Tag: Workaholism


When A Manic Perfectionist Takes On Recovery

The sky this morning is a disrupted marina, clouds racing full-sailed across like illegal dragsters. I’ve been watching them scud into each other and kick up backsplash for the last twenty minutes or so. Maybe longer. I kick myself under the desk on purpose.

Here is what happens when a goal-oriented achiever with perfection mania decides to take the month as a mental recovery period: She will wake up the next morning determined to engineer the best damn recovery ever. She will stock her Kindle app with inspirational books and her desk with lined notepads just right for spontaneous to-do lists. She will schedule the entire month’s mornings with activities that should most effectively result in a whole heart—two hours of writing, one of reading, half an hour of meditation, and then time left over for language study or correspondence before the kids come home for lunch.

She will forget, of course, that the kids appreciate having an actual lunch to come home to. This will startle and dismay her every day for two weeks until she remembers that soup makes excellent leftovers. Lunch will become known in her house as soup o’clock; one problem solved. Unfortunately, having a fridge well stocked with leftovers will not solve the other flaws in her plan. For one thing, she’ll quickly remember that her creativity does not respond well to stopwatches. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her crank out a heartfelt essay in two hours flat.

A typical morning will start with her sitting down obediently at her desk, typing the date on a blank document, and then staring out the window for twenty minutes wishing that she could just describe clouds for a career. She will realize with a start that she is failing to follow the Efficient Recovery Plan and will redirect her gaze to the blank document, which will perversely remain blank as the left half of her brain shakes the right half in frustration. Time will slip by. Soon, she will grow far too sad to write anything, but this is her scheduled writing time! She is following the golden rule of just showing up, and nothing is going to move her from her chair until she has accomplished something.

To help combat the frustration and jumpstart her inspiration, she will open her blog reader. There will be 674 unread posts. This will make her want to cry, but she will wade in anyway because this is her one and only strategy for salvaging the morning. Lovely sentences will grab her from the screen, and she will spend the next hour and a half pacing between Bloglovin’ and her blank document asking herself, Are you there yet?

Finally, with twenty seconds left in her allotted writing time, a first sentence will present itself. This will stir up joy, relief, and panic in equal measure. She is writing! Whew! But also: The schedule says she should have finished by now! What to do??

She will stick with the writing, of course, because she knows that words are irreplaceable; nothing else in her day will bring satisfaction if she lets go of this thread right now. She will be furious, however, at her obstinate horsey brain for not coming around earlier, and the footsteps of passing minutes will echo above the sound of her typing. She will almost certainly not finish before lunchtime.

Once the afternoon crests, she will be swept up by the current of daily responsibilities, and maybe she’ll find a few calm minutes to finish writing and maybe she won’t, but the schedule is shot anyway. She has failed to recover efficiently. She will berate herself for failing and then, realizing how counterproductive that was, berate herself for berating herself. This will go on for several layers of beration before she’ll give up trying to make the day mean anything and resolve instead to make the next day count extra. This is a great plan, she’ll think. I’m going to win the hell out of this recovery. It’s not even going to know what hit it. Boo-to-the-yah. 

Yeah. So.

Over the four weeks since declaring my intentions to recover from soul shut-down, I’ve meditated exactly zero times. I’ve read a few books but lacked the energy to process much of what they said. I’ve managed to get words on paper about ten times—a good start, all things considered, but I’ve struggled to feel any satisfaction over it. My Plan called for so much more. Of course, one might argue that my Plan was poorly reasoned and doomed from the start, but then, one might never have tried to soothe a goal-oriented achiever with perfection mania before. We will not be soothed. In fact, we may even subconsciously crave failure; why else would we so adamantly insist on setting ourselves up for it?

I’d like to be able to say that I came to my senses and abandoned the Plan today, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. After all, I’m sitting here with my eyes full of clouds, goading myself into writing because I’m desperate to accomplish at least this much with my day. However, there is one subtle difference in my reason for doing so compared with my reason other mornings this month. Rather than sitting here writing because I remember it used to make me feel alive (thus warranting a spot on the recovery schedule), I’m sitting here writing because I know that it does make me feel alive. Present tense. And yes, there were other things I’d hoped to do with my morning, but this thing I’m doing now is recovery… and what else is a recovery period for if not for throwing well-intentioned schedules to the wind and watching them set sail?


