Set your priorities

Most people have things they want to do with their lives, at least some of the time. Most people have things they feel they ought to do with their lives. Maybe someone wants to be a brilliant author, or an excellent mother, or a highly respected member of their community. Having long-term goals is important and healthy. Having responsibilities is healthy, too.

But sometimes, pushing ourselves harder and harder to meet our goals isn’t actually going to get us any closer to reaching them. Berating ourselves for not meeting our responsibilities won’t actually make us more able to meet them. That’s a hard lesson for me to hold onto.

For most of my life, I accomplished my goals by deciding what I wanted to do, and pushing until I reached the goal. It didn’t matter if I was tired or frustrated. It didn’t matter if it was a difficult goal to achieve. I had been taught that I could accomplish anything if I only tried hard enough. As an adult, one of my goals was to heal from my childhood. I saw it as a tidy, linear process. I would focus on the healing work, go to therapy, write in my journal, attend a few support groups for a while, and then I would be okay. I had set that goal, and I was going to achieve it, neatly, and without disrupting the rest of my life.

Imagine my surprise, several years later after I thought myself “healed” to still be having the same problems. What was more, the thoughts I overheard running through my head seemed not to acknowledge all the work I had done in therapy. What was going on? Why did I find myself sliding into feeling overwhelmed, panicky, suicidal, at the slightest of triggers? I reminded myself of the progress I had made. I went through all of the cognitive exercises, grounding myself in the present, differentiating between “now” and “then.” And I was still suicidal. The harder I pushed to be “okay,” the stronger the suicidal feelings got.

It felt as though walls inside me kept falling down, and there was “me” on one side, and crazy on the other. And I was terrified of allowing the “crazy” to get out. I knew it would get in the way of reaching my goals and attending to my responsibilities. Even though I didn’t quite know what it was, I knew that “it” wouldn’t let me go on exactly as I had been. I struggled and struggled to keep up with everything I “had to” do. I pushed myself harder, hoping that if I could just hold on with teeth and toenails, I would make it through this round of crumbling walls, put everything back together, and go on. Instead, what I now recognize as different parts of myself took over pretty much completely, and attempted suicide, because they had no hope of getting the help they needed. And given a choice between unending pain, and death, they chose death. Fortunately, they didn’t succeed. But it was as if the walls had fallen down completely.

Afterwards, I realized that I had a choice. I remember it clearly. I thought to myself, “Okay. I have been here before. I can either put the walls back up, or I can deal with this right now. If I put the walls back up, I risk them crumbling again and again, the same way they have in the past; and there is no guarantee I won’t wind up dead the next time. But there is a chance that if I don’t put the walls back up, I can fix whatever is going on, and not have the problem in the future.” So I left the walls down.

Honestly, I thought it would be a manageable problem. I thought, okay, a few months in therapy, and then my life will start to come back together again, the way I want it. Here it is, more than two years later, and my life is still pretty much where it was when the walls came down. I know that isn’t exactly true. I know I have made progress on healing, and that I am on my way to being a healthier, more balanced person. But one thing I have not managed to do is make progress on the goals I had before the walls came down.

I had been feeling very guilty about that. It felt, and still feels, like I am being “bad” by not making progress towards my goals. It feels as though I am being selfish, irresponsible, lazy…. But recently, the thought came into my head, “Would you rather be good, and be dead, or take care of yourself, and stay alive?” The sad part? I really couldn’t answer that question automatically. I forced myself to be “good” for as long as I can remember.

Maybe you’re reading this, and you’ve had a similar experience. Maybe you’ve also pushed yourself as hard as you can, and asked yourself to do as much as you possibly can.

Here’s what I have to say on the subject: you have to really think about what your priorities are. Be honest with yourself about how pushing for your goals affects you; think about why you feel responsible for the things you are responsible for; consider what is important to you.

List those priorities in order. And when it comes down to it, and your resources are limited, drop everything but the most important ones.

For me, selfish though it sometimes feels, the absolute number one priority is to be alive. Beyond that, there are a lot of things that change day to day, but being alive is the first priority. If it comes down to a choice between anything else I want to do, or feel I ought to do (or not do) and being alive, I will do my best to choose being alive. It’s a harder choice than you might think.

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