t. Sure, if your kids are passionate about something, and they are prepared to be committed themselves to do things, then yes most certainly support them and give them opportunities.  It still doesn’t mean you have to say yes to everything. Even when they play sport it doesn’t mean you have to take them to every game. You can carpool with other parents.  Swap with someone else occasionally.  You know that old saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child?” You really don’t get any awards for doing everything alone. You might get something but it will generally end up being high cholesterol or a heart attack.  

So here’s a tip: share the load.  I’m not saying just dump your kids on someone else and run away (as tempting as that may be), but share the load.  Make friends with other parents and swap afternoons. You have their kids on a Tuesday and your kids go there on Wednesday.  Things like that.  After school care if you need respite.  Just don’t give yourself the guilts trying to do absolutely everything all the freaking time. Superwoman syndrome exists because you THINK you have to be superwoman or superman when you actually don’t. You’re actually a regular person and there is only so much of you to go around.

Just right now, ask yourself this:  If I did NOTHING today, would I feel valuable?

How constant is my urge to DO something all the time?

When I sit still for five minutes, what happens in my head? Am I compelled to find another job to do? Am I addicted to my phone?  Am I putting pressure on myself to be busy all the time? Do I ever allow myself the space to disconnect? To unplug? To reset?

When you dig down a little, you’ll find the reason we do pretty much anything, is to feel good (or comfortable or simply to stop feeling crap).  We clean our house because when it’s clean, we feel better.  We go to work and earn money and support ourselves because when we do that, we feel better than if we don’t.  We give our kids opportunities and drive them all over the place, because it makes us feel like a better parent, and that makes us feel better. We make ourselves busy because we feel important if we’re busy and then that makes us feel better… We drink ourselves stupid because we can’t relax and we need to relax so we feel better… You get my point right?

All this trying, all the striving and even the ways we try to relax is all about trying to feel better.  Trying to find the inner peace that is eluding us in this busy frantic world.  It’s almost like if we sit still and do nothing for 5 minutes we are reminded that the world still continues without us and we’re afraid of missing out.  We practically feel the clock ticking and like we are wasting precious time when we could be doing another job.

Another thing that happens is that if we sit still we might actually feel something.  We may be haunted by the fact that we’re not doing what we really want and we’re settling for this mediocre life that we didn’t dream of.  We may just have a feeling when we’re used to just feeling busy.

We need to learn that ultimately, it’s all about peace. It’s all about seeking for and attaining, some sense of inner peace. Because, when we have peace inside, things don’t get to us so much. We can be in the moment. We can stop and play a game with the kids because we don’t have pressing issues to deal with and a full inbox that we can’t ignore.  

When we have inner peace, we only keep things in our schedule because they serve a purpose (not just to keep us busy). When we do that we don’t resent it so much.  We have more balance because we remember we have the power to say no to the stuff that’s not so important.  We can work with others. There’s more room for compromise, there’s more room for fun, there’s more room for joy.  You can enjoy the work you do. You can enjoy your children and your pets and your spouse and family. You can enjoy being still.  

There’s a story Steven Covey tells about a philosophy teacher who stands in front of his students with a mason jar.  He pulls out this huge mason jar and he fills it all the way up to the top with large rocks.  He asks his students if the jar is full and his students say yes…

So then he puts pebbles in the jar and the pebbles fall all around the rocks and fill in the gaps and he fills it to the top and then asks the students again if the jar is full and again they say yes.

Then he puts sand in the jar and it falls between the large rocks and the small pebbles.  Again he asks the students if the jar is full and they say yes. Then he does the whole thing again with water until finally the jar is actually full.  

The teacher then empties the jar and he started again but this time he starts with the sand.

When he put the sand in first it took up so much room that there was no room for the rocks or the pebbles.

The point is that the big rocks are the things that are important to you. All the things that make life worth living. If you don’t put them in first, then they won’t fit in.  All the pebbles are the other things that matter to you. The things that you have to do.  The sand is all the other things that don’t really matter but that will just keep coming at you and will take up every spare second if you let it. So you have to put that later so that there is room.

My big rocks, the most important things for me, my main priorities are my health, my physical well being, my family and my friends.  The pebbles are my projects, my community, the house work, stuff that is still important to me but just not as important as my health.  If I make the priorities the right way around then I fit everything in and the bits that slide to the side are not the most important things. If I don’t, then the sand, things like “can I go here, can I go there, Michelle can you volunteer for this, here’s 50 emails to write back to today’,  suck me dry and I have nothing left. I can’t fit in my big rocks, and as you would know if you’ve been listening a while, my physical health really needs to be my priority or everything suffers.

I think the trick with Superwoman and superman syndrome is to realise you’re not a super-person.  Put the cape away.  Stop trying to do it all.  Prioritise.  Sit down with yourself and make a list of what the most important things are to you.  Then schedule them in first.  Make sure those things happen and make sure you actually schedule in some rest and recreation because a lot of the time, other things will creep up, people will ask you to do something and then all of a sudden, you’ve got no time left and you’re pulling your hair out again. This is not a race.  Life is not a race.  Life is not a competition. Remember what is important to you and stop loading yourself up.  Find the vision of what you want, how you want your life to look (including the spaces), and then make a plan to make that happen.  Don’t let the tide sweep you up and the workload make those decisions for you.  Don’t let the sand push out all the space that should be for your rocks and pebbles. Deliberately fill the jar the way you want it filled. You make the priorities. You decide.  This is, after all, your life.

Take the time to empty your jar, and put the rocks in first.

- MC