Do your attempts to be kind to yourself ever backfire?
I’ve noticed lately that my moments of self-generosity are occasionally actively unhelpful to me:
“Fine, I’ll watch another episode.”
“I’ve worked hard, I don’t need to exercise today.”
“If I eat a second dessert… then I can free up the time that I would have spent eating it later! Genius.”
None of these things are bad, of course. (In fact, I am a tremendous fan of being entertained, resting and eating sweet treats – and I’m even happy to multitask all three, if necessary.)
However, there’s a common theme here:
When I choose between two ‘Goods’ (exercise versus consumption, say), I regularly justify taking the easier path. Over a long enough period of time, I end up neglecting important activities entirely.
Sometimes this neglect becomes obvious. If I stop working or exercising it doesn’t take long for me to notice.
But there’s one neglected need which I can go a long time without detecting: retreat.
(I’m using the word ‘retreat’ because I recently discovered this beautifully inspiring YouTube channel about meditation and retreat, but the terminology doesn’t matter. I’m talking about taking time out for nothing but quiet reflection – whether you think of it as meditation, or prayer, or simply silence, isn’t important.)
Filling Time is Addictive
Retreat is important because without it I slowly but surely become overwhelmed.
This is because I’m addicted to filling my time.
Whenever I go on holiday I take my laptop, and I bring along work I can do while I’m away. There are always articles I could write, book ideas to explore, websites to design. It seems a shame to not maximise using my time, right?
Normally, I never actually do any work during these holidays. But my laptop is always there, lurking and emitting a near-tangible cloud of constant guilt.
This need for retreat isn’t only about holiday time. Pretty much every moment of my daily existence is filled with something – apps, work, friends, socialising, tv, youtube, social media, articles, learning… and so on.
Like I said, none of this stuff is bad*. But it is relentless.
Just as words without space become noise, a life without downtime becomes overwhelming. Our human brains need space and time to process and catch up and rest.
* (Admittedly, the global jury is out on whether social media is good/bad, but it does have its occasional good points, too.)
Taking Time Out
This overwhelm sneaks up on us, perhaps as a low-level feeling of disquiet, or as a background drone of stress which saps our energy.
I know I should do something about it, but I struggle to justify taking space and time purely for retreat. This seems ludicrous, since I spend most of my time working entirely in my own space, and I rarely have to answer to anybody else.
Unfortunately, it appears that I am a surprisingly cruel boss in this respect.
Of course, I’m not consciously trying to be cruel. If anything, this problem arises from good intentions: my brain doesn’t want me to fall behind, so it forces me to keep pushing forward… constantly.
Until it gives out.
I’ve known for a while that I’ve been neglecting this aspect of my life. I used to have a disciplined meditation habit, which helped me remain mentally healthy (or healthier, at least). Somehow this habit slipped and dwindled until it was just another thing I wasn’t quite doing properly.
Finally, last month I snapped and booked a few days for a proper retreat – the first in years. I didn’t allow myself to feel guilty about it, or to believe that I ought to secretly use the time ‘productively’.
Instead, I allowed myself to simply recharge. I spent a few days in an old abbey, wandering the countryside, eating delicious food in remote country pubs, and resting.
I came back refreshed and ready to be more productive than I have been in a long time.
My brain often opposes the idea of retreat because it doesn’t directly solve any of my problems. But this is like my brain objecting to charging my phone because “recharging doesn’t make any phone calls”.
Retreat isn’t supposed to solve our problems. Instead, it recharges us, so we can solve our issues more easily.
Build Retreat into Life
Sadly, it’s not always possible to find days to wander the countryside without any particular agenda. (Though I have vowed to consciously make time for this sort of retreat more regularly in future.)
Instead, I’m aiming to take steps to create more space in my everyday life: defining hours when my phone will be on ‘airplane’ mode, setting reminders to take occasional quiet time, and resisting the temptation to berate myself for ‘not constantly working’.
Retreat doesn’t have to be a big deal, but – for me, at least – it’s a need which I have to meet.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.