out of bounds

The phrase “mind your own business!” topped my short list of Least Favorite Things for much of my life.  I heard these horrifying little words rather consistently, and every time, I felt a pushed, knotted feeling in my guts.  Usually this response preceded narrowing my eyes, glaring over the top of my glasses, shouting at family members, and slamming doors.  A skillful, pleasant teenager I was not!

The rules for what comprised my adolescent business changed unpredictably.  For example, in my father’s home, knowing my siblings’ chores often landed on my shoulders, but in my mother’s home, discussing my siblings’ responsibilities was a mistake that usually landed me in trouble.  I didn’t see this pattern at the time and simply defaulted to taking responsibility regardless of the context (with more than just a little sanctimony in the mix).  

Later, as a young classroom teacher, my sense of responsibility ballooned tremendously.  So many students with so many needs in schools where so much work had to be done:  and suddenly, everything was my business!  Staying up late to write detailed, complete lesson plans and to grade students’ work immediately weren’t enough; I burned through any available time to help as much as possible.  During lunch and after school, I listened attentively to students who wanted to share about their lives.  I volunteered for school leadership positions.  I coached sports.  I even picked up students on my way to school and dropped them off at home afterward.  

All of this self-sacrifice might seem admirable on the surface, but I don’t offer this bit of my personal history for applause nor to illustrate the embarrassing depths of my approval addiction.  I’m not proud of this.  In those years I felt a constant, bone-deep exhaustion AND I felt certain I was a Good Person.  Solving other people’s problems enabled me to feel effective and useful and worthy.  I was responsible, for goodness’ sake!  

This behavior pattern continued well into my early thirties until the day I learned about Byron Katie’s concept of “business,” which neatly and permanently toppled my self-righteous meddling.  This particular sentence from Katie’s book Loving What Is nullified my stance:  

Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our own business.  When I think, ‘You need to get a job, I want you to be happy, you should be on time, you need to take better care of yourself,’ I am in your business.”  

Well, wow.  WOW!  The spectrum of actions I cherished as Caring, Conscientious, Responsible Behavior suddenly shone brightly as the actual source of all my stress, exhaustion, and burn-out.  I felt shocked and horrified, but knew this was true:  I'd been out of bounds.

In the last few years, I’ve learned that the problem with minding other people’s business is that I’m not minding my own.  While I exhorted my students to sleep for eight hours, I wasn’t giving myself adequate sleep.  While I preached about prioritizing homework assignments, I sought to complete everything on my to-do list. 

As Katie puts it, “If you are living your life and I am mentally living your life, who is here living mine?”  For me, as a classroom teacher, the answer would have been: “No-one.” 

These days I still get into other people’s business, sometimes accidentally and sometimes not.  (Just ask my husband!)  However, the self-righteous pride of the old days has been thoroughly replaced by a sharp awareness:  now I know very clearly - in my mind and in my body - when I’m not in my own business.  If I stay out of bounds, I feel physically scattered and unhappy.  So I catch myself and re-center, which softens the stress-knots and brings about a delicious, peaceful calm that frees me to truly take care of myself.  

My next step is to inform my mother that I enjoy telling myself, “mind your own business.”  Oh, the irony!