I’ve been feeling really torn lately. I seem to have fallen into this “busy, busy, gotta go, no time” trap that so many people around me are also caught up in, and I don’t like it. There’s such a fine balance between being busy and fulfilled, and being busy and overwhelmed. I don’t like that I feel too busy to do anything properly and take care of myself and others effectively. Usually, I know where my limits are, and when it’s time to slow down and create little pockets of me time, but lately, life has been sucking me into this giant vortex of frenetic activity. As a very organized person with perfectionist tendencies, this looks very well managed on the surface, and I’m excellent at juggling appointments, work, dog walks, school pick ups, etc. without wasting time in between. I am never idle. And I’ve noticed more and more that that is exactly the problem. Why is it that we have all these tools that save us time, the sleep optimization apps, the scheduling tools, the work-out enhancement apps that help us reach our goals in less time, Audible to help us read when we can’t physically sit down and pick up a book, and yet we seem to have less and less time?
I’m waiting in line for my to-go coffee in one of my favourite cafés in Austin (as I’m too busy to actually stay and sit for half an hour) and watch a girl in her twenties alternately sipping her latte and knitting. I can see she’s knitting in the American/British style, not the way I’ve been taught. It takes longer than the European style, and part of me is itching to jump in and teach her the more efficient way. But she looks relaxed and cosy, and I realize that she doesn’t need to be more efficient. She is totally okay. The one who is not okay is me. I realize that that is exactly what I want to do: sit in a café and knit and sip my coffee slowly, and feel calm instead of feeling like I should be doing something else. What’s happened to me? Why do I always feel like I’m in a rush? Yes, there are always errands and chores and appointments, but that’s life, and everybody deals with this stuff. I decide to go home right now and locate my knitting bag.
I just read, or rather, listened to UK author Matt Haig’s book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, in which he describes the mental overload we are burying ourselves under these days. Words such as burnout, overwhelm, fatigue, anxiety, and depression have become such commonplace descriptions of what most people are experiencing in our (Western) culture they don’t even register as unusual anymore. This is affecting every part of society, but to me, seems especially alarming for my kids’ generation. I can’t locate the source, but I saw somewhere that recent studies suggest that the average high school student today has the same anxiety level as a psychiatric patient did in the 1950s.
Clearly, this is a very sad state of affairs, and it seems to be particularly true here, in the United States, although when I talk to friends and family in the UK and Germany, it doesn’t sound much different there either. Maybe it’s just my perception, and when I think about life in Europe, I think about a time ten, fifteen or even twenty years ago, when things didn’t seem quite so frantic. I’ve written about the sense of pressure and high levels of stress in this country before, eight years ago in fact, when my children were much younger. They are now teenagers, in the middle and high school, and things have got so much worse!
The US is built on the principle of self-optimization. The first people who came here wanted to find a better way of living, achieve more than they could back home. Which, in itself, is a great concept, and which is why this country is still so amazing and has so much to offer to those who are willing to work hard and create and aim high and have the drive to push through their own boundaries. But there is a dark side to this mentality. This not a country for those who don’t fit the mold, or rather, who can’t quite keep up with this constant forwards-and-upwards motion. It is being drilled into everybody from a young age to constantly strive for more. The status quo is never enough. As a consequence, it’s easy to feel bad about yourself when you feel you’re not making progress. You’re made to feel like you should aim for more, and this is a disastrous message, especially for those of us who have perfectionist tendencies, such as myself. Sometimes, if my mind is in “optimization mode”, I get a sense of overwhelm just by seeing others do stuff. For example, if I’m sitting in the car driving from school to work and I see somebody running, I instantly feel guilty that I’m not out on a run myself. I know deep down that this doesn’t make any sense, but when I’m in that mode, it’s hard to snap out of it.
I hate feeling like this. Usually, the logical part of my brain kicks in just in time and nudges me into the right direction again, but sometimes, I’m just paralyzed with the sense of inadequacy, and I can see that so many people around me are also struggling with this.
