Recently, I was talking over Facetime to a long-distance friend who was sad because she was going through a breakup. She was especially distressed because he’d seemed so promising just the week before.
“Well, what went wrong?” I asked.
“Ugh,” she sighed. “The man has never been to Europe!”
“Ummm, who cares?” I replied. “You can go together! It’s not a permanent problem! Or even a problem at all, dude.”
But she wasn’t budging. For her, a man she didn’t perceive as “cultured” was not going to work—and neither was a man over (or under) a certain age, a man who didn’t match her income level, someone who didn’t like to ski, or someone who didn’t just adore jazz music from the 1920s from a particular arrondissement in Paris (… OK, that last one’s a joke, but you get the picture).
Her list of non-negotiables was, frankly, way too long. And I told her that. She was not happy. But in this case, my honesty was going to be more helpful than my sympathy. This incident got me thinking about non-negotiables in general—they’re the secret to a satisfying life in many ways, but they have a limit! Here’s how you can apply non-negotiables in a healthy way that won’t constrain your life experiences.
1. Know your number.
When my husband and I were looking for an apartment to buy in New York, we decided we had to agree on three non-negs, and that had to be it. We could have three—not 17. Much as we’d love a dog-friendly apartment with a washer/dryer and an outdoor space in a doorman building with an indoor gym and a pool in the West Village, it was not going to happen on our budget.
We decided on three because we wanted to make a decision in fewer than 20 years. So we decided that we needed a nice dose of natural light, an elevator, and a square footage minimum for a one-bedroom home on the Upper West Side. And we found a place in a few weeks.
I have sneaking suspicion that if we added even one smaaallll thing to that list, we might still be looking—four years later.
2. Nix the nice-to-haves.
There is such a thing as the law of diminishing returns. How much joy would items 13 and 14 on your perfect-apartment list actually bring you? What is that mandatory travel through Italy really going to do for you? I mean, some stuff is so crucial, right? Like, for me, it was finding a kind and ambitious person and living in an apartment where I wouldn’t have to haul groceries up five flights of stairs.
What are the nice-to-haves in your life that might be holding you back, not just from moving forward, but even from just being happy because you’re always in waiting-and-never-committed mode? Lemme tell ya: There are plenty of great single people and empty apartments ready if you’re open to them.
3. Know that not having it all is still wonderful.
It’s a tragedy when we don’t let ourselves experience joy because a few not-really-necessary things are missing. There’s an old expression about how some people will see a beautiful view, while others will see a smear on the window.
Are you highlighting what’s right in your life? I believe we never have it all: If our desires end, life ends. Desire and progress make life worth living, but there’s a difference between a healthy amount of desire and anticipation—and waiting for the perfect thing in a state of constant frustration.
When you limit your non-negotiables to only what truly matters, you simplify your life. You can even know which three things you need in your daily life (eight hours of sleep, exercise, chocolate, laughter?). And simplicity isn’t just art form on its own—it’s also a relief. So where can you lose the pressure? Can you spend some time really considering what matters to you most—and what doesn’t—in every life area?
Then the rest can fall away. When the non-necessary dissolves, you’re left with what matters: your noble non-negotiables.
Susie Moore is Greatist’s life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for free weekly wellness tips on her website and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!