I was recently spending some time with a mentor, and we were talking about some of my Dad Stuff. You know Dad Stuff. Anyway, we were discussing it and I said, “Yeah, I think this is really where my work is right now.” Then she said “Does it have to be work?”. 

This question floored me. I couldn’t even formulate an answer. 

Does it have to be work? Well, I hadn’t really considered any other possibility….

To me, healing from our “Stuff”, whether it’s Dad Stuff or Mom Stuff or Cultural Stuff or Other Stuff, has always been work; it has been uncomfortable, hard on my ego, disorienting, scary, and well, a lot of WORK. Hard work, really. But I tell myself that it’s good work. That it’s worthwhile work. It maybe the most important kind of work. (Okay, so maybe I’m being a little self-righteous about it all…).

This concept, that I could potentially heal My Stuff without having to “work” –  I had no context for it. It just didn’t fit into my narrative. However, it felt like an important idea. Why was I so attached to “work”? Does it have to be work? Or was I making it into work when it could actually be something more enjoyable?

My mentor posed that question to me last October, and since then I’ve been unpacking my relationship to work. It’s been interesting.

I’ve always been a really hard worker. As a kid, I got some messaging that my worth came as a result of my performance, and I thought that if I just worked harder to be better –  a better sister, a better daughter, a better person – if I did more things for more people more of the time, then I would some day earn the love and attention that I needed. So I worked my ass off, taking care of my sisters, trying to be someone who my parents would like. I tried really hard. It was exhausting, and no one ever even noticed.

Of course, big surprise here, these patterns continued into adulthood. They transformed into a habit of taking jobs that didn’t pay me enough, where I had to work extremely hard, and yet received very little in return. I didn’t even notice that I was doing this – it was what felt normal to me. This was also the case in many of my personal relationships; a lot of hard work, not a lot of reward.

Even as I got a little older and started to find both jobs and relationships that were more fulfilling and rewarding, I still worked harder than I needed to at them. It’s like someone who has been poor all of their life and then suddenly wins the lottery but continues to live the same life they always knew, not by conscious choice but out of habit, because they can’t fathom that they could live any other way.

Of course, I applied this same over-work ethic to my personal healing process; I spent many years sorting meticulously through all of My Stuff. I went into some very dark places, trudging through old pain, recounting old traumas, and examining and re-examining my stories of loss. I have always been more than willing to roll up my sleeves and dig deep into my own shadow.

All of this hard work has certainly paid off. I have a thriving business doing what I love, I have gotten really familiar with My Stuff, and I have healed and transformed many of my old, unhelpful patterns. Work really works!

My teacher’s question really got to me though, because, there’s a point you get to in work, no matter what what kind of work it is; personal healing work, job work, yard work, etc., where there is a “diminishing returns” thing that starts to happen. (Did you know that there really is a thing in economics called “the law of diminishing returns”? The Dictionary says that The Law Of Diminishing Returns is “used to refer to a point at which the level of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested”. )

So, like I said, there’s a point that you get to.

I think I’ve been at that point for awhile now, in many areas of my life.

So I’ve been working on not working. Or at least not over working. That is to say, I’ve been working on only doing the work that’s required, and not working beyond what’s actually going to be helpful. 

It’s been more complicated than you’d think. 

One of the things I’ve noticed is how comfortable it feels for me to work beyond that point (i.e. to overwork) of diminishing returns. For example, when I am doing my inner healing work (working on My Stuff) I have noticed that if it’s not super-hard and uncomfortable I get worried that maybe it’s not really working or that I’m not doing it right. In fact, in general with all kinds of work I have noticed that I have an internal sense that if it’s not really hard or miserable or dramatic or exhausting, it must not be very good.

This makes sense given my history but, wow, this is seems like a set-up for being totally unhappy and burnt out. I can’t just let things be easy!

I’ve also noticed that part of this whole picture is the attitude, or the outlook, that I have when I am doing anything that could be construed as work. I have realized that, on some level, the only thing that makes something into work is the story, or belief, that it has to be work. 

This story makes many things a lot harder than they need to be. If I believe that my value is tied to how hard I work, or if I believe that I will only get what I need if I over work, then my subconscious mind will make everything that I do feel like tons of work. The story creates my experience, and the experience creates my reality.

When I peel away that story and create space for not-work, it’s kind of amazing what happens.

Firstly, there is a lot more possibility for joy and happiness and fun. Who knew?!

Secondly, it turns out that I am not super comfortable with too much joy, happiness and fun. A certain amount is great, sure, but if it goes above a certain level, I feel uncomfortable. Maybe you can see why. If it feels too good, if it’s not too much work, then I must not be doing it right.

This is so interesting to me! I think I have uncovered a sort of “addiction” to my own suffering here. It’s like there is a part of me that would truly rather be miserable, trudging away, working in the coal mine, than be joyful and light and free.

Whoa.

So like I said, I’ve been working on not working.

It takes practice, just like anything else. 

A lot of the practice has to do with awareness. I have to be able to notice when I am overworking. First things first. However, it also has to do with choice; Once I notice that I am overworking, I have the option to choose something different.

When it comes to healing from our old patterns, choosing something different usually means choosing something that feels better (even if may be a little uncomfortable).

Not surprisingly, overworking, although comfortable to me, feels like crap. Getting out of the coal mines, feels indescribably wonderful, even though it’s kind of uncomfortable.

The great news is that every time we choose something that feels better, it makes it easier to choose it again; our neural pathways grow clearer and easier to travel each time we use them. Over time, we become comfortable with our new choice and a new, healthier pattern is established. 

In the end, it is our power to choose that really takes us where we want to go.

Personally, I have been practicing choosing relaxation, choosing fun, choosing not-work, choosing joy. I have also been choosing to trust that if I don’t work my buns off, everything will be okay.

So, my unpacking of my relationship to work has led me here: to a place of remembering my incredible power to choose, and to a place of healing through joy. What an amazing place to be!

And, as it turns out, it doesn’t have to be work.