A couple weeks ago I spent three days in silence. I booked a retreat at The Trinity Center in Salter Path, N.C. after recognizing I was burned out. Lack of motivation, irritability, sadness, tearfulness and difficulty concentrating are easy symptoms to recognize in my clients, but more difficult to identify in myself and I let them linger too long. I thought my daily self care of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and 7-8 hours of sleep, would inoculate me against burn out, but it didn’t. When I cried on the way into work one Monday, I knew I had to take time away from my usual routine.
The silence, solitude and time by the ocean was balm for my frazzled spirit. Without the distraction of verbal conversations, text messages, Facebook and emails, the connection to my wise inner voice was stronger. I gained clarity and insight into my life and wanted to share one of the most powerful lessons I learned while on retreat. I waste too much time checking, shoulding, and worrying, and this interferes with the forward progress of my life.
Checking. With my phone off for three days, I was painfully aware of how often I pick it up to check things; things like personal voicemail and texts, work voicemail and texts, the wind speed on Saturday, the current temperature, how many likes my sunrise picture got on Facebook. Sometimes I scroll Facebook checking nothing in particular and gathering information that has little bearing on my life. The constant flow of information and images to my brain acts as a stimulant making it difficult to relax and concentrate. The checking, clicking, deleting, and scrolling hijacks my time and attention and prevents me from taking action towards my goals and dreams.
Shoulding. “You should set your alarm and get up at 5:30am”,“You should walk farther on the beach”, “You should leave the retreat with a blog to post.” These are just a few examples of the shoulding I did during my retreat. I had no agenda there other than to relax, but even then my task master was issuing orders. Each time a should statement was dispensed it took me out of the moment and into an internal debate about the proper course of action. Walking beside the ocean with nowhere to be and nothing to do I created discord. Luckily, during my retreat I quickly identified the should statements and ignored them. In my daily life though, when I’m less mindful, I spend too much time engaging with should statements. This is never productive and usually ends in harsh self criticism. When this happens I lose faith in myself and don’t believe I’m capable of achieving my goals. Forward progress stops while I lament my character defects.
Worrying. I know I worry. I understand what a colossal waste of time and energy it is but I come from a long line of worriers and am well trained. My retreat allowed me to step away from my life and examine it somewhat objectively, like I do with my clients. From this perspective I was able to see the impact worrying has had on my life. I was sad about all the time I’ve wasted living in the my head and not living my life. Sure, there are plenty of things I need to address, but the ruminating, and the anxiety it creates, depletes my time and energy and leaves little left for my goals and dreams.
In their own way, each of these bad habits robs of me of time. They pull me out of the moment and increase my stress. Time has never been a limiting factor for achieving my dreams before, experience, intelligence, motivation, opportunity, self esteem yes, but never time. My 50th birthday and a five day hospital stay last fall made it clear that my time here is limited and I must use it wisely.
I love the line from James Broughton’s poem, Easter Exultet that says “Run with your wildfire. You are closer to glory leaping an abyss than upholstering your rut”. Checking, shoulding and worrying are upholstering my rut and wasting my time. I need to change this pattern so I have the energy to leap the abyss that stands between me and my dreams.
So what will I do?
Checking. Thankfully, going cold turkey form my phone automatically reduced this. Some of my checking was due to FOMO (fear of missing out); fear of missing an important email or text, fear that something important was happening in the world or in someone else’s life, fear there was an opportunity I may miss. My retreat showed me I’m actually missing out on my own life with all the checking, not the other way around. Some changes I’ve made are to unsubscribe to over 50 emails to save time checking and deleting, to only scroll through Facebook once a day, to set my do not disturb on my phone form 8pm - 6 am, and to physically put my phone at the back of the house so it’s more difficult to check on things.
Shoulding. Once I identify I’ve made a should statement, or that I’ve already begun debating one, I’ve found several helpful options to derail this. One is to label the should statement and ignore it, like when my alarm goes off at 4:45am and my inner voice says “You should go back to sleep”. Thirty years of early morning exercise has taught me that I never regret getting up, so I do. Sometimes a should statement arises because I’m ambiguous about something like, “You should get a new certification in counseling.” I will avoid an internal debate to determine the best course of action and be proactive. In this case journaling, meditating, listing pros and cons and paying attention to my intuition will be helpful. The most insidious type of should statement is the judgmental one, like, “You should make more money.” I need to address this type immediately to avoid an avalanche of self criticism. The most powerful way to do this is by using I am statements. “I am working hard doing meaning work,” would be one to challenge the above statement. I will repeat my I am statement several times and then bring my attention back to the moment.
Worrying. A new strategy I’ll use in my life long effort to reduce worrying, is a daily practice of meditation, even if only for a couple minutes a day. Besides being the best way to practice mindfulness, it also connects me to something greater than myself and keeps my worries in perspective. When I notice I’m worrying I’ll label this behavior and then challenge myself by asking, “Is this thought leading me towards my goals and dreams?” Most likely it’s not and at this point I’ll either refocus my attention or take action to address the cause of the worry. Finally, I’ll remind myself of my retreat and the the grief I experienced about losing a part of my life to anxiety.
I won’t be perfect in my efforts to change, especially when I’m under stress, but I’m hopeful these new behaviors will allow me to reclaim my time from the checking, shoulding, and worrying. The next time I read Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, and she asks, “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is your plan to do with your one, wild and precious life”, I can answer that my plan is to maintain inner peace and use my time and energy to love and serve others.
P.S. I also decided I waste too much time straightening my hair so my curls are back.