A world of pathological doers

You are never more essentially, more deeply, yourself than when you are still.

—Eckhart Tolle

One night in the early 2000s I was out at a bar in Brisbane with a friend of mine, Fliss. After a short time, she ran into a guy that she knew from her high school days. They hadn’t seen each other in years, so the random encounter prompted cries of ‘oh my god’, smiles, and a hug.

Then he got right down to business. He looked her directly in the eyes and said, excitedly, “So, what have you been doing? Bullet-point your life in the past five years!”

Fliss looked at him quizzically, trying to work out if he was joking or not. But his expression didn’t change—he wasn’t joking. After a few moments of awkward silence, Fliss laughed nervously and blushed. She had not been prepared for this line of questioning.

As I watched the exchange, I could only imagine how she was feeling. If it was me, I would have been dying on the inside. The pointed question about ‘what she had been doing’ didn’t feel like just a superficial icebreaker. It was as if he had asked her to justify her very existence. Like he had said, ‘Prove to me, with a list of achievements, that you are a good enough human being’.

Eventually she shrugged off the strange request with, “Oh, you know…stuff.” But he persisted. He wanted to know what she had been doing since high school—the achievements, the milestones, the goals—the things that made her life meaningful and important.

And he wanted them in bullet points, goddammit.

Defining ourselves by what we do

We live in an age where we define ourselves by what we do. We’re lawyers, scientists, accountants, journalists, actresses, athletes, writers, academics, bloggers, mothers, fathers, politicians, conscientious objectors, protestors, volunteers, etc. Occasionally our beliefs, gender, culture and sexuality get a look in. But more often than not, it’s the sum total of our roles and actions that comprise our identity. It’s how we understand who we are, and how others understand us too. For example, when we meet someone new, they’ll often start by asking, “So, what do you do for a living?” This is the popular currency of identity.

Usually, it’s only when we experience a setback in life and no longer have a clear role or daily set of actions to undertake that we realise how much we rely on these things to define ourselves. This discovery can also usher in some uncomfortable emotions and confusion about who we are. We may feel lost, or even become depressed.

A lack of a clear role in life can also make the people around us uncomfortable. If you’ve ever had a period of unemployment or poor mental health, you’re probably familiar with how this works. Perhaps someone—with the best of intentions—has even tried to help you during one of these times by saying something like, “Why don’t you just get out there and do something with your life?” These kinds of statements, if you break them down, come with some pretty interesting subtext. Firstly, that doing nothing is akin to laziness; and, secondly, that doing something with your life will—by virtue of itself—be good for you and the world as a whole.

But no one should make you question your worth as a human being when you are not ‘doing something with your life’ (in other words, not doing something that they deem worthy). And no one should react to a mental illness by encouraging you to ‘snap out of it’, or suggesting that less thinking (perceived as wallowing) and more doing is the solution to all your problems.

In short: you don’t have to define yourself by what you do (or don’t do). Because it’s not who you are.

Filling our lives with doing

One of the reasons we continue to define ourselves by what we do—and others by what they do—is because we don’t leave time or space for anything else in our lives. Our days are filled to the brim with doing. There is no balance between action and inaction, doing and non-doing. We don’t make room for things like contemplation, introspection or stillness, because we don’t see any value in them. In fact, our general approach to stillness is to avoid it at all cost. In this regard, human beings have become like sharks: we live in a state of perpetual motion, afraid that if we stop moving we’ll die. There’s never a dull moment! So much drama and rushing here and there doing things. But not many real moments either.

So why do we fill our lives with doing and avoid stillness? Because stillness terrifies us. When we are still, we are left alone with our thoughts and emotions. Our inner voice starts saying things that we don’t like, and we start feeling things we like even less. And we believe, incorrectly, that the thoughts in our head and emotions in our body are who we are. So, to avoid facing these uncomfortable moments, we create a persona (a false self) that likes to be very, very busy and distracted. To avoid any pain that might be lurking inside, we become a pathological doer.

Meet the pathological doer

Who is the archetypal ‘pathological doer’ and where can you find them? Well, you can start by looking at the people around you. For example, stand at a busy intersection in any city on a work day and just observe. Look at the people who appear to be going somewhere very important in a great hurry: to work, to a business meeting, to network over coffee.

Then imagine these people once their working day is done. There is still plenty more to do—like working overtime to meet a deadline, studying towards a degree, going to the gym, shopping, gardening, taking the kids to soccer training and ballet lessons, catching up with friends, having sex, washing the car, going to the movies, walking the dog, cooking, eating, cleaning, checking social media every five minutes, watching TV and, finally, going to bed. You get the picture. Pathological doers treat life like a blank schedule that needs to be filled to capacity. And if the schedule isn’t full, they feel uncomfortable—like there is something wrong.

The world is full of pathological doers who have no idea what they have become. Doing has become so familiar to them—so ingrained in what they think life is about—that they would never even think to stop and question it. They see constant doing as completely normal and healthy. But the reality is, for the pathological doer, doing has become an addiction—an illness.

An exercise: how much do you rely on doing?

