Let’s talk about no

Let’s talk about no.  It’s such a little thing.  Two letters – n and o.  Yet I have lived for too many years in fear and trembling of putting those two letters together and saying them out loud. Okay… maybe I said them a lot when I was parenting little people, but I haven’t said them much when I’ve been out there in the big blue world.

Why?  What is there to be afraid of?

There are so many answers to that, I couldn’t even begin to write them all in this little blog!  I’m working through them.  It’s a process.

There is actually some science to it, a lot of research to it, and a lot of serious identity lies and junk involved.  And I have a LOT of the big psychological markers – I’m a first-born child, I’m a female, my personality tends toward achievement and perfectionism… we could go on and on here.  I hate to disappoint people.  I can’t stand conflict.  I am highly capable and highly responsible to a fault. I thrive on challenge and proving that I can do it. I never learned how to fail.  “Quitters never win and winners never quit” and “Second place is first loser” and “Why did you get a 95 on the test?  What did you do wrong?” are all things I have carried in my heart.  There’s a lot of systemic junk here.  The point is, I have to learn to manage who I am and my history and my circumstances or it’s going to kill me.  It’s all manageable, but I have to be willing to learn and grow. And, to an extent, I have to learn to swim upstream and say no to things that our culture values.  Our culture values efficiency and effectiveness.  It values hard work. It values high achievement and people who readily take on challenges.  It values return on investment. It values people who push through, who work harder and longer and say yes to more work.

But here’s the thing… every time you say yes to something, you say no to something else.  Maybe not out loud, but it is how the formula works.  It’s an equation.

Yes + a = No + b

Therefore, “yes, I’ll write that article for your publication” = “no, I don’t have time to go to coffee with my friend today”.

“Yes, I can do a 7pm meeting” =  “no, I can’t make dinner or be home with the family”.

In my head, I have always known this truth.  But.  There’s always a But. But, I haven’t been so good at heeding my own warning.  But, I don’t practice what I preach. But, I still have lived a life of saying yes to lots of things, too many things.  And, in the process, saying no to lots of things I really love, too.

I’ve said yes to writing a thousand articles for various people, and I’ve said no to being with friends who I love dearly.

I’ve said yes to teaching seminars and classes and study groups, and I’ve said no to family time.

I’ve said yes to writing curriculum and leading workshops and running meetings, and I’ve said no to my own physical and mental health.

My yes to one thing has been a no to another. And now, see where I am?  Burned out and unhealthy both physically and emotionally, and fighting to recover and rebuild my life and reshape my identity. I have been the queen of burning the candle at both ends, and I never really thought about where that scenario ends – it ends with a puddle of melted wax and nothing left to burn.

It’s not that any of the things I said yes to are bad.  Heavens no!  In fact, they have been things I love to do.  They are things that I am gifted at doing.  They are things that usually give me lots of joy.  But just like cake in and of itself is not a bad thing, I shouldn’t eat an entire cake!  A cookie after dinner is probably not going to kill me, but eating an entire box of Girl Scout Thin Mints is not a good thing.   Same with my love of teaching and writing and leading… any of those things on my agenda can bring great joy and life to me.  It was when I overindulged on them that I became joyless and began to burnout.

I’ve been living by a very ‘church cultural norm’ that tells us to give and sacrifice, give yourself away, give more and more, because you can’t ever out-give God and all that he’s done for you.  I’ve been living a life of sacrificial giving. People even use language that says, “I think we (ministry workers) should keep giving and keep serving until we’re all used up.  If we give it all we’ve got and die in His service, then that’s a good way to go.” This was actually said to me a couple of weeks ago.  Okay, I get it, and it makes sense, sort of.  But, I don’t think that God asked me to give and sacrifice to the point of neglecting my family or not having time for relationships or being so frazzled that I’m biting people’s heads off, because somehow that is not ‘love my neighbor as I love myself’.  I don’t think he asked my pastor to neglect his wife and spend every waking hour at the church.  I don’t think He wanted me to do so much for so long that I actually damaged my cognitive processing in my brain and could no longer form a complete sentence without blanking out!  We’ll talk about the biblical principles here another day, because this has also been a time of some deep study and searching for me.  But let’s stop laying our cultural filter on to our church filter and telling people that they need to give more and sacrifice more… just stop.

