Grinding Down Our Routine Beliefs

I get so tired of cooking, cleaning, and carting,” confessed the mother of young tweens. “Week after week of nothing else.” My friend isn’t the first parent to feel this way, but reading her words made me grateful I don’t have to carry that particular burden, although I certainly have my own assortment of activities I’d rather forego. Still, none of us passes through life without knowing the mind-numbing sorts of routine that our lives often assume. As someone who loves structure in her day, I actually consider a schedule to be freeing because once I complete my daily tasks, I feel at liberty to go in whichever direction the wind blows me. Alas, accomplishing mundane goals doesn’t mean I’ve escaped the boredom and irritation that comes with meeting responsibilities which have no end date—like cleaning the bathroom or listening sympathetically to the same stories over and over. While the quality of burden varies depending on what stage of life one is in, the reality remains that we all have things we need to do that we wish we were freed of–attending to needy relatives, stretching after exercise, or sitting through meetings that have no purpose or outcome.


What are these responsibilities for you?


As I understand it, routines play an important coping mechanism for individuals on the autism spectrum. For them, regular travel routes, meal times, and patterns of interaction help make sense of an otherwise bewildering and seemingly chaotic world. But rigid expectations of behavior extend far beyond those with autism to a much wider swath of humanity. I think it’s fair to say that all of us have a few “strongly preferred approaches” that we (knowingly or unknowingly) impose on those around us. This can be anything from a strict definition of what actions constitute “good manners” to a conviction that there is only One True Faith to a single definition of what “success” really means (at least for people in our family). The common thread throughout each of these examples is the fact that such belief is fixed.


As I see it, the reason so many people cling to routine beliefs is that they make them feel safe; protocol removes the need for private assessment, critical thought, and that most dreaded sense of ambiguity. Examples of fixed ideas include: breakfast must include eggs; people who care about me must respond within X timeframe; a successful family life mirrors my parents’ version. People rely on routine because they’ve decided life looks a certain way and moves to precise, designated rhythms. They believe this and arrange their lives accordingly—end of story. Our personal (diverging) preferences would only complicate matters and make us have to think about our choices. Ugh.


But what happens when these sacred precepts begin to erode? What if we no longer find fulfillment in our years long, accolade-filled career? What if we don’t like our kids? How do we handle a crisis of conscience or loss of faith? What happens when we look around at our social circle and see no one we can talk to? Do we even like these people? What about when we reach a point where we simply don’t care if they get mad?


I’ll tell you what happens.


We either break free of our routine or the burden of our pantomime becomes increasingly more heavy. Our smiles grow more forced. Our blood pressure spikes. We start to drink more. Something is wrong, but what holds us back from addressing it is the free fall induced by the specter of throwing away our Standard Operating Manual for Life.


Ok, so how does any re-booter worth his or her salt handle this intimidating life challenge? You know what I’m gonna tell you: my advice is to find a middle way. Step One: recognize what your fixed belief is—is there really no other way to get the family fed without you orchestrating the meal? Is it true that no decent human being who really cared about you would ever be slow to respond? Step Two: in the privacy of your head, play out how you’d feel if you stopped acting on the basis of that fixed belief. Would the world really come to an end? Step Three: float a trial balloon of an alternative strategy and see how those around you accept it. You’ve got stick with it long enough for them to get used to the idea. Step Four: remind yourself that little changes can result in a lot more freedom, so no need to pack up your bags and move across the country. Step Five: see if you haven’t just eased yourself out of the mind numbing routine that’s weighing you down.


Try it out and get back to me. I’d love to hear what your experience with this is!


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