Hustle. Push. Churn. Make. Do. Burn. Grind. According to Instagram, we should all be well-oiled machines, spending every free moment working towards a goal (usually one that will bring us what Instagram values as success- money, fame, notoriety, etc). But the fact is, we are not machines, we are humans, and we are fallible. This means we need rest, not only to repower, but to be productive in a meaningful way. The notion that we can continue forth in perpetuity, not tending to ourselves in a caring and restorative manner, without burning out, is a false one. Instead, we become sleep-deprived, irritable, anxious, depressed, unmotivated, unproductive, disconnected, and overwhelmed. And while these attributes can present on a spectrum, they are detrimental to our health and spirits at any intensity.
I see this type of thinking and behavior almost universally in the clients I work with, but they feature prominently in my two areas of specialization- new mothers and high school students. Both groups are under enormous pressure to be seen in a certain way, and to perform to certain standards. Teenagers are desperately trying to outperform their peers, to pad their academic resumes with the hardest classes and most diverse extracurriculars so that they can compete for limited spots in college and even more limited financial aid resources. New parents (mothers in particular) are highly scrutinized and judged. Everyone has an unsolicited opinion on how to raise a child, and everyone thinks their way is right. Mothers are supposed to always behave in a way that overlooks their humanity- devoted and present with their children, always calm, patient and gentle, and god forbid they forget to #cherisheverymoment or remember how #blessed they are. In both of these populations, it feels like there is little room for error, like the stakes are too high to back off or slow down, and so it is not uncommon for me to hear the same things- sacrificing sleep, comparing themselves to others, focusing only on outward achievements, forgoing pleasurable “just for fun” activities, and feeling shame when they don’t live up to the image of themselves they hold as the goal.
In therapy, my gentle suggestions that maybe the focus needs to shift from finding “lifehacks” and more hours in the day to fit in more things, to scaling back, prioritizing rest, connection, and pleasure, are typically met with blank stares, sarcastic laughter, or wide-eyed panic. The idea of doing less, not necessarily to do more, is a foreign and undermined concept in our society. Our value is often seen only as a measure of our output, rather than an inherent trait that exists in all of us. So considering opting out of “the hustle” is seen as opting out of accomplishment and value, and there is a fear that without this, they will atrophy, paralyze, and never reach any meaningful goals. Often, that is what leads them to therapy in the first place: “I feel stuck,” “I need help motivating,” “I’ll feel better once I can do _____.” They see themselves as the flaw in the system: lazy, unmotivated, unaccomplished, worthless. But the change they desire doesn’t come from learning how to do more or do better, it comes from recognizing that it’s this grind system itself that is keeping them so stuck and overwhelmed. And one integral piece in addressing this is prioritizing rest.
Personally, I feel like the “you can’t serve from an empty cup” metaphor is overused, so I often frame the need for restorative self-care as “you can’t pay from an empty account.” When all your money is spent, you are writing bad checks or getting into debt, and we have likely all been in that uneasy, dangerous place. Don’t write yourself a bad check. Likewise, don’t look at rest as an all-or-nothing huge deposit you make in your “account”: most of us don’t win the lottery or sustain ourselves via large windfalls. Rather, we make small choices and investments, squirrel away a few nuts here and there, rely on steady paychecks, and if we are lucky, occasionally get bonuses. But even the pennies add up!
Where in your life can you start to give yourself small deposits of rest, both physically and mentally? Maybe it just means going to bed 15 minutes earlier than usual. Maybe it means doing one thing at a time, rather than multi-tasking and doing several things poorly, giving your mind a chance to settle into the task at hand. Maybe it means taking a true lunch, away from your desk and computer, or spending ten minutes in the morning sitting outside and drinking coffee.
Once you have that established, think bigger and more regular (like the deposit you would get from a paycheck). Where do you set the boundaries in your life that allow you to sustain for longer amounts of time? Try turning off notifications or setting screen time limits on social media and other apps. Developing a sleep hygiene routine that allows you eight good hours of sleep. Creating a morning routine that allows you some time for quiet reflection before you start checking emails. Only checking emails at certain points in the dat. Taking a 20-minute nap or quiet time in the afternoons. Opting out of an engagement that you were on the fence about.
And then finally, the big deposits- a yearly bonus, an inheritance, a hefty tax return. If you have the privilege of access to larger chunks of rest time (the rant that rest is a privilege rather than a right is for another post), please use them. Take that vacation or staycation, or just plain time off. Use your sick days, mental health days, personal days. If you are self-employed, like me, factor in vacation and sick time to your yearly budget and savings. When it is the weekend, let it be the weekend. And look at the larger picture- are you (or your family) overscheduled (remember that if you are a parent, you are modeling for your children how to care for and show compassion to themselves). Create no-phone zones and times of day, and consider removing social media apps so that you are forced to be more intentional about when you use them. Set boundaries with family and friends, not just work. Emotional labor can be sneaky and is a slow drain to your account, and letting people know what they can and can’t expect of you up front can save you a lot of energy.
Most importantly, consider who really benefits when you burn yourself out. There is no glory in running yourself into the ground, and success can be a moving target. You are no less successful and worthy if you prioritize your health and wellness by resting. Your body, mind, and spirit show up for you in so many ways, and deserve the ultimate act of love and grace: space to restore and replenish, with no expectations or judgments.