Let’s be honest. It’s become commonplace in American culture to talk a big game about holistic wellness and good self-care. But for many of us, while we talk the talk of “work/life balance,” in reality we live our lives with a harsh narrative that lies just below the surface of the sunny pop psychology articles on 10 ways to decrease stress in your life:
If you’re not burned out at least some of the time, you’re not working hard enough
Often the problem isn’t that we don’t know how to perform self-care. The problem is that on some level, we don’t want to. Or feel like we shouldn’t. Or the most common excuse, I just don’t have time. But often it’s a combination of all three of these, and it’s hardest to admit that there may be a part of us that feels like if we slow down, we will fall behind.
While intellectually we can appreciate the health benefits of a non-anxious, balanced life, we also equate stress and anxiety with success. No pain, no gain. And yes, some stress is actually good for us, and is essential for us to learn, grow and adapt to new situations and skillsets. However, chronic stress also makes us sick. Effects on the body include increased cardiovascular risk, exacerbation of existing health problems such as chronic headaches, and a weakened immune system.
If you want to think about it in terms of tangible cost, chronic stress often means more trips to the doctor, and even a risk of losing years off of your life.
We know this, and yet many of us still struggle with letting go of chronic stress
Instead of thinking of self-care as a health behavior, to practice as consistently as brushing your teeth, many of us think of self-care as something you earn after a hard week (or month, or more) of hard work. We must feel like we “deserve” a break, and instead of being self-compassionate and treating ourselves on a regular basis, we take refuge in Netflix, our Facebook newsfeed and idleness, feeling guilty that we’re not being more productive. Self-care is just fine for our friend over there who had a rough day, but for ourselves the standard is often much higher.
So how do we learn to let go?
Notice and name when your inner voice is sounding like your grumpy gym teacher or coach from high school. Sure, sometimes you want to run faster or climb higher and you need that push. But your gym teacher voice doesn’t need to follow you around all day long, when you’re eating lunch with a friend or trying to enjoy your afternoon cup of coffee. Resist the urge to say to yourself: is there something else I should be doing right now? If you want some coaching on staying in the moment, try out some meditation techniques.
Sometimes we have professional FOMO (fear of missing out, for our older audience). We feel like if we don’t keep up our feverish pace, we just might get left behind in the rat race. And that’s not just for the wolves of Wall Street. It’s a narrative that’s becoming true for all of us trying to make our way in an increasingly competitive job and business market. But we don’t always have to participate in the chaos.
Commit to the version of you that exists outside of work
There is a middle ground between burnout and idleness, where we can find personal fulfillment and meaning outside of our careers. Leisure is an outdated word that many folks have lost touch with. Activities that we can do for leisure lie on a spectrum from the active to the more passive , from exercise, to crafting, to playing a board game with friends or reading a book. These self-care practices won’t necessarily bring us professional success or build our network, but they can stimulate our minds and bodies and lead to deep, guilt-free relaxation. And with relaxation comes healthier bodies and healthier minds (and as an added bonus, increased productivity).
But first, we all need to commit to giving up the myth that one must be stressed out and burned out to achieve professional success. Don’t wear your burnout like a badge of honor, or wait until you’ve hit rock bottom to start practicing self-care. Don’t just talk the talk, make sure you are also walking the walk of your values around work/life balance and emotional well-being. Be proactive. Practice self-compassion every day, and make time for leisure and relaxation even in the busiest seasons of your life. You deserve it, by virtue of just being human. And your overall health depends on it.