I have long understood the dangers and seductions of overwork. I’ve frequently coped with stress by balancing my checkbook or going over budget figures. Or reading and replying to every single email in my Inbox. It needn’t be intellectual work: scrubbing bathrooms or reorganizing closets works just fine. All these things involve attention to detail and (to one degree or another) restoring a sense of order to an otherwise capricious and chaotic world. I come by it honestly; when I was growing up, I saw my parents, my father in particular, plunge into work in response to the enormous problems our family faced. He and I are by no means unique. We live in a culture that values work above personal life and outward productivity over inner sensitivity.
“Work” doesn’t have to result in a measurable output. Anything that demands attention (preferably to the exclusion of all else) will do. Reading news stories or following social media accomplish the same objective and have the same result: they put our emotions “on hold.”
As I’ve struggled to detach from the waves of upsetting news, I have noticed an increased tendency in myself to overwork. It occurs to me that I reach for those activities in a very similar way other folks might reach for a glass of liquor or a pack of cigarettes (or things less legal). Or exercising to exhaustion, or any of the many things we do to excess that keep us from feeling. There’s a huge difference between the need to take a breather from things that distress us and using substances or activities in a chronic, ongoing fashion to dampen our emotional reactions. The problem is that when we do these things, we shut off not only the uncomfortable feelings (upset, fear, etc.) but other feelings as well.
The challenge then becomes how to balance the human desire for “time-out” from the uncertainties and fears of the last few weeks and not numbing out. In my own experience, the process of balancing begins with awareness of what tempts me, whether I indulge in it or not. Is it something that can be good or bad, depending on whether I do it to excess? (Exercise, for example.) Or something best avoided entirely? (Some forms of risk-taking behavior, like unprotected sex with strangers.) If it can be both a strength and a weakness, how do I tell when enough is enough, or what a healthy way to do this is?
When is it time to run away (to Middle Earth, to a night club, to answering every single Tweet) and when is it time to come back? Am I able to extricate myself or do I need external help (an alarm clock, a family member)?
What about getting creative with escapes? Instead of binge-watching Stranger Things, how about taking the dog for a long hike and then watching one episode? A bubble bath instead of a drink? Calling a trusted friend before clicking on FaceBook?
Finally, a word on being gentle with ourselves. No matter how resourceful and conscious I am, I’m going to slip. That’s part of human nature. All these numbing escapes work, and that means not only will we reach for them, we’ll keep doing them. Will power alone isn’t enough to break us out of a session that’s gone on way too long (or that fourth drink or second pack of cigarettes). Some days we’ll do better than others. So it’s important to be kind to ourselves and others. We’re all coping with a difficult time, sometimes in healthier ways than others. Beating ourselves up for spending too much time playing video games won’t stop us the next time we reach for the console: it will only give us one more thing to escape from. One of the most helpful things I’ve done is to talk to others about what’s going on with me. If I notice my eyes and shoulders are screaming at me from too many hours staring at a computer screen, that’s a great opening for a conversation. I can ask for a friendly ear, whether I want advice or not. Commiseration and sharing of our different experiences – our failures as well as our successes – makes me more likely to try something else.
What escapes appeal to you particularly these days? Are they healthy (or can they be, if indulged with moderation)? How do you handle occasions of excess? What helps you to stay in touch with your feelings, or to come back to them after a break?