Drugs and Cocktails

Family photo from yesterday’s jaunt to Assisi, snapped by our sweet friend Shannan.
(Not pictured: allergies.)

My allergies have done that thing they do wherein they take over my inner skull and morph into Inner Skull Head Cold of Suffering and Death. I’m on drugs (legal), which don’t so much make me less miserable as they do dilute my brain’s ability to distinguish misery. They also dilute my brain’s ability to do other complicated tasks like staying awake and generating thought. It’s awesome.

However, I’m determined to write something with actual words today, to check back in with all you in the land of the living and assure you in turn that I am still alive (albeit drugged). We’ve been so busy lately that it’s absolutely ridiculous. In fact, ridiculous is exactly how I feel every time I start an email with “Sorry it took me two months to reply…” or answer friends’ kind inquiries with a full-body slump and a conspiratorial eye-roll. I feel ridiculous because we’re freelancing and theoretically in charge of our time and energy. Masters of our own destiny, that kind of thing. We are currently under no deadlines other than the impending financial black hole of summer.

It’s that black hole, though, that’s got Dan and I hunched over our desks, eyes singed around the edges with LCD light, for a collective total of 120 hours a week. Freelancing is a trippy cocktail of creative mojo and guesswork garnished with desperation, and we simply have no idea which 12-hour day’s work will be the key to stability. During this particular stage of our lives, the only way to find what works is to try everything we can think of and then some more. We expect that one day, we will be generating more passive income than we know what to do with and will spend our days taking leisurely walks on the beach in Bali and using our annoying excess of gold coins as skipping stones, but for now, life necessarily has to revolve around work.

I can’t accurately describe what it’s like for me to be so far removed from the daily-writing-fairy-art realm in which my heart claims its citizenship. I’m a hard worker, and sitting down to power through spreadsheets or edits actually gives me a little buzz of satisfaction. I like accomplishing, I like knowing that I’m helping make my husband’s business possible, I like feeling like an indispensable part of the family team. I’m endlessly grateful for the ways my abilities and personality traits intersect to make our lifestyle work.

But by the time one day without the chance to write has turned into two (much less three or five or twelve), I’m already grappling with the bleak coping mechanisms my mind calls up for just such an occasion. The obvious solution, according to my brain, is to give up writing forever. If I don’t yearn to write, see, then my hopes will no longer be crushed by each overfull hour. Another option, lighter on both despair and logic, is to get up at 5 a.m. to write… after working straight until insane o’clock at night and figuring out how to forego both sleep and downtime with my husband. (Uh, no.) Repression is the easiest solution; I just put all thought of writing out of my mind and do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, one of the side effects is that I slowly lose grip of myself and end up shadowy and hollow-eyed, wandering through my days in a thick pocket of fog.

That’s why sick days like today actually come as a relief. I simply don’t have the neural activity required to Get Things Done, so the ringing in my ears is the sweet sound of permission to lounge around in my pajama pants and blog. (And perhaps later, even read a blog or two? Be still my heart.) I’m not exactly saying that I would choose to spend today with this Inner Skull Head Cold of Suffering and Death, but it sure beats repression-induced fog, and I have to admit that this mandatory break from work is helping me retain the light and color and pre-head-cold joy of the weekend better than any accomplishment-triggered buzz ever could.


How are you doing, friends? What is your spring looking like so far? 


Life, with Style

We’ve been an exclusively freelancing family for a year now—not a drop of guaranteed income since December 2011—and just to write that requires a deep breath and several pinches on the arm to verify that I’m still here, that we’re still here. It doesn’t seem possible. We’ve had nothing more substantial to stand on than the prismed airstreams of faith and hope and inspiration, and I’ll be honest, the hardest part of our year came after my post on accrued miracles.

We landed on the doorstep of 2013 as shaky and windswept as if we had been flung off a roller coaster, but just as exhilarated too. For all the instability of this lifestyle and the havoc it wreaks on my imagination, we feel like we’re en route to our best selves, and that’s been enough to overrule surges of panic and impulses to snatch up ill-fitting jobs. We pray like schizophrenics, listen to heart-nudges, eat lots of soup, and try to keep our forward momentum into new realms of possibility. It’s a morale-saver, that possibility.

