Do you remember the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? It was my favorite picture book as a child: the tale of the little mouse who requested a cookie — and the ruckus it caused after he got it.
As the story goes, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk, then a straw, a nail scissors, a broom, a nap, a story read to him, supplies to draw a picture, space to hang it on the fridge, another glass of milk, and, finally, another cookie.
Oh, how this resonated with my 6-year-old self — to want one thing was to want so many other things!
Inspired, I heeded my inner mouse-voice, a squeaky little thing. I asked for what I wanted and pointed to this literary example when my mom cocked an eyebrow to give me her signature “look.” I’m sure she was amused that her first-born was becoming her own person: It’s a powerful feeling to recognize what you want and then ask for it, even when there’s no guarantee you’ll get it.
Somewhere along the way, my instinct to ask for what I want in life got mixed up with the message that there was such a thing as wanting too much. The message in the story of the mouse became muddled. It was no longer an empowering and magical tale. Rather, it was the story of a rodent — a nuisance — causing trouble. What a hassle to keep giving the mouse what it wanted!
I began keeping quiet when I wanted something, and in time stopped hearing the little voice that imagined my wants and needs. By the time I was a teenager, the intuitive vocabulary of desire was replaced by the much headier should.
I should lose 25 pounds. I should measure my thighs every Saturday. I should skip breakfast and lunch. I should skip dinner, too. I should be better at this. I should be better at everything.
If my inner mouse really wanted a cookie — both literally and figuratively — there was no way I could hear her.
My mouse began to find her voice again in the unlikeliest of places: the gym.
After an initial phase of “newbie gains” — the swift improvements that many people experience when they begin exercising — it became clear that I’d have to be intentional to make future progress. My coaches guided me to listen to my gut; this terrified me because I feared that my gut would tell me to stay home on the couch eating chocolate sandwich cookies.
But I’m a direction follower and well versed in heeding shoulds. If I was supposed to listen to my gut, I’d do it.
At first, there was silence. Then I listened more closely: pain. I could discern a little voice that whispered ouch when I pushed too hard or let my form fall apart. When I used pain as a marker for adjusting my training, I was hearing the whisper and taking action in response.
I gave my mouse a cookie. And lo and behold, she asked for a glass of milk.
The more I listened, the stronger I became and the louder my mouse grew. She never led me to the couch-and-cookies binge I had imagined.
It turns out that my desires are more fun and a lot better for me than my fears had warned. She asks me to deadlift and squat, to swing kettlebells and swing from a trapeze line, to take salsa classes and spend a morning in PJs dancing around my apartment. Sometimes she asks me to eat a (literal) cookie or two. In life, she asks me to set boundaries in relationships and take risks at work.
My mouse — my intuition — has not steered me wrong.
Still, there are times when I hear my mouse and ignore her, listening to that other voice that said “should” for so long. That voice, I sometimes think, will never be fully silenced.
Now my mouse’s voice is practiced enough that at least I don’t have to strain to hear her. She’s not a nuisance, I remind myself when she beckons. It’s not asking for too much to listen to my gut and give my body what it needs. When my mouse asks for a cookie, I do my best to oblige.
When was the last time you gave your mouse a cookie?