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Why it is so hard to rest

“So are you going to take some time off around the Fourth of July holiday?” my husband asked recently. I stopped and paused. There were a couple of vacations planned in the spring that got canceled due to COVID and I just worked through them.

My husband went on, “I mean, you haven’t really stopped to take a vacation since December.” I was struck. He was right. When our vacation plans canceled, I didn’t stop or rest or take a couple of days off; I just kept pushing.

Rest is something we have a funny relationship with—and by we, I mean those of us with high functioning anxiety, women, Americans, and/or those of us with really loud mongers.

There are a lot of messages from our culture, our families, and ourselves not just against rest but pro work. Pro pushing. Pro productivity.

We all know rest is needed. I am not going to lecture you on the importance of rest because the number one thing my new clients say is, “I need a break. I need rest.”

It isn’t that we don’t value rest; it’s that when we take a rest, our Monger goes crazy. My Monger can be so loud you would think I was committing a felony by lying in bed mid-afternoon reading a book.

This inability to give ourselves rest is a problem. No, it is a crisis. Because we have lost touch with ourselves.

We are so good at pushing that we don’t even notice our body’s physical sensations to stop. We can push past a headache or a backache or indigestion. In fact, I have had several clients who ignored and hustled through physical pain to the point where it resulted in extended hospital stays.

Here is a cycle:

  • Push-push-push all day and while you feel okay at the end the day, you are still beating yourself up for a to-do list that isn’t complete.
  • You notice your thoughts are foggy and your anxiety is higher, but you keep going and push through.
  • Wake up with a headache and decide to work from bed because you feel so bad. But rather than resting and sleeping between Zoom calls, you push-push-push.
  • End the day feeling slightly better but beat yourself up for a to-do list that isn’t complete.
  • Your headache is gone the next day, but you have some acid indigestion and feel crabby. But the list is long so better to get at it and
    push-push-push.
  • Your boss emails to say how amazing you are doing and how much she appreciates all of your extra work. “Yes!” you think as you pop some more antacids. That praise is enough to keep you going for another week back to push-push-push.

A couple things I want to point out about this cycle:

  1. You never win. You never say to yourself, “YAY! I did enough.”
  2. Your body is not a machine. Rather than listening to the message of pain, fatigue, and fogginess as signs of being over your limits, you view it as yet another problem to work around.

The problem is we forsake ourselves. We are not machines. We are beings with thoughts, feelings, reactions, vulnerabilities, shame, mistakes, wins, celebrations, love. We are messy.

If I asked you if you would rather be perceived as a machine or as a kind, soft, loving, vulnerable human being, I think it is safe to say you would prefer being the latter.

And yet, because of our wiring, because of cultural messages, because of genetics, traumas, etc., we forsake ourselves and end up acting more like machines.

We get bogged down in our to-do list. When we have big dreams we want to create, systemic changes we want to make, major issues we want to address, and injustices we want to fight. We can only fight those bigger battles and make those systemic changes when we are rested.

And yes, even now in the midst of all the upheaval, injustices, and protesting. When the call is loud to make a change and we want to answer that call. We still need to rest. We can’t push-push-push through everything. Rest provides a chance to see a bigger picture, listen to our internal wisdom, make a plan, set deeper priorities.

With rest, we can stop acting from a place of reaction and make deeper, more powerful changes.

Back to my conversation with my husband, I said, “I guess I can take a staycation the week before the 4th of July.” Notice the hesitancy.

For the record, staycations haven’t worked in the past. I needed the forced distance from my life to quiet my Monger enough to rest.

Here is how staycations have gone in the past:

  • Rather than resting as I would on a vacation, I fill my time with doing all the things on the list that I don’t have time for on a regular day. So rather than reading a book on the back deck, I am power washing the back deck. Rather than getting back to nature in a local park, I am power walking in our neighborhood (telling myself it is more efficient).
  • The only way I can rest without my Monger going crazy and telling me how inefficient I am is by watching TV. So I watch a lot of mindless TV.

I knew I had to do this week differently. I started with two goals.

  1. Rest. Deep rest. Lots of sleep and no obligations.
  2. I want to dive into some books I haven’t taken the time to read, listen to some podcasts on my ever-growing list, journal, write, and do some creative projects just for fun. (FYI, “just for fun” is another Monger red flag. Everything has to have a purpose.) I do not want to spend the whole week in front of the TV.

So here are my parameters:

  • I am telling everyone about my staycation just like I would tell everyone if I was taking a vacation.
  • I put my away message up on my email. I told my clients I am taking the week off.
  • I told my husband there would be no projects and no to-dos. I am filling my days with books and podcasts and TV shows that I want to watch.

Looks good, right? I have set parameters and made goals—I am such a good little High Functioning Anxiety individual.

But here is the rub: parameters and goals are great, but they won’t protect me from my Monger. She will still be whispering in my ear, “Be a good girl and just check your email” or my BFF in reaction to my Monger shaming me for not doing enough will say, “Go ahead, just turn on the TV to see what is on.”

So I made one more commitment—and you might be able to guess what it is… I made a commitment to be extra kind to myself this week. Because for those of us with High Functioning anxiety, rest is messy and it is uncomfortable.

So I am committing to being kind to myself when:

  • the extra space rest creates allows all those messy thoughts and feelings to come to the surface (yikes!).
  • my Monger repeatedly reminds me that rest isn’t productive.
  • my BFF tells me to deal with my extra anxiety with more sugar or more TV watching.

I commit to practicing A.S.K. and listening for the voice of my Biggest Fan saying, “Sweet-pea, you are not a machine. To fight the fights you want to fight and create the changes you want to create, you have to rest.”


New on The Happier Approach podcast

Sometimes we are so afraid of taking imperfect action and doing it wrong that we simply don’t bother at all. My guest on the podcast this week is an expert in doing it differently. Jennifer Louden is a personal growth pioneer, best-selling author, and educator, who recently wrote a book on exactly this topic.

Listen to the full episode here to hear why Jennifer was inspired to write her new book and how she realized that holding her mistakes close was actually holding her back.