A few years ago, I had a big win in my personal health after a long slog of feeling lousy. With it came an abundance of mental and physical energy. I got really busy then, meeting new people, learning new things, and growing my professional network. After two years, I burned out and had no idea why. One afternoon, laying in the warm sun with the sole purpose of getting a tan and reading a book I “should” finish, I accidentally relaxed. My mind quieted down and my stomach un-knotted so much that I realized something was off. Way off.
Later, I went back inside with a clear mind and a lighter heart. I scanned my bookshelf for the book In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore. It had been purchased 5 years earlier, after an extremely “busy” and stressful senior year of college. In the quiet between the rush of finals and adapting to full-time work, peacefulness had crept in and the book practically jumped off the shelf. Like most of the things I’d benefit from reading, it sat gathering dust until the lesson that being busy was not fun was made fresh once more.
Things were way off not because I was busy, but because the busyness was empty. Instead of a passion for people, it stemmed now from a fear that if I took even a moment’s pause, things would fall apart. This fear was a bit irrational, but at the time I had been laid off not one, not two, but four times in a row during the Great Recession. That plus reprieve from all the years feeling lousy meant there was no time to dawdle! Not even for a moment. There was still more catching up to do…
While reading In Praise, I realized this was the way back to joy. I decided to start taking time to “rest.” This was a difficult and eye-opening first step as it only left me with the sick, antsy feeling I was missing out on something critical or being lazy. That if I didn’t do something productive every single moment, the progress I’d made socially and professionally would unravel. Even after I found rewarding full-time work again.
Just like the fear of missing out, fear of doing less (or even nothing) came with a lot of justifying excuses, and the transformation to slow living was definitely stop and go as a result.
I was no longer a fan of ‘rushing’ but it was my default; fighting defaults is hard work. Then there was my addiction to scheduling. As soon as the burnout seemed to pass, I’d cram my schedule full again only to burn out more quickly this time around. Because productivity at work held such sway over my thinking, this took an entire year of conscious effort to quit in private life.
For years, reminders had popped up in life about who I was and why slowing down was a good idea; they were mostly ignored. After a lot of reluctant reading, I came to realize what being an introvert really means. Because I am outgoing and like to keep busy and be around people, it took over two years to finally take that aspect of myself seriously. Now, I make time to be alone, to be in the quiet, to reevalute (hello unsubscribe, unfollow and airplane mode!) and to process all the stimulation the world throws at us each day. That way, I’m fresh and pleasant for the people I love most.
Another aspect of myself came to the fore and was dealt with honestly. The truth is that I – like many writers and other artists – have an emotional surplus. It’s useful for creating, it’s not useful for worrying about what that gesture meant during a work meeting or what your boyfriend’s tone meant when he suddenly got off the phone. Emotional openness may be gaining social acceptance with time, but only in moderation. Being highly emotional is embarrassing, especially coming from a long line of tough, pioneering people. I don’t want to be seen as fragile, irrational, a ‘drama queen,’ or as someone who might someday stick their head in an oven. I’m not those things, but a lot of people don’t seem to grasp the idea that you can be both tough and highly emotional, unless you’re the Brawny man.
After owning up to two things I genuinely disliked about my nature, learning to say no was the most important thing that has happened in these three years. I had completely lost the ability, yessing every invite and freelance gig, without a single moment of consideration as to whether I liked the work or the people or the experience it would lead me to. Realizing you don’t like a food or a venue is easy. Realizing you don’t care for a person or a group of people – not because they are bad people but because they are draining – is extremely difficult. It feels awful, especially when you really want to know lots of different people and be liked yourself. At the time this issue came to the fore, I had lost the ability to discern the feeling of disliking someone. Wrap your head around that for a moment. Allow me to repeat: I forgot what it felt like to dislike another person. Yeah.
Saying No is easier when you know what and who matters most, but it’s still difficult, especially when it’s something I’d genuinely like to do and people I’d love to see. The problem usually stems from scheduling conflicts, since I scheduled my down-time in firm blocks, the way you’d schedule a meeting with your boss. It turns out the best reply to an invite like this is: “I’d love to but I’m not available. Can we get together another time?” True friends get it and are happy to accommodate (within reason). I’m happy as a clam to accommodate my own friends scheduling issues in the same way, now that I know what it really means. I’ve also come to appreciate the “flaky” friends in my life, and let go of expectations both of myself and others to be perfect and punctual every single time. Saying No, though challenging, is also confidence-building if you think about what it means you’re saying yes to because it reminds you what matters! What matters to me is quiet time needed to process and ponder, read great books, and remember to do simple things (like charge my iPod) that otherwise wouldn’t make it through all the racket. It also means not being cranky and rushed with the people (and pets!) who deserve my warmth.
This post is a pretty long, slow meander to a simple realization made this morning, while laying with my puppy asleep on my lap and wondering if I wanted to get my nails done, lay by the pool, read a book, or find some other totally unproductive thing to do and do the hell out of it. All the while, there was a delightful emptiness in my stomach and mind. I thought back to that day laying in the sun and smiled, feeling like a child whose escaped punishment.
I guess my Slow Living project worked! I doubt it will be this relaxing forever or even all day today; life changes constantly of course. Being able to rest without a single hesitation or time spent evaluating whether it’s truly worth my time is a miracle. You should try it sometime.
Also, the pool sounds good. Come join me for relaxing, pointlessness, if you dare.