At this time in our culture of so much rhetoric about pushing ourselves too hard, needing to slow down and relax, pushing yourself can sometimes get a bad rap. Self care becomes synonymous with resting and maybe even retreating from life. But what my instructor said next really struck me. She said, ‘Care about yourself enough to push yourself.’ In other words, believe in your ability to do something you’re not sure you can do. To prove this ourselves grows us not only physically, but raises the ceiling on what we know is possible. Every once in a while, one of these ceilings seems to open into a level of possibility we’ve not known to exist. This is hard to turn back from, and we probably wouldn’t want to.
Pushing is an innate part of life. In fact, pushing hard is how we come into the world. We’re literally born from this energy. Any mother knows that when she is pregnant and needing to birth her baby, self-care takes on a whole new meaning. She is caring for her environment, which also includes a fierce commitment to caring about the way she pushes that little life-form out. In this case ‘pushing yourself’ is not an option to be considered.
So what is the difference between pushing too hard and becoming burned out, and pushing ourselves in ways that make us proud?
It’s about values, and support.
The spin class I’ve chosen to go to three mornings per week has offered both of these. In that room at 6:30 a.m., we hold a shared set of values. Sweating is definitely one of them! Whether someone’s goal is losing weight, preparing for the AIDS lifecycle ride, or (as in my case) getting my body to learn again what it feels like to build stamina and resilience, we share the values of physical fitness, community, and growth. This simple commitment has had enormous impact in my life. I’ve had a lot of change in a short period of time this year, and my life has demanded that I build up stamina and resilience. The physical anchor of knowing when to push and when to rest has bled over and informed my mental and emotional states. It has given me a visceral feeling of being able to push, remembering how well my body felt on the other side of the sprint. When I’ve needed to push through working on a project or staying focused on a piece of writing, my mind is informed by this body memory. ‘It will feel good on the other side.’
But with all this praise of the push, we’d do well to acknowledge that burnout is real. Let’s look at how and why burnout is created. It always occurs when we are mired in resistance. This can happen even when not much activity is occurring. Burnout can also happen when there is more activity occurring than we can handle alone. Or when the activity is not moving toward something important to us. Some people resist action, and some people move quickly through inspired action. The difference between someone who procrastinates their life away, feeling exhausted, and someone who ‘works’ a ton while continually feeling refreshed, is their relationship to the flow of energy.
The natural energy of our life, as it flows uniquely through each of us, is always leading toward what we most want. When we resist this flow or try to push in another direction, or when we don’t have the resources or internal structures to keep up with its natural movement, we experience pain and discord.
It can be helpful to think of this energy flow as a force that pulls us. Inspiration draws us into the flow. Curiosity draws us into the flow. The contrast of unwanted experiences causes us to turn and be drawn into the flow. But we’re always, always drawn by that which is most important to us.
WHY we’re doing what we’re doing matters more than anything. HOW we’re doing what we’re doing comes in a close second.
Here are two examples. Someone feels massive motivation and inspiration to try something new, and doesn’t yet have the avenue or the collaborative support to makes these new things happen. These are my favorite people to work with, because I’ve been this person. All the creativity and inspired action get backed up in their system and eventually become inflammation. This person needs support. Whether this is through having a coach, being enrolled in a program with similar people and an advisor, eliciting feedback from peers or a potential audience, or finding collaborators, the need is for more conduits through which the creativity can express. The second example is someone who starts out moving toward an inspiring goal, aligned with their values. Energy is flowing freely and they love what they’re doing. Then at some point, everything becomes ‘too much,’ and they feel overwhelmed. The path toward what’s important to them has changed course, and they need to re-assess their values and change course, as perhaps their collaborative supporters no longer line up with their shared values.
In both cases, it takes enormous courage to stop and take stock of the situation. In both cases, the cost and rewards are great.
Where are you moving in the river of your life energy, and where are you feeling the cost moving against the flow? Ask yourself: do I need to be more clear about my values, do I need more collaborative support, or both?
And what ways have you successfully moved through these situations in the past?