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Don't Do Anything That Isn't Play!

By Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

When I advise, “Don’t do anything that isn’t play!” some take me to be radical. Yet, I earnestly believe that an important form of self-compassion is to make choices motivated purely by our desire to contribute to life rather than out of fear, guilt, shame, duty or obligation. When we are conscious of the life-enriching purpose behind an action we take, then even hard work has an element of play in it. By contrast, an otherwise joyful activity performed out of obligation, duty, fear, guilt or shame will lose its joy and eventually engender resistance.

Many years ago I began to engage in an activity which significantly enlarged the pool of joy and happiness available to my life, while diminishing depression, guilt and shame. I offer it here as a possible way to deepen our compassion for ourselves, to help us live our lives out of joyous play by staying grounded in a clear awareness of the life-enriching need behind everything we do.

Translating Have to, to Choose to

Step 1

What do you do in your life that you don’t experience as playful? List on a piece of paper all those things that you tell yourself you have to do.

List any activity you dread but do anyway because you perceive yourself to have no choice. When I first reviewed my own list, just seeing how long it was gave me insight as to why so much of my time was spent not enjoying life. I noticed how many ordinary, daily things I was doing by tricking myself into believing that I had to do them.

The first item on my list was “write clinical reports.” I hated writing these reports, yet I was spending at least an hour of agony over them every day. My second item was “drive the children’s car pool to school.”

Step 2

After completing your list, clearly acknowledge to yourself that you are doing these things because you choose to do them, not because you have to. Insert the words “I choose to . . . ” in front of each item you listed. I recall my own resistance to this step. “Writing clinical reports,” I insisted to myself, “is not something I choose to do! I have to do it. I’m a clinical psychologist. I have to write these reports.”

Step 3

After having acknowledged that you choose to do a particular activity, get in touch with the intention behind your choice by completing the statement, I choose to . . . because I want . . . .

At first I fumbled to identify what I wanted from writing clinical reports. I had already determined, several months earlier, that the reports did not serve my clients enough to justify the time they were taking, so why was I continuing to invest so much energy in their preparation?

Finally I realized that I was choosing to write the reports solely because I wanted the income they provided. As soon as I recognized this, I never wrote another clinical report.

I can’t tell you how joyful I feel just thinking of how many clinical reports I haven’t written since that moment thirty-five years ago! When I realized that money was my primary motivation, I immediately saw that I could find other ways to take care of myself financially, and that in fact, I’d rather scavenge in garbage cans for food than write another clinical report.

The next item on my list of unjoyful tasks was driving the children to school. When I examined the reason behind that chore, however, I felt appreciation for the benefits my children received from attending their school. They could easily walk to the neighborhood school, but their own school was far more in harmony with my educational values.

I continued to drive, but with a different energy; instead of “Oh, darn, I have to drive the car pool today,” I was conscious of my purpose, which was for my children to have a quality of education that was very dear to me. Of course I sometimes needed to remind myself two or three times during the drive to refocus my mind on what purpose my action was serving.

As you explore the statement, “I choose to . . . because I want . . . ,” you may discover — as I did with the children’s car pool — the important values behind the choices you’ve made. I am convinced that after we gain clarity regarding the need being served by our actions, we can experience those actions as play even when they involve hard work, challenge, or frustration.

We also cultivate self-compassion by consciously choosing in daily life to act only in service to our own needs and values rather than out of duty, for extrinsic rewards, or to avoid guilt, shame, and punishment. If we review the joyless acts to which we currently subject ourselves and make the translation from “have to” to “choose to,” we will discover more play and integrity in our lives.

International peacemaker, Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., is the founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, author of Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, the international bestseller, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, and several booklets.

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