I recently came across a quote on Instagram that resonated with me: “Friendly reminder that ‘doing your best’ does not mean working yourself to the point of a mental breakdown.” It resonated with me because often that’s exactly what I do. Because if I have more to give, I think I must give it. I must give it everything I have. Everything. It’s as though I’m a well, and I must empty myself of all my water.
Years ago, every day that I’d come home from middle school I’d go straight to my room, sit at my pink desk and start doing homework. I’d refuse to come out or eat dinner until I was done. This was how I worked, and this is similar to how I work today. I keep thinking that unless I’m mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, then I need to keep working and writing and producing (and even after I’ve past that point).
Even though I know intellectually that I don’t need to earn rest or self-care (no one does), I still go through those motions. I still act like a drill sergeant. I still act like a bully toward myself. I still start wondering why I can’t do as much as such and such person, and I conclude that it’s because there’s obviously something wrong with me.
If she does it all, why can’t I? I should be able to do this, too! There’s a reason why it’s called work. Life is not supposed to be that easy or always enjoyable. Why am I so sensitive and easily exhausted?
Because, in my mind, it’s never enough: Unless I literally can’t move, I feel like I could’ve and should’ve done more. Instead of feeling satisfied, I feel guilty. I think about all the tasks left dangling on my to-do list. And, not surprisingly, eventually I do get to the point of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion, and then I need days to recover.
Do you do the same, too?
It’s almost as though we wait until we burn out because then it keeps the critical voices quiet: The voices that say you should feel guilty for relaxing, the voices that remind you of everything you’ve yet to do. (And there’s always so much left to do.) When we’re fully fatigued, then those voices are tired, too. And we can sit on the couch in a daze, staring at the TV screen, knowing there’s nothing else we can give, surrounded by some kind of peace.
For so many of us being productive and doing a lot has become intertwined with our self-worth. If we do X, Y and Z (and A, B and C, too), then we think we are worthy. Finally, we are worthy. We feel proud of ourselves, and we reward ourselves for a job well done.
But if we don’t, we bash ourselves. We wonder why we’re so lazy and incapable and incompetent. We wonder why we didn’t push ourselves harder. We wonder why we’re so weak.
Yet, what is enough? When will it ever be enough?
It’s an unhealthy cycle. You probably know that.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to stop. Recognizing what’s going on helps. It’s important to notice our personal signs of potential burnout, to notice what we say to ourselves about working, doing, producing. It’s important to think about what matters to us, and redirect ourselves when we see that we’re going too far.
There’s no quick fix or simple solution. But there are moments. Moments when you get outside, feel the sunshine on your face, and breathe in the fresh, spring air. Moments when you’re sitting on the couch with your spouse and realize that you couldn’t have picked a more incredible partner. Moments when you’re running around the park with your family, not thinking of anything but laughter and love. Big, breathtaking moments that you don’t want to miss because you’re emotionally unavailable, because you’re so burnt out.