Recovering From My Month of Recovery.

Considering the Upside of the Inner Critic.

It was nearing the end of April, and the month had been markedly more stressful than usual. The irony is that April had been my self-prescribed “month of recovery” from exhaustion.

Since I completed a contract commitment at the end of March, the timing for a self-renewal seemed ideal, especially considering I hadn’t taken time off since 2019 AND I’d moved to a new home last June. I assumed recovery in April would be a gift to myself.

My strategy was to block my calendar to all but active obligations and commitments. This, in theory, would leave me plenty of time to “be more and do less”.

Well, last week I recognized that analogous to the truism “work expands to the time allotted”, worry inflates in a similar fashion. At first, I found myself in “phantom worry”, concerned I was going to miss deliverables, appointments, and obligations. In the midst of attempting to relax I’d be startled back into the present asking myself, “What am I forgetting?”

Sadly, my worry-looping didn’t stop there. I found myself edgy and irritated. The future bag lady persona in me began ranting. “What happens if I successfully slow down and get too comfortable in my relaxation, becoming lazy? What business opportunities am I missing?” I even worried about what others would think of my self-proclaimed need to recover.

Then, worry turned into berating myself for being self-absorbed and high-maintenance. After all, my problems are tiny compared to most. I’m incredibly fortunate with my safety, financial security, strength of my relationships and general health & well-being. Who am I to complain about my tiny problems? I even found myself feeling guilty for having it so good while others are suffering.

Thankfully, just as I was feeling that sense of guilt, I listened to Dan Harris’ powerful and vulnerable interview with Gabor Mate. My takeaway? I agree with Plato: “Each of us is fighting a great personal battle”.

The formula of worry + guilt is like red meat for Eve, my inner critic, who had been dogging me all month. She and I came to an all-out internal battle early last Thursday morning. Upon opening my eyes at my usual time, I’d decided to rest longer. I thought to myself, “Well, it’s a rainy morning, cold outside, warm in here and I’m SUPPOSED to be in recovery. This is my last shot to sleep in.”

When I did start my day, the irritation and agitation with myself kept intensifying. Thoughts of “I got NOTHING done yesterday” and “I’ve wasted a whole month with nothing to show recovery-wise” kept echoing in my brain. I caught myself in this internal rampage, and tuned into my body. I asked myself, “What’s going on inside?”

My whole being was tense— tight in the jaw, the throat, the heart, breathing shallowly from my chest (as opposed to from the belly). When I continued to name the physical manifestations of Eve’s attack, I got curious and spoke kindly to myself. I began with a statement Tara Brach has modeled: “It’s okay, sweetheart. What’s going on?”

And then I grabbed my journal.

The thing about journaling is that the hand informs the brain. When I start to write, my thoughts and emotions pour out onto the page. I wrote to Eve that “I couldn’t win; I’m supposed to be relaxing, and when I do, you interfere.” The response that appeared on the page was angry. “WHAT!?!? I’m trying to hold things together and you sleep late?”

Wow! Eve feels like she’s doing all the work, and I’m along for the ride. I realized in that moment that Eve is doing her job of protecting me. The brain’s amygdala was designed to scan for threat. We’re constantly looking for things to worry about!

And it makes sense that Eve is hyper-vigilant. My nervous system had been amped up for the last few years due to crises including the pandemic, climate change disasters, the Dobbs decision, and relentless political polarization. The natural result is a perpetual low tremor of worry and a teetering trigger-happy amygdala

I’ve tried to ignore and suppress Eve. But I’ve never thanked Eve for keeping me safe.

The second realization was that this impression of Eve is unlike past visions of my inner critic. Historically, she’s a cranky, middle-aged woman with pointy fingernails and a cigarette. The way she retorted about me sleeping late sounded more like an 8-year-old Debbie.

That’s when the epiphany struck. Eve is the child in me who never grew up. An eight-year-old trying mightily to protect this middle-aged adult.

I connected to the fact that, as amazing as my late mother was, warm and fuzzy she was not. As a result, I didn’t feel maternally nurtured as a child. I remember, vividly, that 8-year-old being angry at her mother and telling herself, “I don’t need her! I can be independent and take care of myself!”

So that’s it! Thank you so much for being on alert for me, Eve.

Following that exhausting writing session, I felt void of worry. At peace. Recovered. Upon reflection, I have some meaningful takeaways from my month of recovery:

  1. Just like work expands to the time allotted, worry, when not managed, will fill my headspace.
  2. I can’t just snap a finger and “relax” on cue.
  3. I like some structure in my day, especially in the morning.
  4. I still struggle with the concept of productivity.
  5. After my reckoning with Eve, I can say that I’m successfully on the path to recovery from emotional exhaustion.
  6. Eve is someone I can acknowledge, thank, and actually care for. After all, Debbie the child did need some mothering. Seemingly, she still does.

What about you? Do you feel worry? Guilt? When you give yourself down time, consider how your brain and body respond.

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