Last year I knew I needed to cut back on my responsibilities and activities, but I didn’t know how. Everything I did felt crucially important. But I needed to give more energy to myself, work on my health, and lower my stress. It could be a matter of life and death. I want to tell you how I learned to do less.
I keep a list of friendship priorities. It helps me know who to give my energy to. I decide who’s good for me, helps me feel happy, contributes to my well-being, and gives as much as they take.
There’s a part at the beginning of the list like this:
What future do I want? Who do I want to give my time and energy to? Who do I want to deeply connect with? Spend my life supporting? Who’s best for my well-being?
All parts of me–body, mind, spirit, material wealth, emotional wealth, all kinds of health. Who will help me be who I want to become? Who’s kind and generous with me? Who helps me learn? Who do I feel safe with? Want to live with? Want to form reality with?
It’s serious stuff. When I notice I’m giving a lot of time to someone who’s not on my friend priorities list, I know something is off. They are knocking on my door a lot and I’m having trouble not answering. Or something is sucking me in, which is not in my best interest. I need to make a change to help my values match my behavior.
I made a mega list in my journal of all the stuff I do, to try to figure out what I could cut. Wow, yes. Looking at that list, I could see I did too much. But it all seemed vital.
Ugh, how overwhelming. I was trying to fend off a manic episode at the time, and my executive function was the worst it had ever been. That part was scaring me. I took a three day phone fast, then scheduled an appointment with a peer counselor. How do people cut back?
When I had that stomach ulcer bleed and almost died, I was forced to slow down. I never want to be so unkind to my body that it decides for me, that I need a break. I’d rather decide with my head, to do kindness for myself and others.
I asked for a month off, from the two orgs I volunteered with the most and love very deeply. In both orgs, I was doing some regular work, but also a ton of emotional labor that was not acknowledged. Mostly no one asked me to do it, but I stepped up and did what I thought was best.
Some emotional labor, I have a hard time turning off. Because of my particular traumas, needs, skills, fears, habits–some behaviors are almost part of me. I can’t stop feeling the temperature of the room emotionally, and trying to moderate it. Keeping track of how others feel and what they need is really hard for me to turn off. I have a phenomenal memory, and that can be uncomfortable.
Ming said my role was like den mother. I didn’t know what he meant and thought he was being dismissive. “No,” he explained. “Den mother keeps everything together. That’s the most important.” He was being kind to me.
It’s hard when the work you do is not considered work by many people. In fact, a lot of people don’t even know how to talk about emotional labor. I’m not building a fence or a house, baking so many loaves of bread, or being hired by a company. All the work I do is unpaid, and the products are usually unquantifiable.
Love doesn’t have a price tag. Reminds me of a poetry meme I made, while back.
The breaks from the two orgs went well. In fact, I didn’t want to return to my previous work with either org. First I asked for another month–then I just dropped off. Well, both I still do a little social media. I write thank you notes for Nevada Desert Experience, and help with jail support and making food. But it’s a different kind of presence, and no longer an overwhelming commitment for me.
I still support Ming in his work with both orgs, which is important. He wouldn’t be able to do all he does without my support. So in that way, I’m still working for both orgs, just in a tertiary way.
I love the orgs and hold the values dear, always. But I can’t show up to do the work I was doing before. I’m not adequately nourished by others, to do that level of nourishing. I was getting depleted and burned out, which is not ok for my health / well-being.
Also there were a few friends who I loved very much who were not loving me back skillfully. Getting hurt by them was destabilizing and not worth it. It took a ton of work to pull away from them and stop being there for them. I was accustomed to the role of giving and giving. But when I did pull away, it was amazing. I freed up so much energy.
Those people were mostly men I’d known for a long time. The relationships were badly lopsided; I was in an emotional labor role, sort of like a girlfriend but without the benefits that being a girlfriend would provide. Similar to the orgs, I was under-acknowledged, under-appreciated, and not reciprocated. The old friends were sucking me dry. No one man was sucking me dry, but the aggregate.
The risk was that I would pull away from one, find myself with more resources, feel happy, and mistakenly give the resources to another. After a while I saw myself doing that, and I learned to stop. The friendship priorities list helped me do that.
how I learned to do less
Asking for a break can be a brilliant way to find out how it feels to do less. And then you might see that life is way better than way.
It’s hard when my identity is tied up in something, or I think I’m indispensable. In any group that I work with, I enjoy doing what I’m good at and helping in ways that I uniquely can.
But there needs to be a balance. It’s not good to be indispensable! My goal in a group is horizontal-ness, decentralizing power, group responsibility, and joyful sharing of rewards. I prefer to make sure other people can do what I do, and we have backups for our backups. That’s more sustainable, a permaculture design principle: each function is supported by many elements.
One question that helped me, when I looked at that mega list of what I do, was, “Looking at the work I’m doing right now, what of this work is part of my past, and what is part of my future?” Not to be simplistic, and who can predict the future? But I was trying to get at what was I holding onto with nostalgia, and what I for sure want to continue doing and move toward.
It was kind of painful, what I realized when I asked that. Moving on can be hard to do. Is peace work for me, my entire life? Maybe it is! But it can feel very disheartening, to be up against budgets of billions of dollars, and a culture that thinks violence is ok. Can I feel like David vs Goliath my whole life?
Not sure! Radical mental health on the other hand is more personal and possible. I do it every day, if only for myself and for Ming. Radical mental health is something I know I’ll be doing my whole life, because I’ll always be crazy. Facing painful truths was central to how I learned to do less.
letting go of guilt
Letting go of guilt was also important, in how I learned to do less. I was taught as a child that I exist to serve others at my expense, especially men, until I die. My own needs and desires were not valued as important. I was taught to give and give, as part of my gender identity and my entire self-worth.
Learning to let go of those ideas and the guilt that’s attached to them is a huge healing process. Taking breaks and pulling away bit by bit was helpful, so I could do the corresponding emotional / spiritual work bit by bit also.
Sleep is valid. Letting someone else do the work is ok. Not meeting a responsibility might feel like an emergency, but maybe creating a vacuum will lead to someone else filling it. Going for walks, cooking delicious foods, stretching, sitting in the sun in the driveway, and all the ways I’m kind to myself are just as important as what I do for others. At the very least, we’re all interdependent, so caring for myself would be valid just for that.
But me, myself–I deserve to be well and happy. Hopefully you are a reasonable person who was abused less, so you don’t need to learn that. I showed up in adulthood not knowing some basic facts. Now I’m 45 years old and figuring out that I deserve to be happy, reciprocated, without pain, rested, and whole.
How I learned to do less is important because it might be saving my life. Stress is a big deal. We should do paid and unpaid work joyfully, not in a way that kills us.
Thank you for hearing how I learned to do less. Love to your own journey of how to care for yourself and help the world in a way that you can continue with smiles.