The older I get, the less I see the world in absolutes.
What I’ve come to realize over the past few years is that everything comes down to perception.
My whole life I’ve struggled with trying to do the “right thing” – to be moral, upstanding, understanding, kind, and sympathetic to all different views and experiences. I haven’t always been successful, and in fact, many times I’ve failed miserably. The problem has been in that in my attempts to accommodate others, I’ve often ignored my own needs and ended up doing things that weren’t good for me in order to ensure that other peoples’ perceptions of me weren’t negative.
I’m not alone. I know many people who’ve done the same thing and ended up in situations that they didn’t want to be in simply because they were trying to do the right thing.
It can be agonizing to allow your conscience to dictate actions that run counter to what your heart tells you is right. And it’s even worse when those actions leave you feeling empty and alone.
About five years ago, I took the first step towards learning how to say no to things that I didn’t want to do when I said no to finishing a Ph.D. dissertation. For a number of reasons, I had stepped away from the project and when my mentor came back and told me that the program in which I’d done my course work would be closing at the end of the next school year, I knew I had to make a last ditch effort to finish what I’d started.
I laid out a plan for finishing the project, and set to work revising a book length dissertation that I’d been away from for several years. I knew I was in trouble about two weeks into the process when I began having to schedule an hour before I started writing in order to cry. I didn’t want to finish the project. I’d moved on in my life, and the Ph.D. was no longer important to me, but everyone around me encouraged me to “just finish it!” And because I could see their point – and respected their perspectives – I continued to try.
The days became more and more dreadful as I continued to work on the project until one day I found myself wishing that something terrible would happen to me just so I could stop writing and not be viewed as a quitter.
The next day, before I began writing, I asked myself, if no one else were involved what would I want? What would make me happy?
And then I asked myself the really difficult question – why? Why was I finishing this project?
When I began to answer my own questions with painful honesty, I saw a pattern emerge. I was working to finish the dissertation because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a quitter. I didn’t want others to think less of me because I didn’t have the title “Dr.” in front of my name.
When I realized that everything I was doing was about trying to alter the perceptions of others, I made a choice to stop. It was one of the most agonizing decisions I’ve ever made because I felt like I was letting everyone down. There were many who thought I was absolutely foolish for stopping and some who were profoundly sad and disappointed that I didn’t finish.
However, there were a few people who got it. Dr. Michael Largey was the first one. He’d been my teacher, my mentor, and my friend for most of my graduate career. He was the one who first told me that when other people are critical of a choice I’ve made, it’s often because they’re trying to reinforce the choices they’ve made.
When I called to tell him I wasn’t going to finish, he expressed his sadness, and then said, “This doesn’t negate one bit of the work you’ve already done and contributed to the field, Mary. It just means you’ve chosen a different path.” In that moment, it became clear that I was making the right choice for myself, no matter how irrational it seemed to others. Other people weren’t going to live my life, and making choices as if they were was a mistake – for me.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have moments when I regret making that choice. I do.
In fact, as I find myself working in the luxury retail business, I find myself questioning my choice on a daily basis. I miss academia. I miss teaching. I miss being in an environment where education is the priority. I regret not earning the degree – and the prestige and paycheck that accompany it. If I look at it from a negative perspective, I’m living in a less-than-great part of Chicago in a small studio apartment while I work a dead-end retail job.
But if flip it and look at things from a positive perspective, I’m living in a culturally diverse neighborhood in a beautiful apartment that has given me the opportunity to streamline my life, and I have a job in which I earn a regular paycheck and that gives me the freedom to spend my free time writing and exploring things that interest me.
I made a conscious choice to stop doing something that was making me miserable, and I changed my life. I moved to Chicago. I’ve met and worked with some amazing people, and I’ve learned more than I ever dreamed I could have.
My perception has made all the difference.