When you’ve reached your physical and emotional limits, when you’ve had enough, what’s your response?
For a long time, my answer was to push through the pain. I used what I needed to get over the hump–usually something sugary or caffeinated, a source of quick energy. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t sustainable or nourishing; all that mattered was that it got me back on my feet and working on the next item on my to-do list. I was single-minded in focus, driven by a long list of “shoulds” and, to be fair, an abiding passion for growing things and a desire to escape the corporate world.
I got a wake-up call in the form of a herniated disk, but despite being bedridden for nearly a week and in bad shape for another six months I didn’t let it keep me down, nor did I let the message from my body sink in. It wasn’t until I hit the wall of severe burnout a year later that I finally slowed down. It was a traumatic impact, a sudden halt to everything I’d been working so hard on for years, and I’m still recovering.
I’ve had a long time to think about what we’re doing to ourselves, our bodies and our minds, by setting such a fast pace.
It reminds me of the wagon speeds in the computer game The Oregon Trail (child of the 80s here)–your choices were a steady pace, a strenuous pace, or a grueling pace. Each had pros and cons: steady was slowest but the safest, while grueling was quickest but also the most likely to injure your oxen or damage your wagon, costing you time or money.
I think we all have a sense of this trade-off, an intuitive inkling that we’re pushing too hard, too fast. But so often we don’t heed the warning. It takes a courageous person (some might say foolhardy) to say no to additional commitments when their plate is already full, especially when it comes to work or family obligations. But it’s crucial that we do.
Women have an especially hard time in this area; the social conditioning to always be pleasing and accommodating to others remains strong. But we really can’t properly care for others if we aren’t properly caring for ourselves–if the well is dry, its impossible to draw water to quench someone else’s thirst.
Part of self-care is learning to listen to your body’s signals.
Instead of ignoring signs of fatigue and low energy, acknowledge them and sit with them. In my body, this state presents as a sort of ache in my core, non-specific and fuzzy around the edges. The rest of my body wants to curl inward into the fetal position, so it makes the ache feel a little bit like a black hole, drawing everything else in towards it. The feeling comes with cravings for sweets or stimulants–that’s typical of my Earth constitution, but other constitutions can have different cravings when their energy is low.
To ignore the feeling would be easy–I could just indulge the cravings or start working on another project, something else I “should” be doing. Eventually the ache fades enough to be subconscious. But that would further deplete me, not build me back up.
Sometimes you do have to push through it. Maybe you’re under a serious work deadline, or you’re in the middle of dinner prep and your kids are having a meltdown at the same time. But sometimes you have to say, “Enough,” and mean it.
When you’ve had enough, practice some simple self-care to replenish yourself.
Finish whatever you’re doing and don’t start something else.
Go outside, put your bare feet on the earth.
Watch the clouds drift in from the west while the sun sets fiery red and pink.
Drink a big glass of water instead of reaching for the coffee.
Take a cat nap.
Spend some time writing about your day and releasing your tension.
There are lots of ways to care for yourself when you’ve reached your limit, so find what works for you. (Visual media–TV, movies, YouTube videos, etc.–is entertaining but stimulating, so unfortunately won’t leave you feeling refreshed like these other practices.)
There’s a reason this is called a practice, by the way; it takes time and effort to shift your habits in this realm. I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes still make unhealthy choices when that ache bubbles up. But over time you’ll begin to gravitate more towards the healthy choices simply because they make you feel better. And in filling your well and keeping it full, you’ll be able to do more without burning out.
I find with clients that sometimes the biggest obstacle to self-care is a sense of guilt.
They feel that taking care of themselves instead of always putting others first is selfish. But they often breathe a huge sigh of relief when I tell them that they’re permitted, even required, to engage in self-care as part of their wellness protocol, that’s it vital to recovering or maintaining their good health.
If that resonates you, consider this your official permission slip: When you’ve had enough, you’re allowed to speak up and say, “Enough.” Whenever you need to, for whatever the reason.