Listen to me read the post:
I don’t even know how to start this post.
I’ve been thinking about it since I started my semi-forced month of rest at the beginning of July.
I knew I needed the rest. Had known it for quite a while. But my past versions of ‘rest’ always contained a lot of cheating. I slowed down my work, but never quite turned it all off. I rarely set things up so that I wouldn’t have to keep an eye on emails or not show up for the occasional meeting.
So Heather cut me off. She gave back to me all of the stern words and boundaries I have given to her over the years and made it quite clear she would be brokering no argument. I was not just going to ‘lay low’ for the month of July. I was going to unplug completely. And not only did she threaten to involve some of my closest friends, she also made my need for rest public on social media so that I was even more broadly accountable.
Needless to say, she knows me well.
I think sometimes people use the phrase ‘work wife’ as a throw-away line – it’s the person at work that you get along with well, someone you share inside jokes and companionable chemistry with – the person you gravitate the most to because they are most like you. In my and Heather’s case, it goes a lot deeper than that. We are partners, and that means that we understand that our well being is deeply tied up in each other’s. We are not well if one of us is struggling. We know that the bulk of our Holding Space work is learning how to Hold Space for ourselves and we know each other well enough to spot when one of us isn’t doing that well. There is a healthy give-and-take in our relationship – we understand and allow for the fact that we are both human and will live in a state of ebb and flow between which of us is the more resourced at any given moment in time.
This time, it was my resources that were seriously depleted.
I’ve been struggling to accurately name the experiences that led to this depletion. Heck, I’ve been struggling to accurately name the depletion itself.
Was I burnt out? Yes. And this burnout was very different from the way I experienced it in the past. My first burnout happened at the tender age of 23 and involved not just depleted resources, but a complete unmaking of what I thought my identity was at the time. That was thankfully not the case this time around.
Had I moved from Empathetic Overwhelm to Compassion Fatigue? Most likely. If you’ve followed the trail of my social media posts over the last few years, you’d likely see I’ve been on the road to Compassion Fatigue for quite some time already. And, given the state the world has been in, I would argue that compassion fatigue is a pretty universal experience for anyone trying to maintain any sort of empathy, especially over these last tumultuous years.
Am I depressed? I haven’t been officially diagnosed by a mental health professional yet, but my doctor and I agreed I would benefit from being medicated to treat depression-like symptoms. And, given both my aforementioned compassion fatigue and a family history of anxiety/depression, this is not an entirely unexpected outcome.
Have my choices over the last year led to my feelings of depletion? Sure. Despite the fact that I knew I needed to move on from my position with my church over a year ago, I chose to continue on, both because it was a financial necessity for me and because it felt important to see my community through to whatever was next for them. They matter to me. I want to do what I can to be in the liminal space with them. And there were a lot of things I didn’t choose. I didn’t choose for COVID-19 to disrupt the world. I didn’t choose for the North American institution of church to be shaken so deeply to its roots by that disruption, or for our denomination to make choices out of alignment with our individual church’s integrity. I definitely didn’t choose for the sewer in our church’s building to crumble and cause us to have to refocus our attention from: who will lead after me? to: can we afford to keep our building?
Did Heather’s choices to sell her house and spend a year travelling have an impact on my overwhelm in regards to our business? Sure. Not being able to co-regulate with her in person while we were worried about finances, marketing, and filling our programs all while I was going through so much in other areas of my life was really hard. We are, as I said, partners, and her choices have an impact on me. And, doing those things was important for her. There is a 15 year age gap between us. Our life circumstances are incredibly different right now. I have two teen kids at home and she has three who have “left the nest”. The difference in the amount of space our parenting responsibilities take up in our lives is immense. It’s totally normal that the trajectories of our personal and familial needs are divergent right now. Thankfully, Heather is not my only support person. I have a network of friends and family who I lean on and our team was solid this year. They were able to hold space for me in all sorts of amazing ways. Heather and I couldn’t have done it without them. Heather’s absence this year also helped us both clarify some gaps that needed to be addressed in order for us to move forward more constructively together in the future.
