Balance Expert

Why do these things always happen to me?

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My kids have a great book called Mud Puddle (Annick) by Robert Munsch. Every time the young heroine in the story steps outside, a huge mud puddle attacks her out of nowhere. Until, that is, she discovers the secret to keeping the mud puddle away and starts carrying bars of soap in her pockets. What you need is a few bars of your own.

In a perfect world, we would control everything that happens to us. In reality, we need strategies to help us cope with times when stuff just comes out of the blue. Like the mud-puddle heroine’s soap, your secret to handling everything life throws at you is to establish and enforce boundaries that you live by, no exceptions.

Many of my clients are women to whom “stuff just happens.” One client agreed to take on a big project in spite of the fact that it involved travel and weekend work. Another client felt obligated to volunteer at a school event although it interfered with the time she spent with her husband.

In a world where a lot of our work goes unappreciated, such as picking up dirty socks or driving kids to practice, we sometimes overcommit ourselves elsewhere in order to get the recognition we desire. That’s why we often let our ego respond to a request before our brain, because we like to feel needed and indispensable.

Like my clients, you can get the recognition you want by telling the people closest to you how much a show of appreciation would mean, whether it’s a dinner out or just a thank you. Most importantly, you can find a way to be smarter about how you spend your time.

My clients finally got off the “Why does everything happen to me?” treadmill with the help of a priority list, as well as a firm “no.” I asked each of them to clearly rank their priorities on paper, most important to least. This list became their decision-making barometer to gauge how well different activities fit with their values and what they needed to say no to.

With new-found clarity on what was truly important to them, my clients could see where their need to keep themselves busy was getting in the way of enjoying life.

The other discovery some of my clients have made: that saying no also opens up the possibility of true, nothing-scheduled downtime. We live in an age when being busy is a sign of how important you are. Have you considered the fact that you might actually be trolling for new activities just to avoid the fear of having nothing to do? Maybe you’re avoiding family or personal issues by keeping yourself too busy to properly deal with them?

Like your body, your brain needs a break to maintain peak performance. Throughout my coaching practice, I’ve found that downtime really pays off, increasing creativity, reducing stress and improving health. Try limiting yourself to just a few activities and commitments. Build in some unstructured downtime—at first it will feel uncomfortable but I wager that you’ll come to enjoy it quickly.

And while you’re relaxing, thumb through a copy of Mud Puddle or Dr. Seuss’s Oh, Places You’ll Go (Random House). They may be kid’s books, but you might just find some grown-up wisdom in them.

Karen Wright is a professional coach specializing in life balance and improved workplace culture.