My cat taught me an important lesson this week. In the summer I spend a lot of time in my back yard, which means I'm constantly going in and out of my patio door. Chloe is an indoor cat, but she likes to lay inside the door and watch what I'm doing. As I go in and out of the house, I'm always having to step over her as she eagerly sniffs the air and gazes longingly outside.
But she never moves.
I can leave the door wide open and she doesn't budge. Her little face seems to ache with the desire to chase the birds, to run around in the grass, to be free. But it's like there's an invisible force field standing between her and the life of her dreams. A life where she gets to follow her intuition and live in a way that's natural and instinctual to her.
Instead of bolting out the door into the yard, she yawns, rolls over, and continues to lay on the floor. Why?
Because she's comfortable. She's scared of the unknown. It's easier for her to be overweight and lethargic than to take a risk.
She's like many of us.
When it comes to following our heart, we're often bound by invisible shackles - formless force fields that live largely in our heads. We're afraid of what others will think. We're terrified of the unknown. It's much easier to stay within our comfort zone. In fact, we've become so comfortable with our stress and suffering that it's actually become a way of life.
I recently watched a documentary showing that stress is linked in a very interesting way to our position on the societal hierarchy. The movie highlighted the research of Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky, which suggests that the lower a baboon is on its social hierarchy, the more stressed it is (based on hormones like cortisol). This finding was replicated in humans by a large scale study of civil servant workers in the UK. The Whitehall study found that people who were in lower status positions experienced a larger number of stress-related health problems and even died sooner than their high status counterparts.
How does all of this relate to my cat?
I believe that many of us feel like we're low on some sort of hierarchy, when in reality, we've created the hierarchy with our own minds. We see ourselves as not being smart or driven enough to pursue our passions, so we stay where we are. In a sense, my cat (and the rest of us) experience a form of learned helplessness, where we don't do anything to change our situation because we feel like there's nothing we can do about it. We suffer through chronic stress because we feel like we don't have control.
But we do.
Personally, I refuse to believe that being trapped in a cubicle for 8 hours a day is the best that any of us is going to get out of life.
Then why do we stay in jobs we hate?
A lot of it has to do with money and with the things that we believe we need to have in order to fit in and climb the imaginary hierarchy. We need a big house, two cars, a cottage, a pool and a white picket fence to prove that we've "made it."
What if, instead of relying on these external indicators to prove our worth, we started to define success differently? What if we started to value self-care over ambition?
As an example, it takes me between 2.5 and 3 hours to get ready every morning - not because I'm putting on make-up or taking forever in the shower - but because I take the time to make myself a healthy breakfast and meditate for an hour before I get to work. Sometimes my workaholic personality kicks in and I start to feel guilty that I'm not at my desk by 8:30am. But who made up the rule that I have to be working by 8:30am to be successful? Who said I have to be chained to my computer all day to be considered a valuable member of society?
Growing up, my family didn't have a car, a huge house, or a white picket fence. At one point, a motorcycle was our only form of transportation and my mom didn't even have her drivers license. But we survived. Nowadays many of us can't imagine how our lives would work without a two-car household. But it can. It's all about shifting our perspective from the external things that we think we need to make us happy, to accessing the happiness that already exists within us.
Here's how I've decided to define success for myself:
I'm living a happy and free life, where I love what I'm doing every day. I have plenty of time for self-care, which I see as a sacred practice. I have more than enough time to cook healthy meals, enjoy all of my relationships and spend time in nature. My life is full of travel, fun and adventure. I nurture my love of music, reading, writing and trying new things. I don't need to be ambitious to feel worthy. Work doesn't feel like work. I'm full of energy, vitality and love. I make a difference in the world.
Notice that there's no dollar amount in my description. Don't get me wrong, I'm completely unapologetic about the fact that I deserve to be paid well for the gifts that I bring to the world. But in the end I know that it's not the money that's going to make me happy. On my deathbed, I'm not going to care about how much money I made. I'm going to remember the experiences I had.
I'm fiercely committed to continuing to create this life for myself. Is it an unrealistic, woo-woo pipe dream? No.
Since breaking my cubicle shackles 2 years ago I've realized that when I follow my heart, the universe supports me. Sometimes I have my doubts, but those doubts are always replaced by guidance. Opportunities arise at the exact right times. The money always lands in my bank account when I need it. As I put love and passion out into the world, it comes back to me in beautiful ways.
Here's my vision for you:
When the patio door opens, bolt. Run headlong into the freedom that you deserve. Follow your instincts and trust that you will be supported. Don't stay where you are just because it's comfortable and safe.
Throw out the hierarchy, the self-limiting beliefs and the kitchen sink.
As Mary Oliver says, this is your one precious life. Would you rather spend it being comfortable or free?
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Check out her book, The Antidepressant Antidote, follow her on Facebook and join her whole-self health revolution here.
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