Now I am in a season of learning.  Learning to dial it back.  Learning to say no. Learning what my capacity is and what healthy rhythms are and exactly how much I can carry.  It’s a process of ‘right-sizing my life’, as Shauna Niequist calls it.

It reminds me of backpacking, actually.  I’m 5’1”. To backpack well and be able to withstand the pack and have the endurance I need, my body is only supposed to carry a certain amount of weight.  So, when I get ready to go out, I have to carefully fill my pack and distribute the weight.  I have to account for the weight of the pack itself, the weight of the water bottles I’m carrying, and the contents of the pack – my sleeping bag, my clothes, my gear, etc. Now, I can act like some deranged superwoman and overstuff my pack and exceed the weight calculations for my body, but it is going to play out poorly down the trail, trust me!  I’ve been there!  A too full, poorly distributed pack will eventually break you down.  The body WILL keep score!  Your knees will pay, your back will pay, your shoulders and neck will pay.  Then the attitude.  Then the relationships with others.  I’m not kidding.  It gets ugly when your pack isn’t right and you try to carry too much.  And it ends in exhaustion and depletion and brokenness.

This season of no is not easy for me.  It’s a time of wrestling with decisions over what to keep and what to let go.  I’m having to fight a lot of guilt. I’m having to learn to accept help.  I’m having to say no to some teaching and some writing that I really love to do.  I’m saying no to some travel and some visits that I would like to be able to do. But this is not a season for yes.  Because I need to say a lot of no so I can rest.  I need to rebuild my life. I need to learn some healthy rhythms.  I need to say a lot of no so I can recover my physical and mental health. I need to say no so I can get back some joy.

Saying no is still not intuitive to me.  Yes is my default, and I need to learn to reset and reboot and think through my decisions before I say yes.  Because my yes will mean no to someone or something else.

In this season, I’m saying yes to rest and recovery and getting my life back.

*This is part 4 of a series on my burnout recovery.  Go to The Slow Burn(out) to read from the beginning of the series.

A Good Week (and Foreboding Joy) – part 3

I don’t want to jinx it (I don’t think I even believe in that, you know…), but I had a really good week last week, the first ‘good week’ in months.   And that’s VERY good timing because I’m getting a little worried about an upcoming trip my husband is taking for work and my own emotional state of being at this time – am I ready to be at home alone?  So having a good week is a very good thing right now! Empowering. It almost feels like maybe I turned some sort of proverbial corner.

And yet…

Brene Brown talks about foreboding joy, “Joy can feel like a setup.  We wake up in the morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. Oh $*#@! This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking around the corner. Our first thought is Too good to be true. What’s the catch?

It’s the ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ idea.  Yes, I had a really good week.  And yes, I’m terrified that it was a fluke and it won’t last.

What constitutes a good week nowadays?  Well, I didn’t have any crying breakdowns. I didn’t have to be rescued from any conversations or group dynamics where my brain just quit working. I didn’t have any days where my stress level seemed out of control or when I felt the anxiety creeping up my shoulders and in to my head.  A ‘good week’ started with a life-giving soul-restoring day at the beach. A good week looked like days that had elements of tasks accomplished, time connecting with friends and family, time to rest, and even time for creativity.  There was a day or two that probably held a little more activity and brain-work than I should have allowed at this time, but the good part is that I recognized that and dealt with it.  I dialed it back, which has definitely NOT been the case in the past.  And, at one point, I even asked myself if I was feeling good because I was doing too much and therefore the adrenaline was kicking in = my drug of choice nowadays.  I was able to evaluate and reflect and that’s a step in the right direction, I think.

I, by no means, think that because I had a good week then I must be all better or healed.  HA! Not by a long shot.  This is a marathon, not a sprint. I had a good week. Period. Just like a week sober is a great thing, but by no means makes you ‘clean’ and healed. And the signs are still there that prove to me that I have a long way to go. Just yesterday, after facilitating a very intense class with very controversial themes, taught in my second language, with some extremely passionate voices at the table literally yelling their opinions at each other… I managed it and felt like I was ‘on’ and back in my teaching and facilitating groove. But the second the class was over, so was I.  I was toast. My brain was done and it just shut down.  And that was that for yesterday.  One good hour of class was all I was capable of.  The rest of the day was necessary recovery time for the physical and mental exhaustion that one passionate hour of discussion created in me.  The one hour felt great – it was great to be in my element and in my groove. But the energy output that one hour took was enormous.