Was my inability to engage in meaningful rest practices a result of all the ways I’ve been enculturated by capitalism and patriarchy? Yes. Definitely. I am a woman business owner trying to make a living in a deeply capitalist society that is now defined by the ‘attention economy’. “Be a good income earner” and “Be a good caretaker” are both messages that are deeply ingrained in me and frequently come into conflict with my need to rest and unplug. And I deeply love both the people I work with and my family and one of my core values is trying to live with as much integrity as possible. So if I say I’m going to do something, I want to see it through to the best of my ability. Those are not terrible or even necessarily capitalistic motivations. I’m not ‘hustling’ for the sake of the ‘hustle’. I work so hard because I love people and want to do what’s right by them.
Does the fact that I have very little childhood trauma mean that I am less aware of when my nervous system is being overwhelmed? Probably. It’s a privilege to not have had experiences that make me hypersensitive to my amygdala responses. It’s also something of a liability because it means I have not really had many opportunities to learn when to stop “grinning and bearing it”. I am less aware of when I am nearing critical mass and am more able to ignore my system’s warning bells of system failure because I haven’t had a lot of experience knowing what they sound like. And because of my lack of trauma, I am not easily triggered by other people’s issues. My capacity for empathy and holding space for a wide range of people is fairly large. I am less likely to slip into co-dependence with others and am more readily able to engage with folks with unconditional positive regard.
It’s probably no surprise to you that it is all “Yes / And”.
Heather has talked a lot recently about how all of life is pretty well liminal. I don’t disagree. However, I would add that how we experience that liminiality is on a spectrum with the y axis representing length of time (from one-off or temporary to ongoing and persistent) and the x axis representing intensity of feeling (from painful to ecstatic). For example, I’d plot the process of giving birth as a one-off liminality that spikes from painful to ecstatic. The liminal space of child raising, on the other hand, is persistent, but ebbs and flows over the neutral line, with occasional spikes in one direction or the other (for me, anyway).
I’m not very good with graphs. Perhaps there’s another way to represent the labyrinth of liminality than something so mathematic, but I hope you get my point.
Anyway, this last year was definitely more on the painful side, but I knew it was also more short-term. I have another, similar year coming up, however, and that knowledge is helpful in that I can start to think about what I will need in order to support me through it, but it’s also, admittedly, anxiety producing.
It took a full two weeks for my nervous system to calm down when I started my mandated rest. In that time, I had one horribly anxious day. It was a bit like I needed to purge that last bit of worry from my system before I could genuinely start to experience what rest feels like.
Coming back to work this month has also left me feeling pretty activated. In addition to all the regular stuff I have to do (answering emails, planning meetings, bookkeeping, social media posts), I have several meetings coming up very soon that I know are going to require a lot of space holding. There are boundaries to form and membranes to tend and quite likely some big emotions to work through.
And these are the situations that I still don’t entirely know how to complete my own cycle for (see the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski for more info on that concept). These are the energy expending events that deplete my resources and for which I have not yet figured out how to reset from.
So much of me believes I should be better at this. I run a company called the Centre for Holding Space, for pity’s sake. And I am not just doing that work. I am raising a family. I am working with my church community. I am trying to maintain a marriage and friendships. I am trying to show up in the world with love and integrity. The intensity of this liminal space is real, even if it is still time-bound on the shorter-term end of things.
Did I achieve a restful state in July?
I almost don’t want to post this, because so much of it feels so privileged. I am so lucky and have access to so many resources that others don’t. And it’s important to acknowledge the ways that I am so very, very human because our shared humanity is the basis of empathy.
We all deserve rest. And for many of us, it is complicated for so many reasons. Are there ways for us to better support each other in our full humanity so that we can each get the rest we need and deserve? I believe there are. Do I know what all those ways are? No. Not yet.
But – we can do things like Heather and I do for each other:
- Hold each other accountable for tending to our well being.
- Give each other the freedom and autonomy to live into our own realities without resenting those realities or rushing each other through our own processes.
- Ensure we are well resourced outside of each other.
- Never be afraid to offer what we can and ask for what we need.
- Trust that our love for each other will hold, regardless of our circumstances.
- Help each other to see the ways we are letting enculturated systems run our lives instead of our desire for collective love and liberation.
- Never let each other confuse our desire to be tender with ourselves and each other with complacency or tolerance for harm.
I discovered this month that rest isn’t very easy, or very pretty, or even very understandable. But it was definitely necessary. I can’t promise I won’t be back here again next August. There are bucketfuls of decisions and vulnerability and space holding to come. But I do know that I can trust others to help me get the rest I need when I need it. I don’t have to be strong all the time, even if I do have to be strong for a lot of it.
And maybe that’s the best any of us can hope for.