I recently took some vacation and decided for a part of it, a week to be exact, that I would unplug from work completely. For some of you, this may seem like a no-brainer, but to others, there may be some fear that is evoked at the thought of completely shutting things down. I fall into the latter category, I found it really hard and I was shocked at how many dragons came up inside of me as I prepared to completely shut things down. As I work for myself, a big part of it was a fear that I needed to keep going and not let things slide, never mind the fact that when I’m not working, I do not earn money.
The vacation started with easing into working less, but then came the moment that I had promised to myself when I would put on all of the auto-responders and let people know that I was really not going to be around. I felt many fears at doing this, and I was surprised how much I started to turn on myself. As I write this, I am reminded of a wonderful story that my cousin, who at the time was 104 years old, told me.
We were sitting next to each other at dinner and I loved to hear his stories because he remembered times in our family’s history that I could only imagine. My family had spread out across Ontario, Canada, with different clothing stores; men’s, women’s and even one devoted to plus sizes. My cousin Max used to take the summers off and leave the operation of his store to his manager. The other men in the family pointed at him and said that he was weak and irresponsible for taking so much time away from the store. As he finished telling me how they ridiculed him, a sly grin had crept onto his face. “Well” he said, “They’re all dead and I’m still here!”. I still laugh at this moment, and also recognize the deep wisdom of that moment.
I wondered as I came home from my vacation why it was so hard to do? It was incredibly worth it. About halfway through the week when I had really cut off communication from the bulk of my work life and then some, I went scuba diving with my son. We approached this underwater cliff, and as I looked out into the deep blue sea, I was all of a sudden surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of fish; it felt like a scene right out of Finding Nemo. All of a sudden, it all made sense. The emotional and energetic separation from work had created this emotional space in me and then to find myself in this majestic place, below the surface of the sea, allowed me to experience myself as having found a degree of freedom that I had been unknowingly longing for. That moment justified all of the hoops I had to jump through to get away.
I suspect that a big part of why it can be hard to unplug is that we get very attached to how we experience ourselves in our customary environments. Not only does working give us a sense of security, but how we are seen by others and how we internally feel, creates a consistency in the personality that can be really calming. To uproot that sense of predictability is hard, especially because there are so many drives in us to keep the pedal to the metal in life; in some ways, unplugging opens us up to the abyss of the unknown (mind the underwater metaphor).
And yet, unless we take some distance, we can petrify in our personalities and become inflexible. We need to remove some energy from the system so we can redirect it elsewhere, which is exactly what happened to me. I was able to finish a book and really engage with it, and I believe this had to do with a certain degree of emotional capital that had been returned to me. It felt so wonderful to feel so alive and present which can be severely affected if we are burning out; I had tried to read recently before the time away, and I found myself not being able to take in any new information, so it was a pleasant relief.
So we should all learn from Max. Do not wait until the problems of old age arise before challenging yourself to take time away from it all. Do not be alarmed if this is tough, but do not fall for the voices turning on you and pushing you to stay engaged. Recognize them as helpful in a sense because they have your back, but recognize their harmful character.
See you on the other side.