When Josh was in college, his family got a terrier puppy named Skippy. Skippy was a small, sturdy dog with quick legs and a taut middle. He loved Josh in the way only dogs can love–purely and totally. During the summer between undergrad and law school, Skippy slept in Josh’s bed every night.
When Josh left for law school that fall, Skippy moped for weeks. Josh’s parents were careful not to tell Skippy when Josh was coming home, because if he heard “Josh is coming” he would sit at the window for hours, waiting. And of course, when Josh arrived Skippy was elated. He claimed his spot in Josh’s bed and slept in as long as his boy wanted to, often into the afternoon.
But things changed after law school, when Josh got married… to me.
Now when Josh came home there was a woman in the bed and Skippy was none too pleased. (I like dogs, but I like them to sleep in their bed while I sleep in mine.) So Skippy got booted.
Sometimes, the bedroom door was left ajar and Skippy seized his opportunity. He jumped onto the bed, squirmed under the covers in-between our bodies, put his back against Josh and his feet against me and pushed with all his might. I could almost hear him saying, “Josh, move this woman over!”
He was creating a space for himself.
I’ve thought of Skippy a lot lately, as I’ve tried to create space between two intertwined parts of my life: my sense of self and my achievements.
Let me explain…
Like many people, I was raised to value my accomplishments — do well in school, go to college, get a good job, get married, have a family, volunteer, and visit the dentist every six months.
All of that is great. Accomplishments keep the world moving. Our individual and collective achievements make sure there’s food on the table and lights in the kitchen.
But the problem for me – and I’d guess for many of you – is that…
We often start to confuse our accomplishments with our selves.
It’s not that we got all A’s. It’s that we start to believe “all A’s” is synonymous with who we are.
It’s not that we earned the promotion. It’s that the promotion is an example of our self worth.
It’s not that we remodeled the kitchen and it looks lovely. It’s that the new cabinets and gleaming fridge illustrate how good and worthy and successful we are.
I’ve bought into this “You are what you do” idea for much of my life, and I’d guess that many of you have, too.
The problem with it is….
It’s not true.
You are not what you do.
Neither am I.
Our selves are completely separate entities from our achievements.
Both are good. Both can and should exist. But they are not the same thing.
Yet for most of my life, I’ve intertwined them.
I got an A? I’m good!
I lost the client? I suck.
I checked 10 things off my list? I’m an upstanding citizen!
Our leaves haven’t been raked all month? We’re loser neighbors.
And on and on…
The problem with intertwining my self and my accomplishments is that my worthiness is always at the whim of a teacher, a client, a to-do list, or the state of my landscaping. And because teachers, clients, lists, and lawns regularly shift and change–often due to factors completely outside my control–evaluating myself on these metrics is a recipe for regularly feeling like crap.
When I first realized this, I thought the answer was to do less. Give up the accomplishments and striving, stop caring how many clients I got or how long the to-do list became. Let the lawn go to seed.
The problem? This was impossible for me.
I like creating and achieving things. I like building my business and writing my blog posts and maintaining a lawn where my kids can play without fear of a hostile plant takeover.
I just didn’t know how to remove my sense of self from these things.
But one morning, I had an epiphany.
I remembered Skippy, how he’d wedge his body between me and Josh to create space.
All I needed to do was create space.
So I drew this simple diagram:
The first time I drew it, there was just a hairline fracture between the two sides. That was how I felt, just barely beginning to see separation between my self and the stuff I’ve accomplished.
But as I’ve reflected on this diagram over the last several months, I’ve felt the space grow larger. I’ve learned to put my back against one, my feet against the other, and push.
I’ve become the Skippy.
Why does this matter?
The amount of space I can put between my self and my achievements is equal to the amount of joy I can experience in my life.
My freedom lies within that space — and so does yours.
So I urge you… be the Skippy.
Put your back against your self, your feet against your achievements, and push.
In other words…
Separate your self from what you do.
And as you widen that space, you’ll create room for joy to flow in.
To creating space,
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