It can also be a soul-snuffer, at least where my manic work philosophy comes into play. Without a clearly defined workday or bite-sized goals, I view all that possibility as my direct and urgent responsibility. Must! accomplish! All The Things! NOW! Inevitably, after three or four days of frenzied work and no play, Jack isn’t simply a dull boy; he’s a burned-out, scary-eyed, hormonal mess of a zombie housewife.

(This is what happens when a lover of hyperbole is allowed to freelance.)

I’ve always been quick to prioritize the life out of my time, though I know well how it leads to a cycle of dissatisfaction and burnout and despair and snooze button abuse, followed by a reluctant admission that my brain belongs in rehab and a resolve to do better (which I add to my to-do list because I’m also a lover of irony). Really, though, that is my mission for this year: to put the life back into my lifestyle. To recondition my sense of accomplishment and let myself feel happy dammit!, even if the only thing I’ve managed to do in the day is love well. To choose margins for my time instead of wallowing helplessly in too-much-to-do. To care for my physical, spiritual, relational, and creative self, you know, on purpose.

This is probably the hardest resolution I could make for myself right now. I’m more comfortable with sacrifice than I am with solace, and I’ve adopted versions of this goal in the past without it sticking any better than my resolve to give up sugar (I tried that once in high school for a whole day; I know better now). I have to figure this out though if I plan to enjoy our second year of freelancing adventures.

Which I most absolutely do.



Busy. Quiet. Mournful. Excited. Pulled into the glitter and joy and inevitable bustle of Christmas. Drawn back into the shadow and heartsickness of death. Dizzy from to-dos and not-dones (mostly the latter). Apprehensive about all the possible wrong turns a holiday can take. Tip-toeingly thrilled regardless. Heavy. Springy. Awhirl.




It’s an Imogen Heap day, an unstrung week in a gray-blue tangle of a month. I’m clinging obstinately to summer, but there are long sleeves under my t-shirt and school schedules on the tip of everyone’s mind; it’s time for a switching of gears.

I’m gravitating toward so many directions at once these days, my imagination bigger than my plate, and while it’s thrilling to teeter on the cusp of everything, I still haven’t summoned whatever latent superpower allows other women to gather the whole realm of possibility in their arms and craft an award-winning life out of it. Honestly, I feel stretched too thin as it is, and yet there is so much untraveled road between this kind of day and the kind I want to inhabit.

I draw too many conclusions from the online world, I know this. I subconsciously assign soul-value to the frequency of someone’s blog posts, the timbre of his or her Tweets. I paint others’ lives between the lines of their Instagram feed and conclude that this one is effortlessly happy, that one writes articles at the speed of light, those love their children perfectly. Every book being read or written, every Pinterest-worthy back to school party… they all accumulate into my perception of better than, and it’s my self-worth that takes the hit.

After too many midnights still at work and sluggish mornings prodded along like mules, the better than begins to grow fangs and I start thinking that I’ve somehow disqualified myself from grace. This mysterious joy that Jesus taught, the utterly relaxing, glorious gift of knowing you don’t have to be any more or less than you are—it starts to seem earmarked for those more important, those with more credentials and charisma, probably more money, and certainly a much longer string of accomplishments at the end of each day. My mind turns to frustrated mantras instead—If I did more, I’d deserve more… or First-world concerns don’t count—and I imagine grace enjoying after-dinner drinks with the cool kids while I scrub burnt grease off the dishes.

It’s work ethic and Baptist theology gone horribly wrong.

The girls start school one week from today, and I’m looking at the mornings ahead with undisguised hunger. There is so much I need to do compounded with so much I could do topped with a heaping swirl of so much I want to do, and five quiet, guilt-free hours a day sound almost too good to be true. However, I need to face the fact that I’ve always supplied my own guilt and chosen defeating mantras over life-breathing grace; I’ve let myself twist others’ beauty into better than. A mere schedule change isn’t going to fix what’s broken here.

I’m the one who has to choose grace and protect it from getting crowded out of my headspace by mule-prodding demands, who has to accept that I am not too much or not enough or worse than or any other point of comparison. This… is hard. I can’t even tell you how hard it is. Clinging to poisoned aphorisms can feel so much safer than letting go of insecurities and embracing the imperfect, uniquely valuable person I am. Even writing that sentence makes me want to reach for my lead security blanket and come up with a few more defeatist insults for myself and over-schedule the rest of my day to keep from hoping for more and and and…


It’s definitely time for a switching of gears.


