Being a self-employed workaholic and knowing how to effectively relax is one of the biggest professional conundrums I’ve faced as an adult. And by “effective relaxation,” I mean not chemically induced relaxation or pseudo-relaxation that is just another form of work in disguise. Accepting the necessity of down time is really hard when you’re the one in charge of your schedule.
Add cyclical insomnia, a lot of repressed anger, and an emotionally abusive work ethic instilled from childhood and you get a large part of why I was a difficult person to be around in my 20s and early 30s. But I think I’ve learned a few things by now. Here are some ideas if you happen to be someone who shares these or similar issues (and I can think of a number of my friends who probably do).
(1) The most important thing is to be honest about being Type-A, especially if you use work to avoid other unpleasant thoughts, situations, or confrontations. The first and deepest honesty is with yourself. Then comes the need to practice outward-facing honesty by releasing the burden of holding these unflattering realizations about your obsessiveness in all the time. Speaking to others about it releases its hold on you. If you are afraid of judgment, consider that those who criticize you might feel threatened because they don’t want you to change or don’t want to face their own “stuff.” Honesty and transparency can renew you completely. And you probably need that kind of renewal.
(2) Understand your rhythms. Everything flows in evolving patterns, including everything in you—in your body and mind. If you can roughly predict when you will feel the urge to obliterate yourself by working to exhaustion, you can avoid that. Go home early. Make a nice dinner. Take a shower and get in bed. Avoid replacing one addiction with another: chemically induced relaxation will compound your problems. Avoid the bar. Instead, shut everything down for the moment. Even allow yourself to fail sometimes. Missing a deadline or taking an evening off in the interest of self-care will not result in the end of the world. Stop trying to control everything, especially when you feel that you’re going to fall apart unless you double down and pull an all-nighter. Because that’s what this is about: feeling like you need absolute control at all times. Workaholism is like any other addiction. It’s an ersatz mode of control. Getting over it means learning to relinquish control. It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to progress.
(3) Be kind to yourself. This sort of self-torture has deep roots in those who suffer from it. You will slip up when you’re trying to lead a healthier life. You will have to deal with the unpleasantness of giving up your lousy self-destructive coping strategy. That cruel inner voice that says you need to prove your worthiness by striving for some unattainable and, frankly, mentally ill standard of perfection and productivity is not your friend. It’s a part of you that got misaligned early in your development and that is probably sustained by the culture around you. Learning to be kind to yourself is a good first step toward re-alignment. A humble and wide perspective also helps, realizing that you will never be at your best if you’re in a constant state of turmoil and burnout. Also accept that even when you are completely centered, well-rested, and healthy, you’re still fallible. You’re not always going to be on top of your game. Maybe never. So what? The overall quality of your life is more important. When you’re dead, hell won’t give you credit for “time already served” up at your desk.
And (4) avoid the game of childish posturing. In every workplace (and on the internet), you’ll meet a certain percentage of people who get off on how much they can overwork, as if that defines them as superior beings. They are looking to others for cheap validation because they feel empty. I know because I have been that person. Don’t make my stupid mistakes, kid. Working hard is good. But setting limits adds value to everything. Facing the reasons why you overwork might be painful, but it’s again about self-honesty. You have a limited amount of time. You should be using at least some of it to frolic in the dandelions and give biscuits to puppies. I say this as the badass motherfucker you know and love: puppies. Frolic. Get to it.
It goes without saying that, by writing this, I am actually practicing these things in my own way.