Having been on the run for the better part of a month I can firmly state both that there’s no place like home, and that the concept of respite as self-care is a crucial-if-vastly-under-advertised aspect of our culture. Like many people, I read the articles that suggest a bubble bath and a glass of wine, or a mani/pedi, or a massage, as self-care, and while I don’t dismiss how wonderful these experiences might be, I think they may obscure the fact that what they all point to as the underlying value, is *respite*.
At its simplest, respite means an opportunity to step outside the normal pacing our of lives, to stop and rest for a while. For many people, allowing themselves time to themselves is the LAST thing that fits onto a schedule most likely formed around work obligations, family demands, health issues… responsibilities that always seem to demand putting others ahead of ourselves, sometimes to the detriment of our own peace and well-being. When I work with clients who seem to be running themselves ragged, my first question is always, “Where do you value respite for yourself in your self-care?” (and we often have to talk about what respite looks like for each of them), followed by, “Why is everyone else’s care so much more important to you than your own?”
Culturally, many of us are conditioned to put others ahead of ourselves, and it costs us dearly when that becomes a default stance. I see this in myself more often than I like, because I insisted on doing a two-career dance for so long that I left almost no time for myself, or my self-care. Even now that my own life is calming down considerably, I find giving myself explicit permission to step outside the pace of my obligations is HARD, so I understand it on a personal level when my clients tell me how much of a struggle it is to take time out. Or what a struggle it is to do nothing with that time once they do take it.
Respite is an opportunity to stop, or at least slow down, and listen to ourselves. It’s a chance to listen to what our bodies are telling us they need, or an opportunity to listen through the usual daily cacophony in our minds to hear what’s going on a few layers down that demands attention and care. (This is the emotional signal people often try to avoid looking at until some nasty therapist makes them actually LOOK under the hood at this stuff. Damned therapists.) Sometimes we don’t WANT to take the time to slow down precisely BECAUSE we’re worried about what might happen if we do: what things will fall apart in the obligations/responsibilities spheres when we’re not there to attend everyone else, or what we’re going to hear or discover in ourselves when we allow things to be silent long enough to listen to ourselves.
And so it is that a great many people prefer to maintain breakneck momentum rather than explicitly allow themselves time to rest. “Burning the candle at both ends” becomes a seemingly-valid lifestyle choice when we’re afraid of the consequences, including the cost of lost momentum and having to grind gears to get back up to speed. This is my first blog post in three weeks; I know how hard it is to get back into the stream after you’ve been outside of the pacing for a while. We normalize the pacing we believe we’re supposed to keep, and changing pace is perceived as making things MORE difficult rather than less so. It’s a near-universal level of complaint that the first several days back to work after a holiday or vacation are the worst. We lose momentum and fear the increased efforts involved in returning to our usual pace. But the return can be managed as well as the respite itself; while it’s true that not everyone has the luxury of padding out time away from their obligations with an extra day to get themselves turned back around, sometimes we can find tools and techniques to prepare for the return and integration a little more effectively. (Some of us are just NEVER going to be okay with Monday mornings and the first day[s] after vacations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a little room for improvement in our approaches, right…???)
Maintaining momentum is a “path of least resistance” kind of approach to busy lives, but it’s also the most costly in the long run when we consider the amount of energy we burn on physical, mental, emotional levels to sustain that pacing. One of the largest fields of rocket science involves the study fuel economics: how much fuel does a rocket have to carry to power liftoff, sustained navigational ability over unthinkably vast distances, with enough left over for docking and/or re-entry attempts? The more fuel we have to carry, the more energy we have to burn in moving that fuel, so at some point it becomes a critical kind of catch-22. We have to carry a lot of fuel just to move a lot of fuel… never mind the mass of the rest of the rocket or its cargo or crew. So the trick is, thrusters are often simply turned off and the rocket allowed to coast at speed with minimal thrust applied to keep course and speed. This is a good analogy for how we manage respite and momentum in our own lives as well. Sometimes we HAVE to turn the thrusters off and allow the engines a respite, a chance to cool, and give ourselves an opportunity to stop consuming the finite reserves of energy we carry. Which is not to say that respite is rocket science, just to be clear…
Sometimes the break in pacing is the best tool we have for getting a better handle on all the things we feel we need to do on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes the break is a thing we fear or resist out of obligation or anxiety regarding implications of future workloads. But when we don’t make time to stop and listen to ourselves now and then, we eventually atrophy the skill and the muscles will burn out from under us. Gabor Mate’s book, When the Body Says No is a great read about how physical and mental systems break down when we don’t provide respite care to ourselves.
So having said that, I hereby give everyone who needs it permission to find themselves a respite plan that fits what they need, challenges what they fear about self-care, and lets them put themselves outside the madcap pacing of their own lives somehow, now and then. Not all of us can afford luxury vacations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways and places to solve that need within the resources we can access. On that note, I’m giving myself permission to go have a nap; a month running at full throttle is exhausting, and my body says I’m still catching up on *sleep*!