At some point, everyone settles for something. We quit striving. We stay in relationships or homes or jobs or family configurations, and we’re done. Hopefully, this is because we’re fulfilled and gratified, and we’ve reached the ultimate version of our utmost desires. Realistically, it’s either because we know there are better options that we don’t think we can have, or because we never knew there were better options.
Some people will stay with a bad boss. This is a fairly neutral example, a good starting place, because almost everyone has worked for an ineffective manager at some point. A petty tyrant, an incompetent, someone who is afraid of confrontation, a micromanager, a wielder of double standards, perhaps a genuine sociopath. Why on earth would anyone work for this person, under these conditions? One person may feel trapped by an underwater mortgage, and labor under the belief that “there are no jobs” close enough to the house. Another person may feel terrified of looking for a new job. Someone else may be a chronic procrastinator who would rather jump off a ledge than write an updated résumé. One person may be clinging to a tiny feature of the job, such as the schedule or the commute. Another person may think every job is just like this, and not even notice anything is wrong, even when all the A Players quit and go work somewhere else. Sadly, another person may see the job as an improvement over a dysfunctional family background, in the same way that a convict might not be overwhelmed by the prospect of military discipline. Eventually, the smartest people with the most initiative will find better jobs elsewhere, and everyone who is left is there for bad reasons. This turns into a downward spiral where productivity, profits, and morale all continue to drop.
Some people will stay in a bad relationship. This tends to overlap with the problem of staying in a bad job. There are some of the same reasons (low self-esteem, anxiety, procrastination), but it turns out that a lot of people who stay in bad relationships feel stuck in every area of life. The bad relationship may be tied directly to the bad job. Maybe the partner is a naysayer or manipulator who won’t tolerate anyone being happy or empowered. Making more money and having more leverage and options can be very threatening to weak people. A jealous, suspicious person may insist on a partner who will stay home, unemployed and socially isolated. A false dilemma or lose-win scenario may be put in place, whereby only one person is “winning.” One party may throw tantrums and cause so much drama that it doesn’t feel worth it to try to change even the smallest aspect of a shared life.
Some people will stay in a bad home environment. We do it to ourselves. We inflict it on the other people who share our homes. We accept it when it’s someone else’s mess. Squalor doesn’t happen overnight, although a person who generates squalor can start creating disaster in just minutes. We tell ourselves all sorts of things while our homes gradually fill up with clutter and muck and filth. Many of those things have to do with other people supposedly judging us. It accumulates and amplifies and reinforces itself. At a certain point, we’ll start bogarting other people’s personal space and convincing ourselves why we think that’s okay. Parents hoard their children’s closets and bedrooms; adult children leave things at their own parents’ homes; former roommates walk off leaving large, ugly furniture and boxes behind and insisting that someone else takes care of it free of charge. We live with people who make a racket while we’re trying to sleep (or vice versa). We abdicate on our share of the finances, or put up with people who do it to us. We manage to sit and stare at screens while the sink and catbox overflow and laundry is piled on the floor. Why do we put up with living this way?
Some people will tolerate poor health. Patient compliance is a notorious problem in the world of health care. We get prescriptions and don’t fill them, we refuse to do physical therapy exercises, we’d genuinely rather die several years sooner than make any dietary changes. I hate to say it, but I have to raise my hand on this one. I got a diagnosis that I had a thyroid nodule, and it might be cancerous, and it seemed to be growing quite rapidly. It shows up in photos from the time that include my neck. I had a constant tickle in my throat, and I couldn’t speak when I lay on my back. Something was seriously wrong, okay? My endocrinologist told me I needed to get a biopsy. I did… over a year later. What I was thinking during those months was a studied void. I just pretended nothing was wrong, ignored my condition, and quickly slapped away any thought of it whenever it bubbled up, which was not as often as you would expect. There is a weird parallel between my denial of my serious health issue and the sad state of my first marriage. The fact that my first husband didn’t have anything to say about my medical procrastination should speak for itself.
