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  • teresamckee

Life is Short

Life is short. I’ve said that about a million times. With a healthy respect for both history and philosophy, I can really look at the long, long picture, especially related to human development, but in the present moment, I’m a proponent of being happy and focusing on the positive, because life is too short to get caught up in needless worry or stupid ego stuff. But recently, life feels kind of long to me. If you think about all of the experiences we accumulate over a lifetime, all of the decisions we make, all of the big events we go through, in the end, it’s a lot. So at various points in life, the question arises, what else is there to do?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not done by any means, but it’s definitely getting harder to come up with what’s next. We’re born, we get educated, some of us get married or join partners, some of us have children, some of us pursue exciting adventures, we create and grow careers, we volunteer, some of us have grandchildren and great grandchildren, we travel, we get more educated, we start new careers, we retire, and then…what’s next?

I don’t know. I’ve been so busy setting goals and hitting all of the normal milestones in life that the past year was perhaps the first time I’ve not focused on what’s next but more of a “how do I get through this” period.

Now, it feels like I’m facing a big empty space ahead of me. I believe we may all have a different experience with this, so am certainly not trying to describe everyone, but for me, this happens when I’ve reached all of my current goals, of which most are on a vision board, and I suddenly have a blank canvas. That’s never been a problem for me before. I just create a new vision board and start working on my next goals, aspirations and desires. But now, I can’t think of much. And that’s kind of scary.

This made me think perhaps part of the problem has been what we’ve all been through over the past 16 months. Maybe part of me hasn’t processed it all yet. I thought I had, but after all of those months of feeling trapped and stuck and isolated, I thought I’d be laser-focused on new goals. I also thought I’d be racing out to do stuff. Do anything. Go to the movies, go to the beach, go to the mall. And yet none of it sounds appealing to me at all. I’m perfectly happy staying home, working on my landscaping project and doing my work virtually. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with what I’m doing or feeling, there’s a part of me that’s wondering if there’s something slightly wrong.

After meditating and thinking and analyzing my feelings, I think it’s that question – what else is there to do? Why do I need to do anything? I’ve hit a lot of the major milestones, frankly, and while I’m not done with my career, I don’t feel any strong drive to do much of anything right now. And that’s freaking me out a little, because I have a lot of years left to live and certainly need to do something with them. Perhaps the shock of the disruption we’ve all experienced has caused me to reconsider just about everything about my life, my priorities and my values. And I have not sorted all of this out yet.

Instead of forcing new goals, or pushing myself out to do things just for the sake of doing things, I’m taking a much more mindful approach. I don’t know where I want to go or what I want to do, so the mindful solution is to pause. It’s a time to allow my system to sort of recalibrate to my new circumstances and to practice a lot of self-compassion so that I don’t judge myself for not knowing what to do next.

I think we have a hard time surrendering to the fact that sometimes we don’t know what to do or that we don’t have the right answer. I know our egos don’t like that. I try not to allow my ego to run my life, although of course sometimes, it does indeed take over. Right now though, since I don’t know what’s right for me, I’m going to accept that I’m in some kind of transition phase that I don’t fully understand yet, so I’ll give it some time. I’ll keep doing my job, keep working on my home projects, enjoy reconnecting with people I care about and be patient. I trust the answers will come, but also understand that I’m not in control of when they’ll appear. I just know that they will and then I’ll know my next steps.

That’s not an easy thing to do. Practicing mindfulness for many years allows me to do that, but there’s still a lot of discomfort with it. I’m an action-oriented kind of person, so it’s not easy for me to step back and allow whatever’s going to happen to just run its course. But in this case, I don’t feel like doing anything anyway, so it’s probably the right thing to do. I also think that we’re very conditioned to do something all of the time – be busy, be productive, do, do, do. But what we frequently achieve from that is, well, doo-doo. It’s not about quality, only quantity.

Whatever we’re feeling, our emotions are valid and important. They are communicating something to us and it’s important that we identify what those feelings are in order to inform our next actions. The strongest feeling that keeps rising to the top for me is actually tired. I feel tired. It may make no sense after sitting at home for a year to feel tired, but it’s not physical. My mind is tired. I’m tired of planning, changing, adapting, responding and maybe just plain thinking. I know I’m not alone in this because one of the major topics that keeps coming up in my leadership coaching sessions is burnout. But what we call burnout could be any number of conditions, all of which are different and require a different intervention. The primary damage from negative stress is physical. With burnout, the primary damage is emotional. Compassion fatigue, which is a real risk for caretakers, produces physical, emotional and behavioral damage to our systems.

I definitely feel out of sorts and since I feel like whatever’s going on with me is emotional, I’m considering that it could well be burnout. Some of the signs of burnout include a blunting of emotions, feeling mentally or physical exhausted or starting the day feeling drained. Some may experience a loss of motivation, ideals and/or hope, and a sense of disengagement. I can definitely tick off some of those boxes and it’s important to take action because burnout can lead to depression and even feeling like life isn’t worth living.