Do you ever do the negative mantra routine? What do you do to get your thoughts and beliefs on the same page?


The Gift of Permission

When I told Dan that I only got a cumulative ten minutes of sleep last Wednesday night, he ran it through his Bethany Hyperbole Filter and concluded that I meant seven and a half hours instead of my usual nine. (I need more sleep than any creature I know, newborn sloths included.) The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but the point is that I spent Thursday tired, and even a luxury nap after breakfast didn’t jump-start the kind of energy or inspiration one would hope for on her birthday.

My perceptions of cold, hunger, tiredness, and sadness have always confused themselves with each other, and so I never was quite sure throughout the day if I needed a snack or a blanket or maybe some stand-up comedy. In reality, I probably needed some double espressos with an extra spoonful of grace, but clear thinking is not my forte when I’m running on a sneeze-worth of sleep. Instead, my instinctive drive to do more! accomplish more! amps up in direct proportion to my rising exhaustion—all the more so on “special” days—and I basically turn into my own personal Dementor.

Sucking out my own soul is a habit I’d love to kick in this coming year, so my first instinct was to put that at the top of an extra special birthday edition to-do list:

  1. Stop sucking out own soul.
  2. (But really, accomplish more please.)

Self help clearly isn’t my forte either.

It’s just that I want to feel in every synapse and pore of my being that I’m doing life well—living it deeply, thoughtfully, openly, and significantly. I crave purpose the way our palm trees crave water; that’s my internal design, and it could be a force for good if I could simply ditch the accompanying stress. Search for purpose – guilt-ridden paranoia + a chill pill. (Optional: more wine and/or Rumi.) Sounds pretty perfect, right? To that end, I’m writing a different kind of list for myself this birthday. Instead of lining up the things I hope to do this year (see 2008, 2009, 2010, and a dizzy buzzing noise from 2011), I’m giving myself permission this year to not do. (Feel free to adopt this list for yourself or anyone else in your life who could use a break from self-flagellation.)

  • You have permission not to catch up with friends’ online worlds before getting in touch. It’s okay to call or write a loved one without knowing exactly what she’s been up to the last few weeks (or, ahem, months). If anything, it will give you more to talk about one-on-one, so ditch the guilt, mark all as read, and spend your valuable time enjoying the relational part of your relationships.
  • You have permission not to take other people’s success as indication of your failure. Personal amazingness is not the last piece of pie; there is more than enough to go around in this wide, ever-possible world of ours, and it has no expiration date. You can’t be late to a game that doesn’t exist, so stop worrying that your friend’s book deal was meant to be yours (it wasn’t) or that the scholarship accidentally fell out of destiny’s hands into the wrong person’s (it didn’t) or that each new name worked into a Ben & Jerry’s flavor pun knocks you even further out of the running (Fruit Bassett for 2015, anyone? anyone?).
  • You have permission not to wait until ideas are fully formed and Beowulf-epic before acting on them. Your husband is right in warning you that incubating a project until it’s reached theoretical perfection means never starting that project at all. Wrinkles are best smoothed out with forward motion anyway, so put more energy into your doing than into your thinking, start small, and at least try to befriend imperfection along the way. (He’s so much more interesting to hang out with than perfection; just think of the stories you’ll accrue!)
  • You have permission not to wear all your hats at once. Just one at a time is enough, I think, but not the everything hat. It’s not really a hat at all—just a piece of tinfoil hot-glued with delusions of grandeur—and the only thing you manage to do while wearing it is bump into walls; please, for the love of all that is holy, throw the everything hat away. Also, you know the housecleaning hat is too tight, so limit your time with that one; the mama and friend and writer and teacher hats fit you much better. As long as you don’t wear them all at once.
  • You have permission not to protect the worry. I know you think that someone has to be responsible for worrying, and not just for worrying but for keeping the worry comfortable, well-fed, and safe from harm, and if you don’t do it, who will? I also know that sometimes worry feels like the only constant you can grasp when life is surging around you. But oh honey—the worry doesn’t need a protector. It’s an animal of prey, and you know all too well how it bites the hand that feeds it. You already have plenty to do without this job on top of all; you have my express and hearty permission to resign.

