I am not good at resting.
I recently said to my husband as he sat on the couch watching one of his favorite TV series, “I need to learn to be more unproductive like you.” He looked hurt as I tried to explain, “What I mean is that you’re really good at taking breaks from doing things, you know?” He smiled at me, patted a spot on the couch next to him, and we both laughed at how my judgement was really a compliment in disguise.
The reason I struggle with resting is multi-factorial, partly due to my innate nature, partly due to how I was raised by my family, and partly due to the culture we all live in. I have an inborn personality that thrives on achievement, on doing. I’m always setting a goal, whether a small one like cleaning out the crumbs in between the couch cushions, or making homemade butternut squash ravioli, or a massive one like deciding to become a physician, and then I methodically chip away at it until it’s done. After I complete one task, I immediately think to myself, “Ok, what’s next?”
Once the goal is achieved, my brain automatically sets another one. For those that have heard of personality profiles or testing (think Meyers Briggs), I am an Enneagram 3, which happens to be called The Achiever. My basic desire is to feel valuable, and my greatest fear is to be worthless. This desire and fear is what drives me to achieve, and when in balance, allows me to succeed and share my gifts with my family and the world. When out of balance, I am unable to rest, as I have falsely learned that my work and my achievements are my worth. To not being doing something means I am unworthy and unlovable.
To add to my innate personality, I grew up in a family that rewarded success. My siblings and I were paid for our grades, with As of course getting the most money. I remember once coming home with a perfect report card except for one A- in history, which was my least favorite subject. My father told me that I could have gotten an A, and that I was better than an A-. So, I went back to school and worked harder to make sure they were all As. I knew that my parents loved all their children, but as an adopted child, I felt I had to be perfect to be loved, after all, I did not want them to “send me back” to wherever I came from, or be adopted out to a different family. This was never said out loud of course, it was just a fear I had from a very young age. By achieving as much as possible, whether in my studies or in athletics, I was assured love and attention, a place at the table with my siblings.
Then of course there’s the cultural component. We all live in a society that pressures us to be human doings rather than human beings. To many, success is measured on how much money you make, how beautiful and young looking you are, and how well dressed you are. More is better. Or at least, that’s what I internalized as I was growing up as a young adult, making my way in the world.
So, what is rest? It’s not sleeping, though there’s nothing wrong with a good night’s snooze or even a nap in the middle of the afternoon—which I hated as a child and now absolutely love. Rest is mental down time. Not watching TV, or reading, or listening to a podcast, which are not unfulfilling activities, but they are still doing. Rest is allowing yourself to turn inward, to daydream, to reflect, to pay attention to internal rather than external stimuli. I have been meditating now for three years, twenty minutes every day. This is rest. I sometimes sit on my back patio, watching the sunrise or the birds waking up for the day. This is rest. In the middle of a hike, I will find a place to sit and absorb the surroundings—the sunshine, the sounds of nature, the wind, the pattern of the clouds, or even the blissful quiet. This is rest.
So, the truth is, I do know how to rest. I just need to change my beliefs about it and allow more of it into my life. Rest is not being lazy. Rest is restorative. Rest can be preventative medicine, that is, there is no need to wait until I am mentally or physical exhausted to rest. I can set aside time to rest so that I can avoid exhaustion and burnout. Rest is taking care of myself, just like sleeping eight hours, eating healthy, connecting with loved ones, and exercising or moving my body.
Given that I now have an unexpected two months off before I move to Alaska and start my new job, I have ample time to rest. I’m looking forward to making it a priority, like brushing my teeth or meditating or walking or my morning cup of coffee. And who knows, maybe rest will improve my productivity when I’m back into doing mode.