If you suspect burnout, if possible, take some time off from work. One of the only ways to properly recover from burnout is to detach yourself from your work for a while. If you can’t take a vacation, how about a few long weekends? Unlike most other industrialized nations, the United States is the only country that does not require annual time off, but 90% of workers do earn some amount of paid vacation through their jobs. Unfortunately, more than half of US workers reported feeling guilty about taking vacation time and left 768 million days of paid time off unused in 2018. That trend continued in 2019.

Considering that most of us took zero vacation days in 2020 during the shutdowns, many of us have not had a much needed break from work on top of the additional stress most have endured. That’s not good because, hello, it leads to burnout.

If you’re not working but feeling off, it could be negative stress. There’s no doubt millions of people are suffering from that at this point. Symptoms include emotions being over-reactive, and a loss of energy yet over-engagement. The damage of long-term negative stress is physical, such as high blood pressure, ulcers and compromised immune systems. To address negative stress, the most powerful technique you can practice is self-care and self-compassion. Be kind to yourself, be gentle, be loving. Meditate, do something relaxing, relieve yourself of as much unnecessary stress as possible. Your system needs a break from stress, so avoid high stress situations, people that aggravate you and stressful events - traffic jams, loud crowds, or striving for perfection, for example. It’s time to let go, at least temporarily, until your system recovers and you can return to the full brunt of life’s experiences.

Compassion fatigue is an entirely different animal, where we drain ourselves in service to others. There are so many people who have put their lives on hold during this pandemic to take care of those who lost their jobs, those who became sick, and of course, those who ultimately died, and it’s difficult to bounce back. Symptoms include hypersensitivity to emotionally charged stimuli, emotional exhaustion, anger, irritability, avoidance, and physical exhaustion. Compassion fatigue cannot only lead to depression and negative self-image, but can also lead to self-destructive behaviors, like addictions, self-harm and suicide. If you think you may be experiencing compassion fatigue, it's important to contact a professional who can help you navigate back to a state of normalcy.

Even for those of us who seem to have gotten through this episode fairly unscathed from an external perspective, it’s critical that we check in and make sure our mental health is really still intact. Odds are, most of us have experienced events that have affected our mental health, so it’s important to recognize that it’s normal after any disaster, which this past year has certainly been on multiple levels, to have taken a hit and it doesn’t indicate that there’s anything wrong with us. It’s normal. We’re normal. And it’s not only normal, but perfectly acceptable to take whatever steps we need to in order to return to a state of well-being at this point.

As if all of that isn’t enough, we’ve also had so much time to ruminate, self-criticize and worry, that it’s no wonder that not all of us are out celebrating right now. I optimistically thought we’d all feel great about now, but based on my own experiences and those of my clients, that’s simply not true. We’re not only anxious, concerned and somewhat wary, but we’re carrying this baggage from the past year and a half that we may not know how to release.

If you’re struggling with life right now, perhaps taking a pause could serve you. You may have to make immediate decisions regarding your career or your living conditions, so I’m certainly not trying to minimize those unpleasant pressures. But in between dealing with that, have you taken a pause to consider what’s changed about you since this whole thing started? Are you re-evaluating what makes you feel fulfilled or safe or happy? Don’t push it under the rug. Do what you have to do for your own well-being right now, but take the thoughtful pause needed to really observe your feelings, your thoughts and your actions. Maybe it’s time for some changes. Maybe not. But don’t you deserve to invest a little time in yourself to identify what’s next in your own life? And you definitely deserve to get outside support if you’re dealing with negative stress, burnout or compassion fatigue.

Regardless of your current state of mind, mindfulness meditation allows us to reset our system, to calm down, to gain clarity and to just be. Maybe we don’t always have to strive towards something. Maybe it’s okay to just be for a little while. Life may be short or it may feel long, but it’s up to us to determine the quality of the life we have while we’re here. Many of us need to make some adjustments or to allow ourselves time to acclimate to the world as it is now. But we’re worth that investment of time and inner reflection to figure out what we need to do in order to restore our sense of well-being.

I want to get back to feeling like life is short because that normally fills me with drive, excitement and gratitude. And the fact that I’m not feeling like that, my normal self, tells me I need to slow down and do a little self-repair. I can’t take a vacation anytime soon and as I mentioned, I don’t feel motivated to head out into public venues, but I can take a couple of days off a week, make myself go out at least a little bit – dip my toes into the water so to speak, and focus on activities that provide me with either pleasure or relaxation. I can also be vigilant in not judging myself about how I’m feeling. That won’t help me and it certainly won’t serve anyone else. I simply need to heal and it will take however long it takes.

Whether life feels short or long, don’t we deserve to enjoy it to the fullest? Yes, we do, and that may mean giving yourself a break or time to heal or to seek support if you need it. We can and will overcome these challenges if we simply take the time to be mindful about our own state of being. Once we’re okay again, we’ll have more than enough energy and motivation to be of greater service to others, so all the way around, getting back to our selves is probably the most important thing we can do.

Until next time. Stay well, be kind to yourself and others, and remember to be mindful.

Have a wonderful week.

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