Letting Ourselves Rest

I have struggled as an adult to rest. To me, it is hard to find a place and time to just let myself “do nothing”. Since I always have so much to do, if I take a day off, where I literally do nothing, I have to fight immense feelings of guilt and even shame. I am not quite sure when that started happening, but I identify it as an issue that really intensified when I became a mother. For me, when I became a mom, there was a sense that I HAD to be responsible 100% of the time. Because it was not just about me now, it was about this beautiful little child and I needed to be able to do and have certain things if I was going to be a “good” mother. I had to be “on”, and I had to be productive ALL the time. I can identify that this is probably not where it started, but this is when it got more obvious. I could never just have a day to myself, a day “off”, or a day to do absolutely nothing.

As I have grown and worked through the many issues that have come up for me over the years, I have consistently identified one issue that I needed to tackle – being able to have a “nothing day” and not feel terrible about it. Why do we, as human “beings” feel the need to be “doing” something (anything) all the time? Some experts say this is linked to shame and low self-worth – the idea that if I am not “producing”, then I am not “creating my own worth”. The idea that I have to “prove” that I am worthy by “doing it all” is silently circulated among all walks of life – moms, dads, students, teachers, employees, even children are expected not to be “lazy” and to “hold their own”. I feel this has created a pseudo “un-selfish” culture that is exhausted and resentful. Because, let’s be honest, when we are run ragged ALL the time, we don’t feel accomplished, we feel drained and that has to be somebody’s fault, right?

Today, I know I am falling into this trap when I start to feel really crabby all the time. I have learned over the past several years to listen to myself and to just let myself have time. During my practicum to finish my masters, my supervisor encouraged me to adopt the attitude/mantra that “it will all get done” and to try and leave it at that. Try not to worry about your giant “to-do list”, don’t get mad at yourself for being tired and when you feel spent, that means it’s time to set some boundaries and cancel some plans. Yes, we all have things that we need to get done, but if we cannot learn to take care of ourselves, those things will feel more like torture.

Don’t get it twisted, I am not encouraging you to “zone out” on TV or play video games for 14 hours. Rest also does not have to mean “sleep” (although for parents, it often does). I feel like this is one of those issues that can mean so many different things. Maybe rest looks like gardening, reading, or coloring. Doing something that nourishes your soul. Maybe rest means mediation and reflection and/or prayer. Maybe it means being alone, or being with your spouse, or your children. Maybe it means taking an afternoon nap and then ordering in, instead of stressing about the laundry and dinner. Maybe it simply means “not doing work”. Think about what “rest” looks like for you and think about the last time you had any.

For some reason, even though I am a therapist – this is still hard to do (I suppose it is because I’m human). It is hard to feel like I am still a good mom and good person, even if I took a whole day and did zero, zip, nada. It is hard to sit still and be “with myself”. Maybe this is why we, as a collective society, accept the constant “go”. Maybe, it is a way that we can all remain “numb” and “distracted”, but is it really a sustainable solution? So, I encourage you – even if you need to schedule these days in, focus on having a time where you GET to do nothing, even if you are scared you might not get it all done. Let yourself recharge by saying “I’m sorry, I have plans that day” and taking that time to just rest.

Taking the First Step…

Since I have entered this field, I have heard person after person tell me how long they struggled without seeking help. It is very strange to me sometimes, sitting on “this side of the couch”. What I mean by this is that – I, like many counselors, started as a client. From the time of adolescence, I struggled with emotional regulation and feelings of rejection. I found it difficult to build meaningful connections with peers and struggled with self-esteem. Luckily, my mother was a proponent for therapy and took me to see several counselors. Unfortunately, I resented her “thrusting” her idea of help on me, so I struggled to meaningfully engage with my early counselors. However, they planted the seed. Sometimes, that is the most important function of a counselor.

Later, when I slipped into struggles with substance use, my parents, again, tried to get me the help that I needed desperately. Still clinging to my new “tools” and “friends”, I resisted, knowing deep-down that my current path was unsustainable. However, my “inner rebel”, refused to admit defeat – how could my parents be right? Finally, at the end of a rope, my parents set a hard boundary: get help or leave their home. Luckily, I was also at the end of my rope. Shocking my parents, I decided to go to treatment and make some lifestyle changes.

However, even though I learned so much from my treatment experience, I was not through with substances or with my emotional journey. However, since the seeds had been planted, I knew where I could go when things got tough and they did – again and again. Each time another challenge that seemed insurmountable came up, I knew I could reach out for help. But it was still hard. It was hard for me to be honest with myself and admit that I could not figure it out “all on my own”. It was also hard to accept that even just admitting that I needed help did not make me a total failure. It did not mean that I was weak or pathetic. It did not mean that I was not smart or capable and it did not mean that I was “broken”. It just meant that I did not have all the answers and, what is more important, I did not need to have them all to be ok – to be “enough”.

Every day, I see all kinds of messages, coming from everywhere: media, social media, other people, workplaces, friends, family, and my clients. Some of the messages are quite uplifting and encouraging. But even though there is some progress being made, there are still some very damaging stigma floating around regarding mental health. It seems that every time something “extreme” happens, there is always a news reporter stating that the perpetrator was “mentally ill”. What does that mean? The blanket of “mental illness” is so broad, so encompassing that it is almost meaningless. They never report what kind of mental illness this human being had. They rarely discuss who that person was, they simply label and move on. The issue I have with this is that now all people think is that “mental illness” is something to be feared, loathed, and it must be a really big problem. When people fear being like the “crazy person” on TV, how likely are they to reach out for help? The fear of being stigmatized or labeled is intense and can prevent pattern-breaking action.

More than ever before, people are starting to examine what mental illness is and what it looks like. There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer. It might not look the same for you as it does for me. And that is ok. Mental illness can be severe and debilitating or it can be more subtle and eroding. Whatever it means or feels like to you, however it affects you, you should know – you are not alone.

Without a support system, no one can survive. I believe this, 100%. Look at those who are extremely successful, they did not get there alone. I would not have gotten through the struggles I have without the support of my family, partner, friends, counselors, co-workers, and mentors. As we look at the world today, amid the pandemic, one thing has become quite clear – we cannot do this alone. Because, when we try, it gets way too hard. We need each other, we need connection, and we need support. Human beings are hardwired to desire connection and this is because the humans who connected with others survived. I am not quite sure where along the way our society developed this “you gotta figure it out on your own” attitude, but I will challenge this notion as long as I am able.

I know that one of my biggest goals as a counselor is helping people feel better and one way that I attempt to do that is simply to listen. In a world where everyone is talking and trying to talk above everyone else who is also talking, I try to be still and listen. That is what being “on this side of the couch” means to me. I hope that you will share what being on your “side of the couch” means to you.