Because we live in an aggressively capitalist world, one that calculates our worth by equating it with our productivity, I have always felt the pressure to do more work to prove my self-worth. As a creative, for example, I thought I had to prove my talent by producing substantial amounts of work. How else would people respect my seemingly “unconventional” career efforts? I felt as though I had to mentally “remain on” so I could constantly search for the next big idea. After all, I knew I had to give things my all if I wanted to succeed.
After years of relentlessly working toward my goals, I suffered from a severe case of burnout. I was on track with all of my school assignments and predicted to finish my thesis until I woke up one day and my body felt numb. I went from feeling like I was on top of the world to barely able to leave my bed. On the days when I left the bed, I couldn’t focus long enough to do any practical work. My body needed rest, so it was shutting down as an act of protest to my excessive and draining work. My exhaustion was so severe my therapist considered having me admitted for exhaustion.
Luckily, she taught me a few exercises I could practice on my own, which improved my condition before drastic measures needed to be taken.
With her guidance, I learned how to set boundaries between my college workload and myself. As a student, you have no choice but to take your work home with you. You spend all day at school. Then spend the entire night working on assignments. I would fall asleep at 3 AM just to wake up at 8 AM to get ready again for school. At the time, five hours of sleep seemed to be enough; however, I eventually paid the price with my mental health.
Consequently, my mind was consumed with work even when I was resting. It was the first thing I thought of in the morning and the last thing I thought of at night. I thought of my work even when I was doing mundane tasks like brushing my teeth or eating meals. So my therapist taught me to draw a firm line between work and the rest of life’s activities. As a result, I made a strict schedule that accommodated downtime. I now have a set bedtime, forcing myself to sleep no matter how much of my work remains undone. I also take tea breaks and use my lunch hour to rest. Doing this has freed up my mental space, giving room for much more creativity.
My therapist additionally taught me how to set aside time to relax. I realized I filled my schedule with everything but rest. At some point, I even had “working lunches” as a way to extend my work hours. I’d focus on how much I could do in a day, which sacrificed the quality of the work. This meant that I’d produce substandard results, even after putting in maximum time and effort, which continuously disappointed me. So, my therapist encouraged me to focus on what I could do and stop putting pressure on what I couldn’t.
Learning to rest is a difficult feat. Because of the toxic, normalized ideals capitalism perpetuates, I used to feel as though I was either lazy or had not done enough work to enjoy a break. However, by going against the falsehoods capitalism has led us to believe is true, I am now more productive. Taking frequent breaks means I am more mentally alert when it’s time to work. It also means I have enough physical energy for each task.
Ultimately, I deserve to relax for simply showing up and trying. I am now in tune with my body and listen to it when it tells me it’s time to rest. I also understand the importance of off-days and give myself permission to take them as often as I need to. I stopped thinking of rest as something I had to earn. It was easy to convince myself to rest only after I had done a certain amount of work or spent a set amount of time on an activity. Before, I could not rest without thinking of an excuse to justify it. I now know— rest is my right.
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