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From Psychology Today:

“The manic defence is the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings. A general example of the manic defence is the person who spends all of his time rushing around from one task to the next, and who is unable to tolerate even short periods of inactivity. For this person, even leisure time consists in a series of discrete programmed activities that he needs to submit to in order to tick off from an actual or mental list. One needs only observe the expression on his face as he ploughs through yet another family outing, cultural event, or gruelling exercise routine to realize that his aim in life is not so much to live in the present moment as it is to work down his never-ending list. If one asks him how he is doing, he is most likely to respond with an artificial smile and a robotic response along the lines of, ‘Fine, thank you—very busy of course!’ In many cases, he is not fine at all, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy.”

Been there, done that. And I’m riddled with constant anxiety to prove it.

It seems the older I get, the harder it is for me to sit still.  I end up feeling guilty and think that all this still sitting is wasting time.  I should be doing something. But what? Well, there is always the two loads of laundry needed to be cleaned, vacuuming that could be done, checking in with family members I haven’t spoken to in a while; another chapter in my long-awaited-by-nobody- novel needed to be written…and so forth and so on. There is always something to do.

I’m not surprised to read the newest statistics, which say that Americans on average are taking fewer vacation days than before. The most popular cited reasons included “fear of being replaced” and “too much work.” And then there’s also such a thing as “leisure sickness” that plays a part in those numbers, where workaholics will feel sick during down times like vacation and weekends. As a society we are fed a constant stream of messages that tell us that being busy is a good thing. Successful people are busy. Therefore, if you want to be successful in life too,  you better get busy.

Growing up, I was always taught that an idle hand was the devil’s playground. Therefore, “free time” was time to be used to find something new to do. This notion was enforced by my mother, who always sent me to clean something after fielding my complaints about being bored and was reinforced during visits to my father in upstate Pennsylvania, who hated to see me sitting around or just watching television and would demand, “why don’t you go find something to do?” Even as I got older and found things to do, my “doing of stuff” wasn’t sufficient enough.  At Friendly’s Restaurant, which was my first real job with a legal paycheck, the popular phrase among the wait staff of managers was, “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

On the constant hunt for “something to do” meant that while I was busy, for some reason, I still didn’t seem to accomplish much. I was occupied but also aimless and unfulfilled. “Fun” if that is what you called it – had to be pre-planned and penciled in. And usually I found myself mentally – in some cases physically – in too many places and spaces. Like the time that I was working two jobs and involved in a number of volunteer community service projects and saying “yes” to just about every invite and opportunity that came my way. Sure, I was busy. I had timetables and deadlines, agendas and outputs too. But I was also unnecessarily stressed, and I for damn sure wasn’t happy. And not to mention, I was exhausted. I needed to relax. But how?

One day I decided to schedule in some relaxation by way of a local Women of Color meditation sit-in group. I thought being in the presence of experienced meditators would help bring about a sense of calm and peace, which I needed in my life. However, I found it hard to relax due to thoughts about what I was doing and if I was doing it right. At one point during the session, we did a walking meditation, where we went outside and walked silently up and down the pavement. The point was to be able to clear the mind while in a real world circumstance, yet all I kept thinking was, “What if someone sees me and wonders, ‘what the heck is she doing?’”  Even in the act of doing nothing I was finding myself worrying and stressing about something.

It’s only been fairly recently that I began to allow myself permission to do absolutely nothing.  Sure, I still have my to-do list and I still sometimes worry about what other folks think. However, I will regularly deviate from my internal nonsense to do something spontaneous, something superficially beneficial for me, like paint my toenails a pretty color or hookie from work to go see a movie or just sit peacefully and think about things.  Everything doesn’t have to have an agenda, nor does it have to be perfect. It’s okay to live in the moment, and yes, the dishes can wait until tomorrow.

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