You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Much like my time on the Camino, I’m learning that every day is a new day and every day holds its own challenges, its own hurdles to overcome and its own decisions to be encountered. There are good days and there are tough days, there are days when I feel like I got a long way, and days when I just can’t keep going and have to rest.  The trick is learning to listen to my own mind and my own body and know when to stop and fill my cup.

This is Part Three of a series on my burnout recovery journey to read more:
Part One – The Slow Burn(out)
Part Two – Two Steps forward, One step back

Two steps forward, one step back (is this Two-Steppin’?)… part 2

How am I doing? Where is this burnout and healing process going?  Well, I don’t really know.

Almost two months ago, we came to the realization that I was in a pretty major slump.  Actually, slump doesn’t quite describe the emotions and the physical symptoms that came crashing in on me. I knew things weren’t good.  But I don’t think I realized how truly ‘not good’ they were.

Burnout for me has been ugly.  It has been a time of so many mixed emotions and actions that I can’t keep up.  I have my days.  Days when I feel like I’m doing better and I’m making healthy decisions about stress and work and stress levels.  Then I have days when I feel crazy waves of anxiety for what appears to be no good reason at all.  Days when I suddenly feel like I’ve forgotten to do something important, when my whole body tenses up and I start going through the mental list and calendar and trying to figure out what I’ve missed or what I should have done today.  Then I’ll process that and get that back in check, and have another good day.  And then I’ll get blind-sided by a conversation that makes my brain completely short circuit and shut down, or I won’t be able to find the words that I’m trying to say because it feels like everything around me is going triple speed and my head is on double-slow-mo.

Yesterday was one of those days.  I had a great morning!  The sun was out.  The birds were singing.  The house was clean.  I cut fresh flowers for the table and cooked a yummy breakfast casserole to share with our friends who were coming for a little bible study time.  We laughed.  We had coffee. We looked at our study together.  It seemed like all was right with the world.  And then, somewhere between Nehemiah and the orange juice and colored pens, my eyes just glazed over and my mind shut down.  I was somewhere else, but where?  I couldn’t tell you.  I didn’t even realize it had happened.  I just zoned out. My husband saw it.  And my best friend saw it.  They’re both really good at reading faces and body language and they both realized at the same time that something was off.

I hate that. I hate that it happened.  I hate that all the beauty and fun of the morning just stopped, and suddenly people were focused on me and if I was okay.  Please… anything else… anything!  But don’t look at me like I’m broken.  I can’t take it!

We talked about it and I shrugged it off and covered it up.  For a while.  Until my afternoon walk-and-talk with Hubby.  It’s one of our daily rhythms right now.  We take a 5k walk and we talk and process through things together.  He wanted to talk about the morning and what happened and how to help.  What triggered the shut down?  What feelings was I having?  What do we need to do differently?  And in all of that, I felt a sudden wave of fear.  Fear that I don’t know why it happened.  Fear that I don’t know what to do differently next time.  Fear that I don’t know how long this recovery process is going to take.  Fear that people around me are looking at me and thinking that I’m broken or unintelligent or mentally ill.  Fear that Hubby won’t always be there to notice that I’ve shut down, that he can’t always rescue me from the situation.  Fear. Loss of control. Loss of competence. With the fear and the loss come the tears.

I’ve always been the one who had it all together.  The smart one.  The one who was two steps ahead of the game.  The strategic one.  The one who could troubleshoot anything and figure it all out.  The one who wasn’t fazed by crisis. The steady one.  The leader.  .  A strong, determined, independent, confident woman who could take on the world at any given moment. Now I feel like none of those things.  Who am I now?

On some days, I feel like I’m making steps forward.  I notice when my stress level goes up. I notice when I need a break.  I pay attention to my inner voice and the lies that I tell myself.  On some days, I think I’m getting better and I feel good about it.

Yesterday wasn’t one of those days.

So, two months in.  Feels a lot like two steps forward and one step back.  Some days feel like going back to square one. And some days feel great and I feel ‘like myself’ again.  My days are like waves and I never know if the sea is going to be gentle and calm, or roll over me with emotions I didn’t see coming.

What I would give to feel 100% like me again… where is that girl who can do just about anything, do it at the drop of a hat, and do it with excellence? I really wish she’d come home…

*part 1 The Slow Burn(out)