This week work started to conflict with and crave way too much attention from my life and what is most important to me: my (mental) health. I need to eat well, sleep well and train to keep myself grounded If I don’t prioritise those three things my mood is first to go, which quickly starts impacting my patience and creativity and ultimately, my productivity, sense of accomplishment and meaning. To me that is a very slippery slope and it can quickly send me into a negative spiral, eventually resulting in various states of depression. If I let it…
Most of you will recognise that any bank holiday, long weekend or holiday always comes at a cost and usually with a vengeance too. First, you work your butt off to get everything ready and tidy before you leave for a well-deserved break but no matter how well you prepare, there’s still a hump to get over immediately after. And self preservation tells most of us to push through it quickly or it will add to your backlog and keep punishing you for weeks ahead. To add to that usual “vacation pressure”, we just had another re-org with new team members that we hadn’t planned for who need purpose and on boarding fast… Which is of course a good problem to have but it still takes both time an energy.
So now you have a pretty good picture of what my life was like this week.
I started slipping down that “negative energy slope” already on day 2 (Wednesday) but thanks to all the self-improvement work I have done lately, I was able to recognize the signs (or triggers) and turn things around before the stress (or negative energy) consumed me completely. And I am very proud of that! I think that by acknowledging that and sharing my own struggles, I can provide a little help for someone else who may find themselves in the same situation? And if I do, that’s a good thing and it makes it worth baring myself like this.
Here are three simple things I learnt about myself this week, that helped me counter the natural response to just succumb and give in to the part of me that just wanted to pull the covers over my head and hide from the world. To run away from all the hard things and take the easy way out… Blame and self-pity!
1. Look good – feel good
Yes, you can immediately dismiss this as completely shallow statement and skip ahead, or you can indulge me for a minute or two, and see you’ll see what I mean… And why find it helpful to look good from the inside and out.
Having struggled with depression for a long time, this winter and spring getting so bad that I didn’t even want to get dressed and go to work some days. Not to mention the mere thought of washing my hair or putting on make-up felt like climbing a mountain at certain points. And there were definitely days that not even “the pony tail disguise” didn’t work but I was at the point where I didn’t really care… I never went to work in yoga pants but I wanted to – so many times! But seeing yourself in the mirror at work, recognizing how tired and lifeless you look, you just feel even worse. More depressed. And it quickly becomes a vicious circle, at least for me it does.
One of the key things I have learnt over the last few months of self-improvement, is to learn to recognize triggers in life, or signs if you will, that I am starting to slide into that negative place again. So, this Wednesday morning when I didn’t feel like getting dolled up for work, because I didn’t even want to go into the office in the first place, all I wanted to do was pull my hair back (which I can’t really do since I chopped it off and that’s a good thing as it forces me to deal with it!) and pull on a pair of jeans and a comfy sweater. But I realized this was a bad sign and I decided not to let it get the better of me. Instead I decided to put on some new lingerie, a nice outfit, wash and style my hair and off I went. I got into work a bit late but it did make me feel so much better and early afternoon I felt so proud of having beaten that instinct that it altered my mood completely and I got through the day in a much more positive state than I would have, in my greasy hair and old jeans.
I took control and I made an active choice. I didn’t let the negativity take over and start sending me down into that dark place again.
2. Don’t feel like it? Do it anyway!
Another thing that is a major flag to me, is when I start isolating myself. When I feel like hiding out at home with Netflix and some junk food, instead of going for that run, meet up with those friends or drag my butt down the street to the gym. I come up with a million and one excuses: I am too tired. I have a bit of a headache. Or I have too much work to do – I don’t have time for self-care!
I remember one time, in the early 2000’s when I was in Bangkok on a business trip, staying over the weekend at a friend’s house, and she suggested we go get massages. I lost it completely and was literally standing on the street, yelling at her, giving her all the reasons why I couldn’t. I didn’t have time for a massage, didn’t she get that?! And this was in the middle of the day on a Saturday or Sunday, so there was no reason at all why I wouldn’t “have time”. I was so overworked and overwhelmed with stress that the mere thought of just lying down, relaxing for 90 minutes, with someone working through all of my super tense muscles freaked me out. It sent me into an almost panicky state. Luckily she was a good friend and she recognized what was going on, so she let me yell for a bit and then said to me very calmly “well, that just proves why you need a massage – let’s go!”. And we did. And of course it helped. And it made me realise just how stressed out I was and that I needed to slow the f**k down.
An important takeaway for me from reading “Daring Greatly” a while back, was to stop setting super high goals for everything in my life and often end up not doing anything at all whenever I feel like I can’t meet that goal on that specific day. I have started learning that striving for “perfection” in everything I do is not constructive (and rarely productive for that matter!). Now I try to do a little instead, if I for some reason can’t do it all. If I can’t run as far as I planned, because I don’t have 2 hrs left in the day for a run, I go for a shorter run. If I don’t have the energy to run as fast as I planned, I just go out and run to clear my head and re-energise instead. I skip a day on my Marathon training plan and set another goal: to just go for a run. And so far, every time I have done that I have felt great afterwards and I have in fact done much better than I thought I could do.That helps me build my confidence, enjoy my love of running (or anything else – running is just one example where I apply this approach) and find happiness in it, instead of just beating myself up for not doing enough.
Not being good enough.
3. Set boundaries but don’t be selfish
The third thing I struggle with from time to time is not letting everyone, or everything, else run my life. To stop put everyone else’s needs before my own. To stop being “the good girl” who always aims to please. So I am working on setting boundaries – at work and in my personal life.
But this can be tricky sometimes. It is hard to say “no”, especially for a recovering Lutheran like myself, and it is very easy to either go ahead and do something even though you don’t want to or come up with some lame excuse and bail in the last minute. Rather than having the courage to tell a friend, or your boss, that you just can’t do it, it is so easy to reach for that white lie and say that you are not feeling well. It’s the easy way out. The path of least resistance because you don’t have to admit to anyone (or yourself!) that you just don’t have the strength right then and there. The problem with white lies is twofold as I see it. First, most of us are raised as honest people, having been taught from our early childhood that lying is bad and even though we tell ourselves that a white lie isn’t ally a lie… It is. And it makes us feel ashamed of ourselves. I have come to understand that shame is a negative and very destructive feeling that only ever brings us down, because in essence it is letting myself, and others down. Second, most of the time when we tell white lies they are really obvious and we know at the bottom of our hearts that people see through them. That means losing credibility and to most of us that is shameful too, so there we are, back at feeling that destructive feeling again. I have learnt that by being honest with myself and people around me, I win in the long run. I feel better about myself, for having had the courage to tell it like it is, and other people respect me a lot more for doing so. People understand.
Sure it can seam selfish from time to time but it really is about setting boundaries to protect myself and my health and happiness. If I am not healthy and happy, I won’t do a good job in the end anyway. I won’t be able to please anyone if I don’t please myself first! But it is a balance of course and you can’t do it all the time, as then you may instead be perceived as flaky and unreliable and you are slipping into the second item on this list, which is no better.
A key trick is to set clear expectations and realistic goals and to always be honest with yourself and others. In doing so, you can set boundaries without being selfish.