Caroline McGraw: “I Was So Desperate to Put My World in Order that I Folded My Dirty Laundry.”

Caroline McGraw: “I Was So Desperate to Put My World in Order that I Folded My Dirty Laundry.”
Caroline Garnet McGraw is an author, speaker, and coach "for recovering perfectionists." She's the creator of A Wish Come Clear, a community of thousands trading perfectionism for possibility. She’s also a two-time TEDx speaker.
Her new book is now available for preorder: You Don’t Owe Anyone: Free Yourself from the Weight of Expectations (AmazonBookshop), along with exclusive preorder bonus gifts, including a virtual library of 100+ expert interviews on How to Live Like You Don't Owe Anyone.

I couldn't wait to talk to Caroline about happiness, habits, and human nature.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Caroline: Spending 15 minutes a day doing nothing! It’s the very first “No-Owe Invitation” that I share in my book, with good reason: For so many of us, it’s really, really hard to downshift and let ourselves be still. We crave stillness and talk about wanting more downtime, but we actively avoid it as well.

I like to think of it as “doing nothing” (a term I learned from Martha Beck) rather than meditation, because doing so helps me to turn off the part of my brain that constantly demands that I overachieve.

There’s no technique for “doing nothing”; it’s just about sitting down and dropping the constant effort. It’s about subtracting, rather than adding. I like to tell my coaching clients that as long as you’re not on Twitter, you’re doing nothing just fine.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When I was 18, I thought that the way to happiness was through working hard to be perfect and putting on a brave face, no matter how I really felt inside.

In my book, I talk about how during my freshman year at college, I was so desperate to put my world in order that I folded my dirty laundry. I also hurt myself on purpose, both with cutting and with too much alcohol. I was desperate for a sense of safety and control.

I didn’t know that both the obsessive tidying and the self-injurious behaviors were trauma responses. The year before, my brother had become violent and our home life had become unsafe.

What I know now about happiness is that it’s about making the shift from self-judgment to self-compassion. Personally, I increased my capacity for happiness when I learned how to comfort the frightened, vulnerable parts of my psyche. I learned how to respect myself, rather than hurt myself.

To me, happiness begins with dropping the knife that you’re holding to your own throat – dropping the threats and the judgments with which you hold yourself hostage.

What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

The most common objection I get to “you don’t owe anyone,” is the idea that if we don’t walk around overburdened with constant guilt and obligation, then we’ll just run amok and ruin people’s lives.

What I’ve actually found is that when you live like you don’t owe anyone – when you are free from the weight of expectations, and have a felt awareness of your own freedom – then you are more likely to act in loving ways.

It’s linked to that great concept from Brené Brown, how our boundaries keep us out of resentment. When you set boundaries around your time and energy, when you don’t owe anyone an interaction … then you’re free to give from the heart.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes! I used to be truly awful at saying “no” to people who wouldn’t take no for an answer. In my book, I tell the story of a time years ago when I had the stomach flu and called a friend to cancel our dinner plans … only to allow myself to be swayed by her objections and convinced to keep those plans!

In an effort to please my friend, I dragged myself to the restaurant with the flu, then nearly collapsed. It was a real wake-up call.

What helped me to break the unhealthy habit of saying “yes” when I meant “no” was to actually feel the cost of continuing as I was. When I stopped denying how bad I felt, and actually allowed myself to experience the pain of how I was living … that’s when things started to change.

On a practical level, it has also been really useful for me to work with this “pigeon of discontent” by practicing scripts for what to say in the moment when I feel put on the spot for an answer.

Just having some go-to phrases such as, “I’ll need to check my calendar and get back to you,” or, “Thank you for asking, and I’m not available for that,” have helped me. I’ve also found it useful to simply repeat my first answer if needed … and to remind myself that if someone else won’t respect my no, that’s actually their issue, not mine.

On that note, knowing how someone responds to your no is also really valuable information; whether or not they respect your verbal boundaries says a lot about how they operate. And if you never say no to them, you may never glean this information!

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Definitely an Upholder. In fact, knowing my Tendency helped to inform the subtitle of my forthcoming book. Since Upholders respond so readily to both inner and outer expectations, the subtitle is, “Free Yourself from the Weight of Expectations.”

My publisher originally advocated for “free yourself from others’ expectations,” which makes sense given the high percentage of Obligers in the general population. Yet as an Upholder, I struggle with the weight of both inner AND outer expectations! So we shifted the wording to reflect both.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

Right now, my biggest challenge in terms of my happiness is my tendency toward all-or-nothing thinking. I was raised attending a cultic church with very rigid doctrines, and as an adult, I need to actively remind myself that it is in fact okay to be human.

Paradoxically, the thing that interferes with my happiness is the belief that I “should” be bright, shiny, and happy 24/7. The thing that helps me find my way to happiness is permission to be human. That sounds like this: It’s okay to not feel 100% all of the time. It’s okay to feel sad or grumpy or angry sometimes. It’s okay to simply be a person in the world.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Yes! I talk about one such lightening bolt moment in my book. While in a sense it was the culmination of a series of moments, there was also one clear “before and after.”

One ordinary Tuesday morning, I was on a bus commuting to my job as a nonprofit program director when I started crying, seemingly out of nowhere. I’d been telling myself that I needed to do this job because it served the people I loved. But after nearly two years, the role was wrecking me.

Over my harried breakfast that morning, a quick scroll through my Twitter feed turned up a Tweet from a writer and entrepreneur I admired, Ash Ambirge. She wrote: “What do you want to do? That’s the only question you need to answer.”

The truth was that I already knew what I wanted to do; I had known since I was six years old. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to make books. (Even with my high-demand job, I still wrote in my journal in the mornings and on my blog in the evenings. I dreamed about building up the blog’s readership
and becoming a published author.)

That was the life I longed for. If my time and energy actually belonged to me, I thought, that was what I wanted to do with them. So on that ordinary Tuesday morning, I wiped away my tears, disembarked the bus, and decided to do something about it.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? 

I’m like you, Gretchen – I collect quotes in a giant document on my computer, and they’re interwoven throughout my book as well, so it’s tough to choose just one! But I can pair this with the next question, and answer them both together …

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

Yes, Jane Eyre (Amazon, Bookshop). When I read that book as a teenager, it was a revelation. It’s fictional, but it feels very real for me. That said, Jane has a tough life. She has an abusive childhood, and that's putting it mildly. She goes through so many traumatic events, but still, she perseveres.

She has every reason to feel stuck and scared. She has every reason to believe that she’s bad, that she will never amount to anything, that a happy life just isn't in the cards for her. Most of the authority figures in the book tell her as much. They tell her she's plain and poor and unworthy of love and respect. But she dares to disbelieve those messages. She dares to think for herself.

Jane also has every reason to close her heart. She keeps losing loved ones to death, distance, and deception. But she dares to love anyway. And she doesn't just love other people. She makes the radical choice to love and respect herself. That's what makes her so powerful.

I have a little purse with one of Jane's lines of dialogue printed on the side: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

It's my mantra these days. I actually feel my spine straighten when I say it. It reminds me that no matter how stuck I feel, the deepest reality is that I am free.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

Yes. I would LOVE to correct the misconception that we just “get over” things with time, or that time “heals all wounds.” (In my book, I talk about how things that happened years ago are often still running our lives, under the surface.)

What actually helps to facilitate healing, in my experience: Examining our unquestioned beliefs, bearing witness to what is true, feeling the feelings, and offering ourselves kindness and love.

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