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The Seemingly-Virtuous, Often-Dangerous Word We All Use

I'll get all set and all comfy... and then that bright, glaring sunshine busts through the curtains, makes its way across the floor and lands squarely on my conscience, convincing me that I'm lazy for not basking in it.
10/28/2014 12:20pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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I've got a bone to pick with the sun. And I suspect it might make you roll your eyes a bit. Fair enough. Just stick with me if you will.

My irritation has been occurring during my two-month stay in Barcelona. It's a lovely city, one that's filled with seemingly never-ending sunshine.

Which is where the problem comes in. Because sometimes, instead of enjoying this...

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...there are times when I'd really prefer to stay inside while lying on this, eating this, and reading this:

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Despite knowing this is what will make me happy, I can't go through with it.

I'll get all set and all comfy... and then that bright, glaring sunshine busts through the curtains, makes its way across the floor and lands squarely on my conscience, convincing me that I'm lazy for not basking in it.

It convinces me that I can't do what I really want to do (sit my bum on the couch) until I've earned it by getting outside for a while.

Really Deirdre?...I can hear you thinking...You're whining about not being able to spend some time inside during your time in Spain? Boo freakin' hoo.

I ask you to reserve judgment. Because this is about the word earn...a word I know you've used, too.

In fact, chances are you've also kept yourself from doing something that makes you happy because you feel you haven't earned it yet.

We all do this every now and then, in both our professional and personal lives:

  • We tell ourselves we can't relax on the weekend until we've earned it by cleaning the house first
  • We tell ourselves we can't reduce our workweek to 40 hours until we've earned it by proving we're the hardest-worker in the office first
  • We tell ourselves we can't start that novel we've been aching to read until we've earned it by reading that popular self-help book first

Now, let me say here that there are plenty of cases where earn is a perfectly virtuous, appropriate word. We all know that there are certain things we must earn in life... salaries and respect and academic degrees.

But.

Earn can also be a very dangerous word. It can be twisted and manipulated.

It can take a big dip... from its intended meaning of getting something in exchange for doing something valuable... into the deeply dysfunctional meaning of getting something for being valuable. As a person.

Which insinuates that we are not valuable as a person until we've done it. Which is absurd.

And yet we fall prey to this idea. We convince ourselves that the things we want in life...things related to taking care of ourselves or seeing our families or engaging in a beloved hobby...are far too indulgent. That we're not worthy enough of them until we've earned them.

Yes, I do understand that the earning mindset can be very helpful in certain cases, allowing us to use something we love to do as an incentive that motivates us to get the other stuff done. Got it.

But there are a few problems here.

First, that other stuff, it seems, never gets done. That to-do list grows as quickly as you tick things off of it. Which means you might never relax on the weekend, you might never get down to a healthy workweek, you might never read that book that's calling your name.

Second, this way of thinking reflects how you think about yourself. And if you don't think you yourself are worthy until you've earned it, then you've got a problem.

So how do you know when you've entered the dark side of the word earn?

It might just be happening when you...

...don't allow yourself to do the happy stuff, even after you've gotten the other stuff done

...feel guilty doing the fun stuff, even after you've gotten the other stuff done, because you're thinking of the other other stuff you could've gotten done instead

...always put the happy stuff after the other stuff. Always.

When this happens, recognize it, then stop. Change your brain's soundtrack. Force yourself to be in your happy moment, to think about your value instead. Ask those around you, the ones who already know you're worthy, to support you.

And support them, too...because chances are their brains are playing the same dangerous tune.

And know that, in the end, life is simply about being happy.

No matter how self-indulgent it might seem.

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This week...

Know that earn is a dangerous word. Recognize what it means to you.

If it's telling you that you're not worthy as a person, change your brain's tune. And earn the most important thing of all.

Your own self-respect.