Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Stages of Rest

Synopsis: Knowing the structure of the recovery process can help you route around the standard traps.

Many years ago I was burnt out. The details aren't interesting -- no deaths, illnesses, or tragic love affairs play any part in the story. I just mismanaged my time and energy. I committed to too many things and judged myself by standards I couldn't live up to. Over time, all my zest for life bled away.

But at some point I began taking steps to remedy the situation. In other words, I started to rest. I talked my employer into letting me work three days a week through the summer and scaled back my other commitments proportionately. I spent a lot of time sitting in the sunlight, staring at the horizon, and listening to music. In dozens of little ways I let myself off the hook. For a few months survival became my standard rather than perfection.

It worked. By the time I resumed my regular schedule I felt like myself again. I had reclaimed the full human range of emotions and could once again be happy, curious, and occasionally creative.

My recovery, in other words, wasn't any more remarkable than my burnout. No magic herbal enzyme unleashed my body's unsuspected wells of energy. No ancient meditation technique raised my kundalini or tapped into the psychic flows of the planet. I got tired, so I rested, and then I felt better -- that's about as interesting as an eat-less-and-exercise weight-loss plan.

So why am I wasting my time (and yours) by writing about it?

Rest has structure

Resting turns out to be harder than it looks and people routinely fail at it. Pushing themselves from one task to the next, dragging themselves through one day after another, they lead what Thoreau described as "lives of quiet desperation." Unable to rest and recover, they have forgotten what it was like to be genuinely playful or curious or motivated by something other than anxiety and fear.

Some, of course, fail through no fault of their own. If you're the single mother of twin two-year-olds, you have my sympathy. Your opportunities to kick back and regain your psychological strength may be limited. Ditto if you're the sole proprietor of a business on the edge of bankruptcy or a soldier in an active combat zone. My observations may be useless to you.

But many of the rest of us have some kind of slack: accrued vacation time, a boss willing to grant leave, standards we could lower, extra-curricular tasks we could drop, savings that could cover a temporary loss of income, or a spouse willing (maybe even begging) to take over a few of our responsibilities for a while. For some reason, that slack never gets deployed.

Or worse, we try to deploy it and fail. We pick up two new commitments for every one we put down. Vacations and even leaves-of-absence get filled with so many stressful activities that we might as well be working. We try to put a day or an evening or perhaps just an hour of inactivity into our calendars, but something always comes up.

Worst of all, you can deploy your slack, make an opportunity to rest, and it just doesn't work. But how can that happen? Rest is supposed to be easy. Isn't failing to rest like failing to hit the floor when you fall?

Not at all. What I learned during my summer of recovery was that rest has a structure. I noticed four distinct stages, each with its own characteristic traps, pitfalls, and temptations that threatened to derail the recovery process. In the years since, I have occasionally gotten run down again (though never quite that badly), and each time I rested I noticed the same four stages. At first I thought this might be my own idiosyncracy. But when I started telling other people about the stages, it was like discovering that we had visited the same obscure foreign country. Invariably they would nod in recognition, sometimes enthusiastically. Eventually, people at social events started dragging strangers over to me and saying: "Tell him about the Stages of Rest."

So I'm telling you.

First Stage: Paradox

When you get tired rest is supposed to make you feel better. But if you're really burnt out rest makes you feel worse, at least for a while. In the first stage of rest you get more tired, not less.

Perhaps you've seen this yourself: You push hard to finish some big project and then take a three-day weekend to sit on a beach somewhere. Tuesday morning you come back to work and feel terrible. Friday you were tired, but at least you had some momentum. You could have kept going into Saturday if you had to. But now you're just dead in the water. What's going on?

First, you need to understand that you're suffering from an illusion: You aren't actually worse off after resting, no matter how bad you feel. You're like the frostbitten hiker who has finally made it back to the cabin and built a fire. As your limbs thaw out, they hurt. When you were trudging through the snow your hands and feet were numb -- they didn't hurt at all. If the cabin had been another mile down the trail you could have made it, but now you hobble pitifully from one side of the room to the other. Even so, don't be fooled: Sitting in front of the fire is an improvement.

Numbness is a key feature of the burn-out process. As you pushed, your body and psyche kept sending you signals: You're tired. You need sleep, down time, and a chance to remember why life is worth living. But you ignored those signals. Another cup of coffee, another early alarm, another jolt of desire from a fantasy of success, another jolt of anxiety from a fantasy of failure. You kept going. Eventually, you got so good at ignoring the signals that you even forgot you were ignoring them. You were numb. Now you're not numb and you feel awful. The longer you rest the less numb you get and the more it hurts.

