A couple of years ago, I set an intention to rest more. I wanted more ease in my life – more softness and less grinding.
I thought resting would come easily – I mean, how hard could it be to do nothing?
Very hard, it turns out. First, I had to clear the mental hurdle that prevented me from believing that rest is a birthright and not a luxury.
But even after embracing that idea, I had to clear another hurdle: a lifetime of overachieving and the often unhealthy habits that accompanied it. Doing this required more than a mental reframe. It has required actually restructuring my relationship with stress, work, and success. Here’s how I’m working to do that.
1. I am working to retrain my nervous system to be more comfortable at rest.
Stress, struggle, and overwork have been my body’s comfort zone for a while now.
It started in high school. Back then, school just wasn’t school if I wasn’t buzzing with activity and stress. I studied for every test, pored over my essays, joined multiple clubs, and ran on the track team. I did all these activities partially because I enjoyed them, partially because I wanted my nearly all-white school to see a young Black woman in leadership positions, and partially because being overstretched seemed to hold the key to success for me as a Black woman.
I grew up hearing stories of my mother’s parents working multiple jobs to provide for their family. By doing so, they eventually secured financial stability, even when redlining, discrimination, and personal tragedy occurred. As Black people in a racist society, they knew they’d have to work twice as hard as their white peers to get half as far. Like many Black parents, they passed this message on to their children, who then passed that message on to me.
As far as I could tell, working to the point of overwhelm and fatigue seemed to hold the key to success. I heard of big-city professionals who worked 80-hour weeks and made more money than I could fathom. Phrases like “you can sleep when you’re dead” and “type A personality” permeated my 1990s world. Success seemed like it was for the taking.
The exact path to that kind of success always felt like a mystery to me. But I was certain that if I worked extra hard, things would become clearer, and a comfortable life would ensue.
I learned to be an overachiever. I could no longer just do enough, I had to do more. By the time I graduated, stress and anxiety had become old friends – so much so that I thought that I thrived on them. The more I pushed myself, the better my grades were, the more praise I got from authority figures, and the more admiration I received from peers. I ignored the fact that sometimes, when I was alone, I crumpled to the floor in tears.
I also ignored how school, and, years later, work, distracted me from my own thoughts and fears. The more I worked, the scarier rest felt. Even when I taught yoga, I avoided downtime and meditation because slowing down meant facing my feelings and my thoughts. Rest meant I would have to get honest about the fact that I was working hard to secure jobs and social admiration that I didn’t truly want. Rest also meant I’d be faced with the parts of myself that I had been ignoring but that needed the most nurturing: the creative parts, the brave parts, the vulnerable parts, the spontaneous parts. In this way, the prospect of rest induced its own kind of anxiety, because I knew that if I rested, I would be faced with feelings and thoughts I didn’t know what to do with.
But when I entered a period of depression and burnout, my body cried out for rest.
I began to recognize that while stress was invigorating in short bursts, it was destructive when it became my day-to-day baseline. It became a habit that my mind and body didn’t know how to quit.
I knew I needed to wean my nervous system off stress. To do that, I had to teach myself to stop looking for ways to be busy.
2. I am learning to stop looking for ways to be busy.
I used to wear busyness as a status symbol. Even now, being busy makes me feel like I am earning my place in the adult world because my time is in demand, and that must mean I am, too.
Breaking the busyness habit was especially challenging at work. I regularly went above and beyond what was required and battled constantly with perfectionism. If I wasn’t moving at a breakneck pace and juggling multiple, competing deadlines, I felt like I was slacking. I regularly succumbed to the temptation to complete one more task before the end of the day, or answer one more call, or respond to one more email, inevitably extending my workday by an extra hour or two.
But as I started to wean my body off stress, I also had to wean myself off the need to fill every sliver of my day with a task.
I started blocking off time on my work calendar to concentrate on projects. This created less room for last-minute meeting requests and more room to complete the work I had already committed to. I got clearer with clients and colleagues about my availability and tried to stop promising to deliver projects if it meant working longer than a 9-hour day. I worked with colleagues to divvy up work so that we could all meet our project deadlines without driving ourselves batty and asked for more time to complete less urgent projects so we’d feel less pressed for time.
I stopped panicking if my work week wasn’t packed with deadlines and trusted that I’d still have work to do and value to add. I used the empty spots in my schedule to think strategically about project work, to take a longer lunch break, or simply to go on a walk.
I found that my performance at work didn’t suffer, and I was less beleaguered off the clock, too. I also found my colleagues and boss to be supportive of my boundaries while still appreciating my contributions as an individual. Even more importantly, I wasn’t completely emotionally destroyed by the end of every work week.
But without constant busyness to distract me, I found myself alone with my feelings more often. It was about time I started to truly acknowledge them.
3. I am learning to acknowledge my feelings.
I used to want so badly to be “normal.”
I thought being “normal” involved working at least 40 hours a week without feeling like I was coming apart at the seams.
In reality, I felt anything but normal, but I did my best to pretend. I made to-do lists and peppered my calendar with reminders so tasks large and small wouldn’t fall through the cracks. Hearkening back to my high school self, I triple- and quadruple-checked my work even when it was finished because I was afraid I would made a mistake that let everyone know I wasn’t “normal.”
Appearing “normal” required a lot of energy. But because I wanted to appear “normal” so badly, I didn’t acknowledge my needs when I was tired or when my body sent me signals to slow down. I agreed to projects that I wanted to decline. Outside of work, I joined committees and ferried my children around to school and activities. Staying perpetually busy allowed me to distract myself from my feelings of inadequacy, fatigue, frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty.
Inevitably, though, these feelings would gurgle to the surface. Instead of acknowledging them, I tried to talk myself out of them.
“You’re fine,” I would say to myself. If that didn’t work, I’d berate myself. “What’s wrong with you? This isn’t even that bad. So-and-so can do it and they don’t have as much support at home and work as you do – why can’t you just get it together?”
To quiet these critical voices, I kept working and working until the feelings began to numb.
The only problem was that eventually, everything started to feel numb. I was smiling less and staring blankly at people as they spoke to me. I just couldn’t seem to tap into my feelings.
Retraining my nervous system to be more comfortable at ease and reducing my need for busyness both offered a good foundation for beginning to feel again. It was like my soul had been planted in rich soil and I cleared away the weeds. Now all I needed was a little light and some water to allow my feelings to bloom and rise above the surface.
As it turns out, trust was the water, and nonjudgment was the light. I needed to give myself more of both.
I had to trust myself to feel my feelings. I had to trust myself to acknowledge them. I had to trust myself to be able to hold these feelings without judgment. And I had to trust myself that none of the feelings were too big or too scary for me to handle.
Learning to trust myself took time. I started small – getting a drink when I first felt thirsty or taking a break from my computer when my mind started to get antsy.
I worked my way up from there. When a feeling of sadness washed over me, I allowed it to. Instead of stifling a cry in my throat and willing my tears to remain in their ducts, I let myself cry out and the tears stream down my face. If my body longed a long walk or sunshine, I carved time out of my schedule to give myself these necessities. I made myself meals or bought myself treats to satisfy my cravings. I did my best not to judge myself for needing or wanting these things. These small acts helped me feel more at ease with my feelings, both happy ones and uncomfortable ones.
It is taking a while, but I am learning how to trust myself again. When a part of me reaches out to be acknowledged, I smile and speak to myself gently, like a gardener to her plants, or a mother to her child.
“I hear you,” I say to myself. “I am here, I am listening.”
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