Despite what our culture may lead you to believe, you are so much more than a to-do list.
Have you ever noticed that on your really productive days, you feel especially proud and content? Or that when you haven’t accomplished tasks or reached personal or professional goals, you may feel disappointed or down?
This is a common experience for so many of us who associate who we are with what we do.
We live in a culture that seems to value our accomplishments above almost everything else.
In response, we’ve become so practiced in the patterns of creating, producing, and “doing,” that we’ve learned to associate our productivity with who we are.
But we aren’t meant to always be working and producing.
Living a multi-faceted life means that some of our time is spent resting, imagining, reflecting, feeling, laughing, and connecting with ourselves and others. And sometimes, we must step out of productivity mode because we’re managing challenging emotions, low energy, grief, illness, and other unplanned parts of life.
Learning to tolerate — and even enjoy — downtime is key to our mental, physical, and emotional well-being. But when our identities are wrapped up in our accomplishments, stepping away from productivity can feel scary.
In 2015, I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. The months leading up to that diagnosis involved a variety of strange symptoms, including leg numbness and increasing full-body fatigue.
I am lucky to be in remission from MS right now, but for much of that first year, my body just didn’t have the energy to live the way I was used to — working long hours, keeping social plans, or even using extroverted energy to express myself.
There were several months during that first year when I lived mainly from my bed and couch.
I didn’t have much energy to do my dishes, make food, or even chat with friends. I missed these simple things. I deeply longed to be doing more.
One day, I sat in bed looking out the window, watching the sunlight stream in and my curtains sway gently in the breeze. It was a lovely scene. But in that moment, all I could feel was guilt. It was such a beautiful day! Why wasn’t I outside enjoying it?
I felt self-criticism arise in the same way it used to show up as a child, when I was encouraged to “make something of my day” and feared being seen as “lazy.”
The urgent thought that showed up in my mind was: “You’re wasting your day. You’re wasting your precious life.” It was a painful story to sit with. My muscles tensed and I felt my stomach turn.
And then I paused.
I looked out the window again and noticed that the sun’s beauty was still visible to me from the bed. Then I noticed myself noticing that beauty.
It may have seemed like a small thing, but it didn’t feel small in that moment.
The breeze felt cool on my skin. The scent of the fresh air was enlivening. The sound of the leaves soothed me as they rustled in the trees, branches swaying and shifting the sun’s rays into a shimmering mosaic on my blanket.
“You are never wasting your life,” some other part of me chimed in.
That phrase felt different. My heartbeat calmed, my breathing deepened, my body relaxed, and I felt a sense of stillness. I knew that this statement felt truer for me than that first “you’re wasting your life” idea. I could feel the difference in my body.
This little, not-so-little moment was a gateway to a deeper understanding of myself and my life.
I began learning how to soak up the wisdom of “doing nothing.” And I discovered that, regardless of what I’m doing (or not doing), I’m still me. I have a soul, a sense of humor, the capacity to feel deeply, to pray, to visualize and think and imagine and dream.
Those all exist with or without movement, expression, or being in the mode of productivity.
Despite the awareness that there’s so much more to us than what we produce, it’s easy to forget.
Here are some exercises to remind you. They’re designed to help you connect with who you are, regardless of your productivity.
Make a list of five of your favorite people
Write down what it is about them that you love. Describe how you feel when you’re around these people.
Notice how each of those people isn’t even doing anything right now — they’re just existing in your heart and mind. Notice how their simply being (or once being) in the world impacts you.
Notice how you, too, can have that impact on others.
Write yourself a permission slip to do nothing for 15 minutes, an hour, or even a day
Invite your inner critic to make a list of reasons why you should do something. Then, invite your inner wisdom to write responses to each of those reasons, and write loving statements that remind you how very OK it is to just be.
Take your do-nothing permission slip out and keep it with you when it’s time to redeem it.
See yourself through the eyes of a beloved pet or child who loves you
Imagine them coming into the room where you’re sitting. Notice how that child would want to throw their arms around you, or how that pet would want to cuddle up to you.
Notice how you’re wanted because of who you are — not what you’ve accomplished.
Sit for a while near a tree (or look at a tree out a window, or even watch a video of a tree somewhere in the forest)
Witness the tree’s pace. Notice what little “doing” is occurring in this moment. Notice how the tree just exists.
Notice if you sense a deeper message for you in this experience. Does the message have words? Is the message more of a feeling? Write it down.
Talk to a few close friends or family members about what they love, appreciate, or enjoy about being around you
Ask them to talk about the qualities they see in you. Ask them how they feel when they’re with you. Ask them what they feel when they simply think of you.
Notice how the essence of who you are shows up in their words.
Write yourself a love note
Describe the qualities you possess that are beautiful to you. Thank yourself for who you are. Write whatever loving words you need to hear.
Taking time away from “productivity mode” (whether planned or unplanned) helps us slow down and become more conscious and intentional in how we relate to ourselves.
In the spaciousness of just being, we may discover the brilliance of who we actually are, with or without our accomplishments.
When we spend time sitting with this awareness, our doing, striving, creating, and producing comes from a place of love, passion, and enjoyment instead of from a need to prove our worth.
I’d like to say that the rest of my life has been lived from the state of enchantment and present-moment awareness that arose as I looked out the window from my bed that day 5 years ago. But the reality is that I forget it all the time.
I’m continually learning and re-learning that I’m always worthy, no matter what.
Maybe you are too — and that’s OK. It may take the rest of our lives!
In the meantime, let’s keep reminding ourselves and each other: Your worth is not determined by your productivity.
You’re so much deeper, bigger, more radiant and expansive than that.
Lauren Selfridge is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, working online with people living with chronic illness as well as couples. She hosts the interview podcast, “This Is Not What I Ordered,” focused on full-hearted living with chronic illness and health challenges. Lauren has lived with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis for over 5 years and has experienced her share of joyful and challenging moments along the way. You can learn more about Lauren’s work here, or follow her and her podcast on Instagram.