The characteristic temptation of the Paradox stage is to give up on recovery and go back to doing whatever burned you out. People told you that you'd feel better if you rested and they were wrong. You tried it, so you know. You're pretty confident that you'll feel a lot better if you just go back out into the cold and get numb again.

But you need to realize what you're giving up if you stop trying to recover: your soul. I mean that literally. People who are burning themselves out can feel a certain amount of temporary excitement around success and failure. But they miss out on any real happiness, deep satisfaction, genuine motivation, or anything else that you need a soul to experience.

The challenge of the Paradox stage is to have faith in your soul. In other words, you need to have faith that there is some point to taking care of yourself and nurturing yourself, that (given time) you can indeed hope to feel some real curiosity, ambition, and zest for life again. And you need to have faith that you are indeed recovering. Eventually, after you get back all of your feeling and have no more numbness to overcome, you'll gradually start feeling better rather than worse.

Second Stage: Stasis

After you've recovered all your feeling, happiness becomes possible in small doses. Now the burn-out is like a bandaged wound. As long as you don't poke at it or try to exercise it, you can be happy. In the Stasis stage you can have a simply marvelous time reading novels in a coffee shop or watching DVDs. That may sound obvious, but in the Paradox stage it wouldn't have worked -- you'd have been miserable no matter what you did.

In these happy moments you can imagine that you've recovered, but the merest hint of responsibility explodes this illusion. You may, for example, feel perfectly wonderful while sitting on the porch watching the sun go down. But let your cell phone start ringing and the pits of despair open up. Who could be calling? What are they going to ask you to do? Why can't they leave you alone?

In Stasis you're vulnerable to this thought pattern: "There's nothing really wrong with me. I've just gotten lazy from all this resting. I just need some will power. I should light a fire under myself, push myself out the door, and make myself do something useful."

The problem is that you still have no genuine motivation. Actually pushing yourself out the door just makes you want to cry. That's not normal. There's still something wrong with you.

The temptation of the Stasis stage is to pump up your will power with fear or anger. This is like pumping up your body with amphetamines, and is just as dangerous. If you scare yourself or rile yourself, you may well get out the door and start doing something, but you'll be sorry. That kind of motivation doesn't last and interferes with good judgment. If you're not careful you'll find yourself in a nasty fight over something stupid -- probably with someone you love. Or maybe the injustices of the world will finally get to you and you'll feel compelled to write angry letters to your congressman, your minister, or your local newspaper -- hopefully not your boss. Or you'll convince yourself that the mole on your cheek is a deadly skin cancer or that your best friend's marriage is about to fall apart and you really have to do something about it.

Try to stay calm. There are six billion other people in the world, and probably they can handle whatever comes up for a little while longer. As you read and watch and sit, you may think that you're stuck, that nothing is changing. But look closer. Maybe you're starting to read more challenging novels. Maybe the sunsets you're watching are starting to affect you on a deeper level. Maybe you have more to talk about than you did a week or two ago. As you rest and your soul comes back, ever so gradually the world around you becomes more interesting.

Third Stage: Stupid Projects

When motivation finally begins to rise, it refuses to go where it's told. In fact, it actively seems to avoid the places you want it to go. Is there some project that really needs your attention before something awful happens? Forget about it. Instead, your motivation will appear in places so odd you may not even notice them. Maybe you'll start playing blocks with a four-year-old, and some time later notice that you've built a tower so high you have to stand on a chair to cap it. Or maybe curiosity will be the first thing to surface. Your bike rides (rest doesn't have to mean inactivity, as long as the activity isn't dutiful) start getting longer, and you start wondering what's over here or over there. Or you hear some talking head on TV make a claim, and you think "That can't be right." Before you notice what you're doing, you've spent an hour digging into the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site.

Other people's chores start to seem interesting. If you're the household accountant you still get depressed at the thought of balancing the checkbook, but you'll blow the dust off your cookbooks to figure out how to make Pad Thai. If you're the cook, it's exactly the reverse: The Joy of Cooking fills you with dread, but you're starting to wonder how Quicken works.

The third stage isn't complete until you've done an honest-to-God Stupid Project. A Stupid Project has several defining features:

- You want to do it.
- No one is expecting you to do it.
- It requires a lot of effort.
- Its value is almost completely intangible, or even non-existent.

When my minister was on sabbatical, he came up with a great Stupid Project: His 80-something predecessor, a well-known figure in the denomination, had a brief and little-known career as a minor league baseball player in a nearby town. My minister spent a length of time (he has never owned up to precisely how much) in a library, going through old newspapers until he found a box score with his predecessor's name in it.

Some Stupid Projects have a small practical value which makes them easier to rationalize, but the task's low priority and high level of effort gives it away. That box of old photographs has been safely in the closet for fifteen years; you don't have to organize it right now. You don't really save much money by building your own computer. Changing your bedroom's color scheme isn't an urgent priority.

