Sometimes patterns emerge in my acupuncture practice. Some weeks, it feels like everyone coming in has shoulder pain. Sometimes it is insomnia. This week was “Empty Cup Syndrome” week. The theme of the week has been: “I am exhausted. And I feel like my time and energy are not my own. I don’t feel like myself anymore.”
Dear Ones, I hear you. Because I’ve been there. The truth is, we’ve all been there. Seemingly everyone coming in this week has been struggling with giving so much of themselves to their work, their partner, their kids, etc. that they feel exhausted and completely empty. And from this place of emptiness, there is nothing left of ourselves to give.
When we operate from this Empty Cup space, we have no choice but to live our lives from a place of deep scarcity. And this leads to resentment. For me, resentment shows up when I start giving in to the cynical voice inside my head and I start believing that everyone around me is sucking on purpose just to piss me off. The problems my friends are going through are suddenly unrelatable. And clearly, the barista is taking what feels like a year to steam up my chai just because they want to bum me out. And traffic! Don’t even get me started on traffic! You can be sure that empathy and compassion go right out the window when I am in this place.
Unfortunately, we become accustomed to living in this place of scarcity because we live in a culture of scarcity. We live in a world where being perceived as busy is a virtue. It starts from our jobs where many of us are told to “Do as much as you can with as little as possible” to our relationships where we are held to a standard of martyrdom that is unsustainable. Part of the problem is because we believe that when we give of ourselves, we are being generous. But scarcity only begets scarcity. The truth is that we cannot be generous from a place of emptiness.
Boundaries: What is Okay. What is Not Okay.
This brings me to the treatment of Empty Cup Syndrome: Boundaries. I have yet to meet a single person who was born into this life with excellent boundaries. Holding boundaries is a conscious and learned behavior; it is a daily practice. It is oftentimes a process of exploration that takes years to comprehend. And frustratingly, it is not something you can just check off your to-do list. New situations and persons will enter your life that will ask of you to revisit your relationship with your boundaries over and over again. But as researcher and writer Brene Brown teaches, holding boundaries is simply examining “What is okay. And what is not okay.” Her research displays that people who are happiest and living from a space of whole-heartedness are the ones who are living from a place of healthy boundaries.
Exercising healthy boundaries means that you first fill your own cup before you offer yourself in service to others. How can you tell when your boundaries are in place? Service with boundaries feels like generosity. Service without boundaries breeds resentment.
Boundary Mantra: You Belong Deeply to Yourself
I am the queen of mantras. Give me a problem and I will create or find a mantra to fit it as evidenced by my instagram feed (yes, shameless plug here). But mantras work because they become the guidepost upon which to make the small decisions that come up in your day-to-day life. And while these small decisions may seem trivial. They are steering you ever so slightly in a direction. My personal mantra for when my boundaries get mushy is :“You belong deeply to yourself”. This is a reminder to value the sacred space for myself before I honor the sacred space that I hold for others. Here are some practical ways to hold that space for yourself.
- Ask for time and space before you reply.
This is something I have to actively work at with almost every request that is thrown at me. My natural inclination used to be simply to say “Yes” to everything without actually examining how it affects my energetic resources. Nowadays, I will likely ask for time and space to consider the request because I want to be operating from a place that feels free of resentment. I’ve trained myself to auto-respond with “Thank you for asking. Can I get back you on that?” and will usually add in a specific time I’ll get back to them.
- Choose temporary discomfort over resentment.
So what happens when you have asked for and received the time and space and the answer is “No”? People tell me all the time that saying “No” feels selfish and uncomfortable. The truth is that there will be discomfort anytime we rewire any behavior, even the ones that are no longer serving you. And while saying “No” feels uncomfortable, remind yourself that the temporary discomfort of saying “No” is going to be far less uncomfortable than saying “Yes” and then harboring resentment.
For example, let’s say your friend just asked you to bake up some of your world-famous triple chocolate cookies for a potluck during your busiest week of the year for work. Now let’s play out the scenario. If you automatically say “yes”, you end up feeling crunched at workand all day long, there is the looming task of needing to bake before the party. Then, when you get home and should be unwinding so you can be present and enjoy the party, you’re whipping up a batch of cookies. And with every whir of the whisk, you’re getting more and more annoyed. God forbid if your partner comes into the room and makes a simple request of you. Congrats. You’ve now whipped up a batch of Hate Cookies.
Now, let’s imagine how this would look like with strong, healthy boundaries. When your friend asks you to bake up your world-famous triple chocolate cookies, you answer with, “I’d love to but I’m feeling really crunched at work. Can I look at my schedule and get back to you tomorrow?” When you get to your calendar, you realize that you really don’t have the time and energy to bake the cookies so you tell your friend, “I really would love to contribute to the potluck, but I don’t have the time to bake my world-famous triple chocolate cookies. I’ll grab some goodies from the Buttery on my way over.” You get to show up to the potluck with Love Cookies instead.
Moral of the story: Don’t feed your friends Hate Cookies.
- Ask: How can you shift your mindset into an abundance model?
The danger with not holding boundaries for ourselves is that our resources start to feel scarce. And it doesn’t just stop at time and energy. The problem is that when we live in this Empty Cup space for too long, it trickles down into the the core messages we tell ourselves. Yes, I consider self-worth to be a resource. What happens when you live in an environment of scarcity for too long? Your internal monologue shifts from “I don’t have enough” to “I am not enough”. Never good enough, rich enough, powerful enough, relevant enough, safe enough, pretty enough, confident enough, perfect enough….
This is still very much a work-in-progress for me. But I have found that my gratitude practice serves me well in this arena. And the research shows that gratitude practices are most effective when it is a tangible practice, not just an acknowledgement. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert has her Happiness Jar. I have a journal that I write a few lines in before bed every night.
- Give yourself permission to say “Yes” to yourself.
Step into the idea that taking care of yourself is an an act of Self-cultivation that will allow you to contribute more to your family, work and community. Life Hint: Your self-care activity does not start with “I should…” For example, right before I started writing this blog post, I was telling myself “I should go to yoga tonight.” Yes, yoga is good for me. Yes, going to yoga is normally something I file under Self-care. But today, I just wanted to lay out in the sun with my dog, Petra. That hour in the sun was so much more replenishing than my yoga class would have been. Practice saying “Yes” to the things that bring you comfort and joy and allow you to fill your cup. Only when your cup is full can you take the gifts that are within and pour it forth to the collective.
- Do the work
Don’t be surprised if holding boundaries is surprisingly vulnerable work. This is because you are actively choosing to not distract yourself away from yourown self-examination and work. This is because you are actively choosing to value yourself as much as you value others. So yes, some stuff is going to start to bubble to the surface. And when it does, remember: You belong deeply to yourself.
Let’s Continue the Conversation…
- What is going on in your internal monologue when you are living from a place of scarcity? What about when you are living from a place of abundance?
- What are your personal blocks to boundaries?
- What mantras do you call upon to remind you that your time and space is sacred?
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Kathleen Lee FABORM, RTCMP, L.Ac. MTCM