The fetish of commitment
it's okay to change your mind
Wild Letters is a weekly newsletter about self-exploration, where each Monday I share what I am currently exploring within myself.
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Earlier this summer I was a guest on Mara Glatzel’s podcast, Needy.
It was a beautiful conversation about what it (really) takes to meet our needs in a sustainable, fulfilling, and real-life way—especially when what we need changes from month to month, week to week, day to day.
This fact (that what I need one day seems to be different from what I need the next day) used to make me feel both angry and ashamed. I felt like: why should I need more food/rest/quiet/reassurance some days, but not others? Why can’t I just figure out a formula that works all the time? Am I just fickle and flakey? Do my ever-changing needs make me a burden? Who would want to love someone whose needs are so all over the place?
Learning to accept that all people have needs—and that I am a person so therefore I too am allowed to have needs—has been the work of many years of my life. And add to that the layer of acceptance around the fact that what I need one day of the week could be different (drastically different!) from what I need on that same day two weeks later, my god. The constant self-compassion this requires from me! I cannot even begin to tell you.
I dug into it with Mara though, in that podcast episode, and through our conversation I realized that the most fundamental part of self-care, for me, is remaining in honest conversation with myself about what I need at any given moment.
That’s it. That’s the “secret” I spent so long trying to life-hack my way out of, because I didn’t want to stay in conversation with myself. I wanted The Answers, the singular and exact checklist that would show me how to do the right things in the right order at the right time so I never had to think about it again. I wanted my relationship with myself to be something I could just easily cross off a list—that is how I would stay on top of my needs, that is how I’d ensure that said needs never got too messy, too feelings-heavy, too distracting.
For many years I honestly and sincerely thought that I could treat myself like a little machine, just pour the correct oil into a certain spout at regular intervals, and ta da! Easy. I would say things like “I know people are not robots” while still quietly believing that I could be the exception, that if I just read enough advice written by successful people I would be able to transcend my needy body, my pesky depression, the realities of my menstrual cycle, and the fact that all living beings are cyclical and seasonal and have fluctuating needs.
(The narcissism in this kind of thinking! The ableist, capitalist, white supremacist bullshit!)
Finally admitting to myself that there is no checklist of self-care behaviors that will keep me safe from energy and mood fluctuations, from needing rest, from not feeling 100% amazing all of the time (which is to say, from being human), this pissed me off so much.
I talked about it endlessly in therapy, furious at how much time I felt had been wasted by believing that “the answer” was out there somewhere, causing me to continually search for the perfect self-care routine (and beat myself up when I inevitably failed at it) instead of just, like, living my goddamn life instead.
September of this year was supposed to be a month of hiking for me.
Well, not a full month—but my partner and I had planned to take 17 days to thru-hike the Long Trail together, a 270-mile trek through Vermont’s Green Mountains.
It was all arranged. The resupply spreadsheet had been made. A few hotels had been booked. Our gear was ready.
But then, a few nights ago, without even realizing I had been thinking about it, I found myself saying to him, “So, the Long Trail. What if we just… don’t?”
My depression had finally lifted. Work was feeling energizing and easeful and creatively fulfilling in a way I hadn’t experienced in months. The list of things I felt excited to write and create got longer every day. I was enjoying being at home, in this house we moved into together back in April, in a way I hadn’t enjoyed it before. I was nesting. Cuddling with the dog. Researching recipes for the little ice cream maker we picked up at the thrift store. And Gent, he was deep into satisfying house projects, stuff like building picture frames and refurbishing an old wood stove for our living room. We were in a groove. I had even made my first new MA friend!
“We could do the Long Trail next year!” he said.
We talked about it for another 30 minutes or so, and then that was that. Hike: cancelled.
Because hiking together for three weeks would be fun, but it wasn’t what we needed most. We needed (wanted!) to be home. And listening to ourselves, to the fact that our needs for the upcoming month had changed, without judging those changes, this is honestly the only kind of self-care I am interested in these days.
There’s a phrase that popped into my mind last week, shortly before making the decision not to hike the Long Trail, and it’s a phrase that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about:
The fetish of commitment.
Because it’s true, right? There is such a cultural obsession (at least in cultures and communities that I have been a part of and exposed to throughout my life) with doing only and exactly what you said you would do.
Commitment is synonymous with being a good person. A respectable person. A likable person. You say you are going to do something? You do it. That’s it. Period. No matter what.
I used to worship at this altar. It’s one of the reasons why I felt so frustrated by the changeability of my own needs, because all I wanted was to be able to commit to a set list of self-care tasks and be done with it. Not think about it again. Just keep showing up to those same tasks and keep feeling good as a result, the end.
But sometimes we cannot honor our commitments. Sometimes the thing we previously committed to is no longer right.
I learned this when I quit an attempted thru-hike of the PCT in 2018. I learned this when I got divorced. I learned this when I stopped being vegan. I learned this each time I made a much-needed shift or pivot in my business. I have learned this lesson over and over and over and over, that sometimes the thing I used to want is not the thing I currently want, and I am finally okay with that.
I am more careful with my commitments now. More thoughtful with my “yes of course!” More apt to reschedule when needed. More gracious and accepting about other people rescheduling with me.
I would never want someone to follow through on a commitment they made to me if they truly do not want to do that thing anymore. I take no joy in being the reason that someone else violates their own boundaries.
And of course there is nuance here, as with everything. Of course I believe in the power of consistency; of course I want my word to mean something to my beloveds and to those I serve through my work; of course I know that I do not have to be in the mood to do something in order to do it, and that sometimes the things that are best for me are not things I am keen on in the moment. Of course of course.
But what if we tried trusting ourselves to recognize that difference—the difference between when it makes sense to push through and when we need to shift, change, cancel.
You are not a bad person if you cancel.
You are not unlovable if you have ever-evolving needs.
Commitment can be freeing. Commitment can be devotion to self. Commitment can be healing, it can be transformative, it can be everything. And it can also fuck you up.
The fetish of commitment can keep you stuck, keep you feeling like you are wearing an outfit that is two sizes too small.
And you know what?
You are allowed to buy a bigger outfit.
You are allowed
You are allowed
You are allowed