Early in the third stage, you need to re-learn how to recognize genuine motivation. When you've gotten accustomed to having all your energy committed -- or just not having any energy -- you can forget how to tell the difference between something that needs to get done and something you actually want to do. An idea -- taking your camera for a walk in the park, say -- pops into your head and you dismiss it because it's unnecessary. Wait a minute. Back up. Nobody said it was necessary. The only reason the idea came to you at all was because you want to do it. When was the last time you really wanted to do something? OK, it's a silly little thing. It's not like discovering that you want to write the great American novel. But that's how the Stupid Projects stage starts.

Think of your motivation as a horse that you rode half to death during your burn-out. The horse doesn't trust you any more -- and why should it? During the Paradox stage the horse was injured. In Stasis it would run away when you approached. During Stupid Projects the horse is skittishly approaching you; it's wondering if you can have a relationship again. It wants to get out and run. But you have to earn its trust.

Your first excursions are going to be short and seem somewhat foolish. But it's that or nothing. The characteristic mistake of the Stupid Projects stage is to think of these activities as distractions or diversions. "Why am I taking photographs in the park when I need to be renewing my driver's license? If I've only got so much energy, I've got to focus on the things that need to get done."

Wrong. The energy of a Stupid Project isn't being diverted from somewhere else. It's new energy. It has been earmarked for one purpose only, and you can take or leave it. If you take it, that same source might provide more energy for something else later. If you leave it, you can either go back to Stasis or start dragging yourself around again.

Dignity and a sense of propriety are baggage in the third stage. "This is silly," you think as you train the dog to catch frisbees. "If I've got the energy to do this, I should be able to do something useful." You think? Try it and see. Go home and pull out something dutiful, like that list of people you're supposed to call to organize your son's soccer team. Pick up the phone.

Where'd that energy go?

Do your Stupid Project. Pay attention. This is what it feels like to be alive. Remember the feeling. Recall it often.

Fourth Stage: Re-entry

Those practical thoughts you were having during the Stupid Projects stage were just misplaced, not wholly misguided. Eventually, your savings will run out, your spouse will have his or her own burn-out issues, or your company will stop holding your job open. And any life in our modern industrial society, no matter how simple or how privileged, requires a certain amount of maintenance. In the long term people depend on you and the things to do. By now you may even have enough perspective to recall that this is good: As much as you enjoyed your Stupid Project, a life that was nothing but a string of stupid projects wouldn't be very meaningful. Even the most childish of us has a little bit of Thomas the Tank Engine inside: We all want to be useful engines, as long as it doesn't get out of hand.

But now that you have recovered enough of your energy, your curiosity, and your playfulness to complete a Stupid Project, you can approach your duties and responsibilities differently. This is the time to take a careful look at the life you were living. How did you burn yourself out? Have you learned anything, or are you just going to go back and do it all again? Was all that really necessary? Re-entry is a time to make new habits, a time to re-think and re-negotiate.

The characteristic mistake of Re-entry is to forget. It can embarrassing and inconvenient to recall that you are vulnerable, that you have limits, that you can break. Why not just forget about it and move on? The whole thing -- the burn-out, the rest, the stages -- it never happened. Forgetting goes hand-in-hand with denial. If it never happened before, it can never happen again. Right?

Don't forget. Learn.

There's a lot to learn. Whole books have been written about right livelihood, about setting appropriate goals, and about maintaining boundaries that keep expectations from rising to infinity. There's obviously more to know than I can cram into a few paragraphs. But I'll leave you with three pieces of advice:

- Don't assume that life has to be a particular way. The life you were trying to live before ... it might be a fine life, but maybe not for you. Maybe you're not a genius or a saint or a super-hero. Maybe that's OK.

- Pay attention to your motivation. It's not enough to remember what you have to do, you also need to remember why you want to do it. Don't just pick up after your kids, remember how much you love them. Don't just go to work, recall why you chose this profession. Don't let long periods of time go by without relating your effort to the things you care about. And if you can't make that connection, look for what you can change.

- Try to imagine self-love. I'm not asking you to love yourself; that's way too hard. Just try to imagine what it would be like to love yourself. And by love I don't mean thinking that you're great or being impressed with your accomplishments or even rooting for yourself. I mean taking real joy in watching yourself be yourself -- the way you might have felt about your ten-month-old when she was crawling around the floor bumping into things.

Hard to imagine? Work on it. No one who can look at himself or herself that way will ever burn out.


Oriethyia said...

Bless you, Doug. You provided the perfect message at the perfect time.

a thousand blessings,


Anonymous said...

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shannon said...

So happy to have found this writing that so skillfully describes my experience.