Feeling unfulfilled? Ask how, not what.
Nov 25, 2019
Emilie Hoffman, mind/body guide
Why am I so unfulfilled? What can I do that will fulfill me? I wanted this so much - shouldn't it feel more fulfilling?
I think the question of fulfillment is confusing because we don't often ask it the way we really want to. We usually ask "Is _____________ fulfilling for you?" when a better question might be "Is the way you're ______________ fulfilling to you?"
It is not accomplishments that fulfill us; it is alignment. It is not what we do, but who we are. I'll cut to the chase and say that anything and everything I've ever gotten fulfillment from has featured these three elements:
- My own needs were met (and if someone else was involved, so were theirs).
- I was living in alignment with my values (and if someone else was involved, so were they).
- I was embodying my unique essence (and if someone else was involved, so were they).
Here's a list of things I thought would fulfill me (spoiler: they didn't) simply because I checked them off a list:
Having a Boyfriend
Going to Therapy
Jobs working Outdoors
Here's my personal list of the actually most fulfilling things I've done:
Simply Being in Nature
Following an Unscripted Career Path
And here's the difference: List one was all about doing "the thing" to attain fulfillment as a prize. List two was about seeking fulfillment within the context of "the thing"
Just doing "the thing" with little intentionality about who we are as we're doing it can take you further and further from yourself. In my case, I was giving up basic needs like security, safety, good nutrition, enough sleep, and autonomy. And values? Well, I don't even think I knew what mine were at that point, or if I did, I didn't know how to articulate them gracefully and with confidence, nor defend them under threat. I did actually embody my sweet essence, but there was a lot of shame and frustration around it. I'm not good at putting a lid on my vibes, but I am historically good at questioning and bashing them.
At that time in my life as I was just forging through I felt like it was wrong or bad to really be myself and that my best shot at happiness came from emulating someone else who was evidently very good at "the thing" in hopes of winning approval, and thus feeling whole and fulfilled as a result.
How I was doing "the things" was predominantly characterized by questioning my self-worth, insecure, holistically under-nourished, self-sacrificing, and worried.
Does that mean I always feel fulfilled when I'm doing list number two stuff? No. Not at all. It means that I am doing a lot of careful assessing and re-assessing of those things and how I'm showing up in them.
The truth is, there are plenty of times when I feel unfulfilled and even pained by doing marriage, motherhood, and an unscripted career path (especially at the same time). But the difference now is that I don't immediately assume it's because A) I'm the worst, or B) Committing to those things was a mistake.
I don't let myself ponder whether I'm the worst anymore. It's just never going to be true. Not for me and not for you. And if I am feeling the worst, and especially if I see my behavior is really detrimental, then that's a great red flag to look for a big gaping wound and unmet needs. It's really a time for self-love and self-compassion. Not necessarily a time to push, push, push myself full speed ahead to a goal.
I do let myself ponder if my commitments need to change. Opening up that question prevents me from feeling like a prisoner of my own life. I get to choose over and over again, and when I'm ready to choose differently, it doesn't feel as awkward or wrong to consider a change because I'm in the habit of revisiting my commitments regularly.
A friend and client observed recently that she's noticed a tug in other directions aside form being a mom. Her little one is close to my son's age. They are both full-on toddlers.
She wrote to me, "[My cousin] asked me if I'm fulfilled in being a stay at home mom. I was shocked to learn that the answer "YES!" didn't fly right out of my mouth....There is a NEED for purpose, there is a need for those core value energies to be alive in my life! (I know, duh.) But I'm doing what I feel is best for my daughter right now... aren't I?"
There are a million and one ways to be a mom...and I don't just mean in terms of parenting style or daily schedule. I mean in terms of:
- embodying your unique essence
- living in alignment with your values, and
- meeting your own needs
It is really common for people to believe that living in alignment with all of their values requires conflict or compromise. I don't think it has to. I think what it requires more than anything is being deeply committed to walking your own path.
Yeah, you're probably going to have to be very brave and very strong. Because the school most of us come up in isn't training us to create out lives on our own terms so we can cultivate deep fulfillment and pay it forward. Mostly, we're being trained to be compliant and fall in line. (Call me jaded, but that's what it seems like the industrial revolution was about for the bulk of the population.)
Anyway, circling back to how we do things and who we are when we are doing them...
Before you jump into any commitment hoping it will fulfill you, make these vows or something similar to yourself first.
"I vow to embody my essence and honor my own experience (inner and outer) without judgement. I vow to live in alignment with my values, and build skills as I need to support those actions. I vow to acknowledge and meet my own needs in a timely fashion and find a way to do so in a way that allows others' needs to be met too."
Then see what happens. Maybe your circumstances and schedule don't need to change anymore. Maybe all your discomfort was tied up in the relationship you have with yourself. Or maybe the need for change is screaming louder than ever. Either way, you're clearer than you were before.
That is the path to fulfillment that I have personally found most, well, fulfilling.
Emilie is a mind/body coach who uses somatic work and practical psychology. She helps integrate mind+body to help you heal and build resilience so you can connect with the world in your most meaningful way.