Is there such a thing as being too thoughtful? I know this may initially come off as a groan-worthy question along the lines of, ‘Can I be too good a person?’ But the way I see it, thoughtfulness is less an indication of moral superiority than a worldview that, in some cases, can become a self-sabotaging personality attribute.
I grew up with constant reminders to consider the feelings of others. My mom is an immensely kind and giving person, and one who is frequently described as being thoughtful. Whether it’s her offers of help to pick up some new yoga clothes for me while she’s at the store (‘They’re on sale!’), her insistence on helping out those in our family who are too proud to ask for help (that’s you, Grandma), or just caring enough to both ask how things are going and to listen to the answer (however long and rambling), my mom embodies thoughtfulness. My mom is that person who thanks you for your thank-you card, remembers to display the vase you made for her when you were eight years old, and offers you the last cookie even if she didn’t get a single one.
I’m grateful that my mom gave me the gift of thoughtfulness, although on occasion it can seem more like a curse. Merriam-Webster defines thoughtfulness as “given to heedful anticipation of the needs and wants of others.” In order to anticipate the needs of others, you must be highly attuned to the state of those around you at all times. While this is incredibly helpful in my role as a business owner and a mother, it can be also be hindrance.
Every personality attribute has a flip side and if left unchecked, thoughtfulness quickly evolves into the habit of putting yourself last in all cases, to your detriment. You know how on the airplane they suggest you put on your own mask first? This is where you get to explore both the good side and the dark side of thoughtfulness (yes, we have been watching Star Wars at our house this past week). Being too attuned to the needs of others makes it seem selfish to figuratively put your own mask on first; by not putting others first you may worry about causing them harm. But, of course, succumbing to the dark side of thoughtfulness means that because you neglected your own needs, those around you will necessarily suffer, too.
The level of self-consciousness that results from constantly imagining what others think of you and your actions is exhausting. If I was out with my kids and they were being loud (just supposing), I’d worry that people might think I was inconsiderate and lacking authority over my children. So I’d find myself scolding the kids loudly when they acted up in public to let people know that I was charge and aware of the disturbances they were causing.
Eventually I realized that my hyper-awareness of other people’s perceptions had overtaken me and was controlling my behavior. I had overdone something positive and turned it into a negative. I’d neglected to put on my own mask and was instead gasping and lurching to put a mask on every person in sight. My thoughtfulness had turned to the dark side.
As I’m wont to do, I’ve been working it out on the mat. In cases where I really shouldn’t be concerned with what others think, I’m practicing not anticipating their thoughts. It has become a variation on the practices of pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses and santosha, contentment. When I’m in a yoga class and the teacher suggests popping up into bakasana, crane/crow pose, but I know I shouldn’t because of a lingering bout of tendonitis, my first impulse is: “What will they think if the studio director can’t do this basic arm balance?”
But instead of explaining my reasons or worrying about how I will be perceived, I practice withdrawal from my projections of what others will think and contentment with what I can safely do in this moment. It’s helped me to become more fully present in my actions without apologizing for them. And though it’s been a struggle to trust that I don’t need to explain myself or my motivations to the world in every moment, it’s a relief when I finally get out of my head and simply act.
The more I practice this on the mat, the easier it gets off the mat. When the kids are loud in public, I now try to talk with them in a way that addresses the root issue instead of my worries of how I will be perceived by annoyed passersby. It takes the pressure off and helps me to be more present with them and their needs, rather than having it be all about me.
My own children, sweet little things that they are, are already thoughtful to the core in all the right ways. I smile when they ask “So, how was your day?” at the dinner table, knowing the have the foundation. My job is to help them cultivate thoughtfulness in a healthy way, to make sure that as they get older they not only ask how my day was, but also do what they need to do to make their own day, their own life, great.