It makes me so sad that our society has become like that. It’s just not a realistic way to live. We need to accept that life isn’t perfect and can’t – and doesn’t need to – always be optimized. We do not always need to improve, let alone optimize, ourselves. Oh, how I despise the word “optimization”! It definitely tops my list of horrible words, followed by “achievements” and “performance”. Those are words that stress me out. The big paradox is that we now have all those apps for sleep optimization, work-out optimization, etc. So many things to make life better, easier, more efficient…. Which is great, but also re-enforces this message of “things aren’t good enough the way they are”. I feel we should be able to have bad days and be able to embrace them and not feel guilty for having them. It’s been drilled into us to always try and be our best, to aim high, to never give up, to run faster, to beat records, to achieve more in less time, in short, to be better than we already are. The pressure is ridiculous; it is no wonder more and more people feel stressed, anxious, and inadequate.
And when we feel that way, we don’t know where to put those emotions. In this society, negativity is frowned upon. We’re told to be happy, and if we’re not, to strive for happiness. To smile more, and if our smile isn’t quite white or straight enough, there are ways to sort that out! We tell our children we expect them to work hard to achieve happiness. This, however, can place huge pressure on them. We can’t be happy all the time, but need to learn that it is normal and okay to feel overwhelmed, unhappy and generally shit sometimes. A friend of mine in California put a post on Instagram the other week, and I felt so grateful, as she so eloquently put into words what I’d been trying to write about. She’d been feeling a little blue and low energy, and devastated by the fires in California, but was trying to come to terms with this negativity. “Lately I’ve basically just wanted to stay inside, eat toast with lots of honey butter and watch Modern Love on Amazon […]. I’m trying on a new approach when I feel like this which is to just feel into it and be honest about it. We can’t be productive and happy 100% of the time, and sometimes 50% even feels hard. So I’m just going with this low energy, humdrum and sharing these pretty orange lantern flowers. I took this picture last week when I noticed not only the way the blue vase popped with the orange flowers but also the shadows on my counter. It made me happy and feel present. And some days, something that simple means a lot.” Yes! Exactly.
For those who are wondering what the heck I’m trying to explain, and those who want to wag your fingers at my cod-psychology, please just go and listen to this amazing interview with the inspiring philosopher and author Alain de Botton, which completely resonated with what I’ve been trying to put into words in this post. He is the co-founder of the School of Life in London, a platform and real-life space dedicated to a new vision of education, emotional intelligence and self-knowledge. Their view is that we all need to accept our imperfections rather than constantly try and erase them. This is not a new concept, but seems so extremely pertinent to our busy lives. He talks about how vital it is to sift through our negative feelings, even wallow in our melancholic moods rather than beat ourselves up about feeling that way. “The enemy of sitting with your feelings is not laziness […] It is fear.” We are so afraid to feel sad, or envious, or angry that we suppress those feelings by staying busy focusing on other, “happier” things. Naturally, those emotions will remain undigested, and more often than not appear at other times, often when we’re not prepared for them (3am insomnia, anyone?). I love that interview so much, and will make time to research some more of their thinking.
To sum it all up, I feel we all need to allow ourselves to take it down a notch. We should be able to take a step back when we need to, when it’s one of those days that is just not going to be productive. Even if that means two hours spent on YouTube watching silly animal videos. Whatever it takes to slow us down. I wish this country would follow Europe’s lead and let people take more time off work to really recharge our batteries and relax. I really miss the European system, where it’s normal to do just that and travel or spend time relaxing at home. We all need to stop for a moment, take a deep breath and re-evaluate. We don’t need to be the best, the first, the most efficient. What we need is to be a bit kinder to ourselves.
Maybe we can use the winter months for a little hibernation, of internal re-focusing. Instead of rushing head-on into the whirlwind that is Christmas consumer-mania, how about we spend a little more time on the couch, with a good book, some knitting and The Crown? I’m down with that.