Most of my life, I have relied on my own grit and self-awareness to help me through rough times. I have always admired friends who see therapists because it shows a level of commitment and an understanding of their needs. At the same time, I always said to myself, “That’s not for me. If I cannot handle things on my own then there’s something wrong with me.”
I am sure you see the cognitive dissonance here. On one hand I truly have never seen others as being failures because they see therapists. I have been supportive to friends about it. Then for myself, I have had an entirely different set of expectations. In my own head, admitting that I need help is to admit that I am a failure, that I have failed at life.
That negative inner voice has been strong for most of my life and it has worn me out. Last fall, finally, I reached perhaps the lowest point I have ever experienced. Even in times of huge loss or stress in my past, I never felt as hopeless and helpless as I felt in the early fall. I finally decided that I had to reach out to someone, so I contacted a friend who I know has dealt with depression and anxiety and asked for help finding a therapist.
Honestly, I don’t think I have ever done anything so difficult as admitting I could not get through my emotions all alone. All of those inner voices shouted, “Failure! You suck! You have failed at life! You can’t even deal with simple emotions! Loser!”
Not a pretty chorus in my head.
Still, I finally got up the courage and started to see a therapist once a week. We started in late September and have kept up sessions weekly by video during this quarantine period. One of the first struggles we worked with was that nasty chorus – helping me navigate through the idea that asking for help is somehow an expression of weakness.
Throughout the months, and even more during this quarantine, we have wrestled with the concept of productivity. I didn’t realize how often I use the term until my therapist began to point it out to me. Over and over I say things like, “I feel bad because I am not being productive.”
I have built up an enormous construct around the term “productive.” Over decades, I have created a deep sense that I only have value if other people can see and quantify my work. I overcommit because I am constantly seeking approval from others. It doesn’t matter if I burn out or if I am exhausted or if I don’t have the time – I will make the time so that everyone else is happy with my work. It’s like an addiction – this need for people to reflect back to me that I am worthwhile based on what I have been able to accomplish.
During this quarantine, this struggle has escalated and because of the vast amount of time I am spending alone with my thoughts, I have reached a point where I cannot ignore it. Many of the layers of busy-ness have been stripped away because I cannot leave my home to immerse myself in activities. I am here – alone – and have to fill my hours in new ways.
I find myself at a loss sometimes. I sit with nothing to do. I have cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. I have rearranged furniture. I have binge watched nearly everything I truly care to watch. I have cooked and baked. All of that has been a frantic attempt to stay “productive.”
I have switched my outer-focused dysfunctions about productivity and now they are inner-focused. I realized today that I have been like an observer, ticking off boxes about my own behavior.
Washed the dishes? Good. One productivity point.
Made the bed? Lovely. One productivity point.
Rearranged the furniture and cleaned under the couch? Great. Two productivity points.
Volunteered for yet one more committee? Excellent. Five productivity points!
All week I have been blogging about my exhaustion and here’s another key to that puzzle. I am worn out from trying so hard to feel like I am a worthwhile person because I am doing things that are quantifiable, noticeable, trackable, measurable.
What’s wrong with just sitting quietly and listening to music? Or meditating for hours at a time instead of just a few minutes? Or sitting and watching the clouds? Or taking a long walk to just allow thoughts to ramble?
I am so hard on myself, especially about creative projects. I am working on a novel and have been so blocked lately. Every day, I wake up and beat myself up and feel like a failure because I did not write another 2,000 words or whatever.
Today, I may choose to write. But then again, maybe I will just sit and watch the clouds. I have to be OK with that – realizing that I am worthwhile as a human being even if I don’t meet someone else’s deadline, or finish a project, or volunteer for something else, or write another grant, or whatever else makes me look “good” in the eyes of other people.
It’s time to re-define “productivity” for myself. Just being alive, healthy, and self-aware if all the productivity I really need right now.
It’s only Quarantine if it comes from the Quarante province of France. Otherwise, it’s just Sparkling Isolation.