The gift of permission

Bonus: You have permission to slip away to the park for an hour or two and fill yourself to capacity with fresh air. Recommended especially for those with a Dementor habit to break.



How to Grocery Shop Like an ISTJ

When Dan and I met my junior year of university, we immediately decided against falling for each other. I had long ago determined that I could never marry an engineer, so the nerdalicious man leaving my apartment for an all-nighter in the biomechanics lab was automatically out. He had made a similar determination about psychologists, so the stack of behavior theory textbooks on my table did not exactly work in my favor. Did you know that? That I once majored in psychology? Not many people today would guess it, and I can understand why; the subjective science behind analyzing and treating minds suited me about as well as a Pancho Villa mustache (which, to be clear, suits no one). Here’s my motive for studying psychology in my own journal-scribbled words from 2002: “I want to travel the world and pen my thoughts and make as many relationships as this life allows.” And somehow I thought memorizing Jungian archetypes would be the way…? The week before Dan and I admitted we actually did rather like each other, I got my ass into the English program where it belonged.

Some of what I learned in the psychology program stuck with me though, and I remain especially fascinated by personality profiles. My own analytical mind revels in lists and organizational strategies, so cordoning the vast spectrum of humanity into categories helps me take our individual quirks in stride. For example, my Myers-Briggs personality type is ISTJ—introversion (I recharge by withdrawing), sensing (I’m detail-oriented), thinking (I tend to make logical rather than emotional decisions), and judgment (which sounds horrible and arrogant but basically means I just analyze the heck out of everything)—and while I get defensive over a few of its points (judgment!!), it really does explain a lot of how I tick. Even better, it means I’m not alone in the funny little mechanism of my brain… so this is for you other ISTJs out there, or for those with an ISTJ in your lives, or for those who would simply like to walk a mile in our over-thinking but psychologically validated shoes:

How to Grocery Shop Like an ISTJ

Step Pre-1: Plan a time to sit down and work on your grocery list. This shouldn’t be hard; just pick a time when you’ll be at 62-65% mental capacity with few people around and no other pressing responsibilities for the day. You may need to schedule an out-of-town trip to make this possible.

Step 1a: Jot down all the food you currently have in the house. Try to give exact amounts whenever applicable. (Don’t forget spices!)

Step 1b: Thumb through your grocery store’s current offers and write down any sale items that interest you. Calculate price per weight.

Step 1c: Open your budget spreadsheet and determine how much you will be spending on groceries this trip. It may help at this point to write down the names of everyone who will be attending each meal so that you can determine a price per capita.

Step 1d: Figure out your nutritional goals for the upcoming days. Do you need more protein? Has your diet been lacking the full color spectrum? Is it Vegan Week?

Step 2: With your lists, goals, and spreadsheets open in front of you, start researching recipes that make the best use of all the variables. Be prepared for this step to take a while, though it shouldn’t go much over 48 hours (unless, of course, you’re having company).

Step 3: Assign recipes to specific meals on specific days. Take probable expiration dates and refrigerator size into account. It wouldn’t hurt to check the weather report while you’re at it.

Step 4: You’re finally ready to write your grocery list! Don’t forget to note the desired quantity of each item and order the list according to your grocery store’s layout. Really have fun with this part!

Step 5: Schedule your grocery trip. You’ll want to make sure it’s soon after the store has restocked but not when it’s likely to be crowded. (If you’ve been diligently updating your chart of the delivery truck’s route, this will be a breeze.)

Step 6a: Estimate the number of reusable shopping bags to bring. This should only take some medium-level algebra.

Step 6b: Adjust wardrobe according to the climate and terrain of the store. Settle the sunglasses debate before you head out.

Step 6c: Shop! If you’ve done all previous steps correctly, it shouldn’t be too harrowing an experience, though you’ll want to maintain a certain amount of flexibility just in case, say, they’re out of your preferred brand of laxatives.

Step 7: You’ve just successfully bought groceries; give yourself permission to kick back and celebrate! (After putting everything away, obviously. Also allow time for pantry reorganization, power naps, and crossing the trip off of multiple to-do lists.) Just don’t party too long. After all, somebody’s got to start pre-making the dinner.

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