How would you feel if you were suddenly unable to do anything? For example, if you got sick or had an accident and were forced to lie in bed for weeks or months on end; if you had to rely on someone else to look after you, to feed you, to take you to the bathroom, to help get you dressed. Picture this scenario, for a moment, in your mind. Does it make you feel uncomfortable or anxious?

Alternatively, think about how you would feel if you lost your job and were stripped of all your roles—you had absolutely nothing to do with your days. No job, no partner, no children, no pets, no responsibilities. How would you define yourself? Would you still value yourself in the same way that you do now?

To help you discover how much you rely on doing things to make you feel good, here is a little exercise you can try.

The exercise

Find yourself a quiet, comfortable place. Then simply sit still and doing nothing for a few minutes. And I mean nothing. Just sit by yourself and close your eyes. Focus your mind on your breath. Notice the steady in-and-out motion of your breath through your body.

As you do this exercise, you will probably notice random thoughts that pop into your head. Just observe them and keep focussing on your breath. See how long it takes before you feel agitated and like you need to get up and do something. You might be surprised by how quickly this happens. If painful or difficult thoughts arise, just watch them. Don’t judge them or yourself. Do this for about ten minutes (or for as long as you can stand it), then open your eyes.

How did you go? How did you feel? What thoughts came into your mind? If you felt uncomfortable or anxious, you may be more reliant on doing things than you realise. However, if you felt relaxed and were able to chill out, you may be quite comfortable with stillness.

This exercise is a simple form of mediation—which is is a bit like rehab for pathological doers. But I would recommend meditation to anyone.

Finding space for stillness

Eckhart Tolle has said that, ‘You are never more essentially, more deeply, yourself than when you are still.’ So what does it mean if you can’t be still? Well, to me, this suggests a few potential things: you are running away from yourself; you are unable to be honest about your current emotional and psychological state; you are uncomfortable in your own skin; and perhaps you don’t even like yourself. I know, because I have experienced all of these things.

Avoiding stillness by filling every single gap in your day with ‘doing’ means that (at a subconscious level, at least) you don’t want to face yourself or work on yourself. You prefer the busy persona you have constructed to whatever the reality may be.

Think about your own life for a moment. How often are you still?

For most people, sleep is the only time that they’re not consumed by doing. And even sleep itself—an act of pure non-doing—has become a battle for some. Sleeping disorders, like insomnia, equate to not being able to stop the brain from doing. Our most natural act of stillness—sleep—then becomes just another thing to add to our list of things that we must ‘do’. And so, many people resort to prescription medication, alcohol and drugs to help their brain and body be still, because they can’t quieten their mind naturally.

By finding space for stillness in your life, you can practice quietening your mind and relaxing your body using your own internal resources. It doesn’t matter what this looks like—it might be meditation, observing nature, listening to music, etc.—but choosing to be still at certain moments of your day is the first step to undoing a lifelong pattern of pathological doing. 

There’s more to you than what you do

In a world of pathological doers, believing that there is more to you than what you do is a form of defiance. And learning how to value yourself for who you are (rather than what you do) is a revolutionary act.

But these things are never easy.

If you are someone who has always based their self-worth on their jobs and roles, learning to value yourself for who you are may be a confronting process, at first. Especially if you discover that—outside of what you do—you have no idea who you actually are. That you have spent so much time trying to achieve things, that you have never stopped for long enough to get to know yourself outside of your to-do list. If this is what you unearth while learning to love yourself for who you are, that’s OK—it’s the first step in the process.

However, if you find yourself wanting to go back to your old ways, here’s something you should know about pathological doing: it might bring you success and accolades in the material world, and it might not. But pathological doing will never bring you any peace.

There’s no peace in pathological doers

Despite what your parents, your education, and the world in general may have instilled in you, there is no causal link between doing things, achieving things and peace. There’s no bank you can visit to trade in a stack of your achievements for a lifetime of peace in return. Because peace does not come from the outside-in; it comes from the inside-out. In other words, your achievements can’t radiate inwards and make you truly peaceful. Only love and acceptance of yourself for who you are can radiate peace from within you out into your life.

Think about it for a moment—how many pathological doers do you know who are truly happy and peaceful within themselves? I don’t know any.

Pathological doers are always pushing on, hoping that the next achievement or goal they reach will be the thing that brings them peace. But what they don’t realise is, without a foundational sense of their inherent value as a human being (outside of what they do), striving to achieve goals will be a total waste of time. Why? Because they won’t feel any different even if they do reach a goal, hit a milestone, or achieve something great. Because none of these (external) things can change how they feel about themselves at their core. They can only change that from within.

From doing to being

So, if you feel like you want to move away from pathological doing towards stillness and peace, you need to shift your mental focus from doing to being. Forget about the people asking you for a bullet list of your life’s achievements—even if that ‘person’ is your own ego. Because the moment you feel the infinite value of your being, you will realise that you are already good enough, without doing anything. And even if everything you have ever done in your life was suddenly erased, you would still be good enough. Perhaps most importantly, though, when you connect with your being, you will also see that the peace you were searching for in a world of pathological doers was—actually—always inside you, just waiting to be found.

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