Given my previous posts about organization and time management and a conversation with the corner coffee shop owner, I wanted to share some more of my thoughts about why it’s so hard to let myself rest.
One of the issues I have, as I talked a little bit about here, here, and here is that I’m really bad at knowing when to stop pushing myself. This came up when I was down the block at the nearest coffee shop, ready to beat my head against my laptop because nothing I was reading was making sense and I was writing code at a rate of about one-token-per-minute, and I started chatting with the owner. She said that just the day before she actually let herself relax and it was simultaneously good and yet hard and scary. It made me realize I’m hardly the only person who has an anxiety-driven need to always be busy, and it made me think harder about the reasons why I feel this way.
I know I’ve shared before that I have this constant need to justify my existence through labor. I’m literally always scared that if I let myself take a day or two off that I will have no worth on this Earth. When people ask me about my hobbies I usually just stammer and make a fact-eliding-joke because I really don’t let myself do a lot else that isn’t somehow studying or trying to work on research-y things. The times I’m not working are usually when my mental illness is preventing me from even performing the unproductive stare-at-emacs-trying-to-think ritual.
One of the problems I have is that even when I do have ridiculously productive days, and they do happen pretty often, I don’t know how to be satisfied by them. I need to do more and more and more. Nothing is enough. No amount of work justifies me and that’s the real problem, the entire goal of proving your worth through labor doesn’t really make sense and rather than being a good motivator it creates debilitating anxiety.
Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s far easier to be productive and creative if you don’t care that much about the outcome. If you’re not concerned about the result, then you can take risks, try things, and even allow yourself to enjoy the process of work. When you feel like your value as a person depends upon your work, you’ll eventually become incapacitated by that fear. Part of what prompted this post was my experience in trying to finish up these old half-finished drafts that have been piling up. I get frozen up thinking about all the possible criticisms of every design choice, every idea, every word and I can’t function. It’s one of the reasons why I used to destroy my own work. It felt like release to just give up on it all rather than remain feeling trapped by the fear.
Now, I’m not saying “don’t take pride in your work” or “don’t try your best” or anything else of that form. It’s the difference between adding to something extant and attempting to fill a void. If you’re driven by wanting to be better or by the fact that you’re passionate about your work, then failure is only a temporary setback and is something you can learn from. When you’re working, like I am, to convince your brain that you have a reason to keep existing then failure isn’t a temporary setback it is a catastrophic event. When I feel like I’ve “failed”, which usually means that I’m convinced that I’m going to fail rather than that I’ve actually tried and not succeeded, then I quite literally become convinced that my life is over.
Of course that’s in irrational response, but the fun thing about mental illness is that simply knowing that your reactions and perceptions are irrational does almost nothing to help you cope with them. I tried for many years, prior to meds and therapy, to logic myself out of being crazy. These days, I’m trying to find ways of coping in a cooperative way with how my brain functions. For me, there’s a sense in which my brain having these reactions is just a survival mechanism gone wrong. I’m reacting to perceived danger and everything in me is telling me “run run run from the danger!” and, really, that’s a good thing. It’s good to have an instinct to flee from danger. The problem is not with the instinct but with how my mind classifies threats, where so many things that aren’t actually a big deal have been upgraded-free-of-charge to life threatening danger. I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. The panic and adrenaline and terror all scream at me that I’m about to die. Even writing this paragraph pings the “you’re about to die” panic.
I’m still figuring out how to deal with all of this. I don’t really have any good answers other than that I’m just trying to fight against the panic and remind myself day-in and day-out that my worth isn’t dependent on my labor. I’m trying to slowly convince my brain that it doesn’t need to panic over everything and that failure is simply a part of growth, not the end of life.