Fortunately, I survived both the endocrine crisis and the lame marriage. I was on the gurney, wearing the surgical gown, getting the ultrasound that would indicate where to puncture my throat, when it transpired that the nodule had nearly disappeared. All that remained was the same minuscule volume that would have been taken for the biopsy. According to the doctor, it wasn’t cancer, because cancer doesn’t shrink. I never had a problem with my thyroid again. My first husband asked for a divorce roughly a year later, and I haven’t seen or heard from him in about 15 years. I learned never to tolerate uncertainty about my body, to push through my fear and get whatever tests are required, to take medical advice seriously. I learned a long list of things I was no longer willing to tolerate in a relationship, and that helped me to figure out what I actually did want. Both of those issues happened around the same point in time, because I was young and still didn’t understand how much more was possible for me. I could trudge through my days and ignore problems that didn’t feel serious enough to take action.
Everyone has a different line that can’t be crossed. Some people have bigger bubbles than others. It can be instructive to watch someone with a bigger bubble handle annoyances that we would have silently put up with. For instance, one of my biggest pet peeves is having my seat jostled, either on a plane or in a movie theater, but I tend to sit and stew and let a black cloud form over my head rather than say anything. Someone who works for an airline told me that when a kid kept kicking his seat, he made the mother switch seats with him. I thought, YOU CAN DO THAT?!? I started getting up and moving when someone would kick my seat at the movies, and then I started sitting in the row with empty space behind it. Seat-kickers are no longer an annoyance for me. I just hope they all sit in the same block of seats one day so they can annoy each other instead.
We have more power than we think we do. The trouble with power is that it’s taken, not given, and we don’t realize we have to pick it up and start wielding it ourselves. Nobody is going to come along and say, “You are officially allowed to do this now.” (Except me, perhaps). You are allowed to find a new job and leave the old one. You are allowed to break off relationships, with romantic partners, with friends, even with family members. You are allowed to set whatever cleaning standards you want for your home. You are allowed to get rid of any possessions you don’t want anymore, no matter who gave them to you or how much they cost. You are allowed to take charge of your health, your food intake, and your fitness level, no matter what anyone else says. You are allowed to speak up whenever anything doesn’t sit right with you. You can follow the Rules of You, and other people can choose whether to respect your rules or stay out of your way.
These are some of my rules. I won’t tolerate anyone yelling at me. Anyone who thinks it’s okay to raise an angry voice will do it again, and I don’t want that in my life. It’s unprofessional. I won’t tolerate hate speech in my home, and I won’t stand around listening to it, either. At minimum, I will promptly get up and walk away from the conversation. I am not interested in hanging around recreational drug use, so if I’m in a situation where people start to partake, I leave. It’s not like I would be a value-add in any of those scenarios anyway, and staying around wouldn’t be doing anyone else any favors. People are free to do whatever they want, and they should, but not everything that people do needs to be done in my bubble. It’s no different from choosing what music to play. People who like one style of music can play that station, and people who like something else can choose their own.
The more power we claim, the more we can shape our world. My parents always told me I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I was prepared to accept the consequences, so I should try to find out what the consequences would probably be. I discovered that most choices don’t really have any consequences, because not only do they not bother anyone else, other people won’t even notice. Nobody cares what color of clothing I wear, what music I play on my headphones, what I read… When I make a rule like “don’t discuss post-Industrial politics at my dinner table,” people are bemused, but they accept it. When I decided to run a marathon, I signed up and trained and did it. Nobody tried to stop me. When I decided to self-publish a book, I did it, and I didn’t have to ask for permission. Same with my website – I didn’t have to fill out an application or get a permit. I just did it. As time went by, I realized that nobody who is close to me is really ever surprised by anything I choose to do, because I am now a doer of things.
Don’t put up with half a life. Don’t trudge through your days. Don’t let anyone be mean to you. Don’t listen to naysayers or rude people. Don’t tolerate depressing situations. Stand up and say what you want. Take action on things that are important to you. Make things that you want to make. Make your career, make your financial security, make your body, make your physical environment, make your relationships. Make everything the way you want it. You don’t need permission because all that power is already yours.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.