mental health

Being Unavailable

Everyone that’s ever responded to a text message or email after work hours, raise their hand. If you’ve taken a phone call related to work on the weekend (and I’ll use the term “weekend” loosely, as people work different schedules), keep your hand up. Finally, ANY work-type function performed during a vacation (mini or otherwise), leave your hand up. Now, be completely honest:

Is your hand up?

Yup, so’s mine. Welcome to the world of the workaholic. We have no sense of self preservation, and no concept of the word “boundary.” SOME event in our lives drove us hurl ourselves off the cliffs of perfection and people-pleasing. And our brains translated those needs into answering every beck and call as if our very lives depend on it. It doesn’t occur to us that – unless you happen to work for an actual Evil Overlord – we won’t die if we start setting up boundaries and allow those intrusions into our downtime to pass by. In some cases (say, if you’re dating, married, or have families), it MIGHT allow us to live longer.

Now, I’m not telling you to abandon a healthy work ethic. You don’t come across those very often these days, and they ensure quality. There’s nothing wrong with throwing yourself into everything you do, avoiding distraction. But when you punch out at the end of the day? You’re DONE. You don’t need to continue dancing attendance to the “powers that be.” Especially when it starts compromising your health and well-being. Running around in circles, frantically watching a phone every moment of the day? How does that improve ANYONE’S anxiety?

Newsflash: It doesn’t.

I worked in veterinary medicine for ten years – usually at emergency practices. That meant I could receive a text at any moment, asking me to come in and cover a shift. I understood the possibility, and while I wasn’t always coherent when texts or calls came through, I faithfully kept my phone on and the volume up. It never occurred to me that other people turned theirs off when they were home, ignoring THEIR messages. It took me years of agreeing – over and over – to add hours to my week, stretching myself thin, before I caught on. And by then? I’d established a pattern. Trying to back away and say, “No” became nearly impossible. I couldn’t figure out how to put up boundaries when my back already looked like a well-worn welcome mat.

And transitioning to freelance work? Things didn’t get better. Oh, sure, I set my hours and days. But the panic of reacting to the snap of someone’s fingers was already set in my mind. As soon as a message, email, or text came in, I jumped to handle it. Who cared if it was five minutes before I crawled into bed? Or on the weekend when I’d decided I wouldn’t work? How about the week of my wedding when I firmly declared I WASN’T working? The ingrained pattern drove me to reach for a keyboard. And my husband frowned and made the same comment, “I thought you were done for the day.”

I had ZERO boundaries!

If you don’t put down pickets and barbed wire (sometimes you need razor wire AND an electric fence), you’ll never learn to break the habit. And YOU’RE the one who has to set and hold a boundary, not the people around you. Because odds are pretty high you’ve trained people to walk all over you. A neat little note asking them to stop? That’s not going to work. You have to slam the door in their face a few times to get the message through. And, honestly, all of those barriers are for YOU just as much as they are for them. Trying to hold those boundaries is difficult. You’re breaking a habit that’s engraved down to the BONE. Erasing muscle memory takes a force of will. One you probably don’t have, courtesy of your anxiety that a client, your co-worker, or your boss will HATE you for deciding to insist on your time to relax.

The withdrawal? It’s real. I haven’t made it to the point of not checking my professional email account – mostly because I also use it for my personal writing. So I see messages come in after I’ve finished for the day or week. And there’s an internal LURCH to respond. Then my brain starts attacking me when I say (aloud), “I’ll take care of this in the morning (or Monday).” Every negative thought in the world shrieks in my inner ear. And I start shaking. Because my go-to gut reaction is to handle the response immediately. I have to talk myself down from the ledge – and, no, that isn’t an exaggeration.

Who cares that it’s dinner? I should drop what I’m doing and send a reply ASAP so my client knows… Oh, wait. So they know what? That I’m not a human being? That I chain myself to my desk and do nothing except sit and wait to hear from them like a dog in a shelter – desperate for any crumb of affection? Put the phone down and worry about it later.

It’s the weekend, but they have a question? I need to make sure I answer it! Because if I don’t the world will come screeching to a halt? Did they specify that the issue was immediate? Or didn’t it say “when you have a chance?” Doesn’t that imply they understand I have other things going on? Because I TOLD them I don’t work on weekends so I can spend time with my husband?

It’s exhausting!

But it’s also an important exercise. The week of my wedding was insanely stressful – for a ton of reasons. Letting myself fret over work issues (none of which were critical), was stupid. I’d set out of office announcements and let all of my clients know ahead of time about the time off. The fact that it got ignored wasn’t my problem. But instead of holding my boundary firm, I let them trample over the line. And I suffered as a result. It was the same as taking a text to cover a shift when I was on vacation (a POSTED vacation) years before.

When you don’t set boundaries, you give up pieces of yourself. And your mental health suffers. You don’t get rest (obviously, since you’re constantly staring at your phone in horrified anticipation). Downtime becomes a complete and utter joke. You might as well move into your office, because you never “leave.” Then there’s the domino of what happens with the people around you. Your family gets frustrated with your never turning “off” work. Friends get irritated with your need to step aside all the time. And you come apart trying to please everyone.

Are you going to get shocked by that fence a few times? Yup. Is it going to hurt? You bet. But will you thank yourself for putting up the fence down the road? YES. I feel the hiccup of tension and anxiety, but then I put my phone down and go back to what I was doing. I mean, I’m a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way from how I used to be. But you have to take that first step. You won’t regret it.

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