The Self-Care Chronicles
I've been going through a bit of a face-to-face re-examination of my priorities lately, you could call it a bit of cognitive housekeeping. Which is a polite way to say I recently got slapped upside the head again because I still haven't learned how to set proper boundaries for myself. But let's not rush the joke, follow-along as we take a look at how this all came about.
When Work & Life Won't Balance
I kinda pride myself at being generally pretty good at following my own advice. All the things I teach in my workshops I do each day - I top up my bucket of resilience with early morning meditation, good nutrition, exercise and plenty of sleep. And on top of that I'm also aware I need to periodize my priorities, turning my work and other life burners up and down as seasons and commitments come and go. Or so I've been saying to myself.
Over the last few weeks I've definitely noticed that my work burner has been running way too hot for too long, and surprise-surprise I've been driving myself into the yellow zone on the mental health continuum. Nothing alarming, I know what's going on, and I can recognize exactly what's happening here. Enthusiasm for work withering despite success and plenty of praise; check. Short fuse with my 3 year old daughter and a tendency to quickly become frustrated when she is being her overly willful Self; check. And the biggest telltale sign of all; daydreaming of a time where I can scale back my hours and focus more on me without running my tank so damn dry. Check check check. The one thing I hadn't been noticing though is the huge toll all this has been taking on my family. With my head down grinding I hadn't been noticing that my wife had been sending me one-way-traffic love and support and that can only run for so long.
First gentle reminder about my skewed work-life balance was this article from Echelon Front. I'm a huge fan of their work as ex-Navy SEAL Jocko and his team of operators turned business consultants take hard-won lessons from the battlefield and apply them to everyday life. The Jocko podcast is a must-listen for leadership advice and I've listened to the episode with David Berke about his time as a Top Gun instructor well over a dozen times. So when Dave writes that as warriors we need to be not only showing up hard at work, but just as hard at home, I sat up and listened. No excuses around being tired from the office when your daughter wants to play. No excuses when your wife needs you to be present when you walk in the door.
On the other hand, working hard doesn’t give you a license to be lazy at home. No matter how hard you are grinding at the office, when you’re back with the family, it’s “go time”. That’s what the balance is all about.
Next the penny dropped on me majorly during a recent team training as part of my coaching work for Seth Godin's altMBA. Where the amazing Shannon Webber was talking to us about cultivating empathy, and about showing up for people, and about what it takes to be able to do the emotional labour to support that. And there it was, the truth laid bare about over-giving. The truth that, if you're feeling overwhelmed or bitter or resentful, then it's time to check your boundaries and re-examine your self-care. Which totally hit me between the eyes in the centre of some kind of ego-bluff-calling-out bullseye.
Real talk: Truth hurts. And for the last little while I've been carrying around this low-grade resentment for being so busy all the time, with a mind that serves up judgement and blame, all the while not doing a damn thing to change it. The unsustainable battery-drain on my own resources doesn't allow me to be my best Self, it doesn't allow me to show up and be authentic, and it sure makes me act unskillfully towards the ones I love. And it's got to stop.
The Root Of The Problem
This kind of hard-charging, results-orientated, slow grind to burnout behaviour has some pretty deep roots we don't often talk about. In a career where I've been rewarded for showing up prepared every single time it's little wonder I've been running this kind of personal iOS. If you look a little deeper you'll see this is about a tendency towards perfectionism that seeks to protect the part of me that feels vulnerable to criticism, and judgement... and shame. At it's most basic, the polished professional holding up a 20 tonne shield is hustling for worthiness and fears disappointing people by saying "no".
This is about feeling safe, and about belonging, and my in-built social-survival mechanism wanting to have a place by the fire.
Calling all impostors, hands up if you know what I'm talking about? Good news is you are not alone.
What we practice we get good at. So for me it's as simple as the parable of which wolf to feed. From now on I'm feeding the wolf that practices kindness and compassion for myself, so that I can show up prepared to be vulnerable so that I can cultivate real connections with people. And that will mean I'm saying no to work that doesn't support my best-self, with some obvious disappointments and lost opportunities along the way.
And that's a trade I'm willing to make.