In our fast-paced reality of to-do lists, meetings, places to be, people to see, deadlines to meet, friends and family to be there for, and hobbies to stay true to, our hectic lives involve figuring out that fragile balance between work and play, ourselves and others. The most delicate part of this game is managing to stay healthy while being so busy – managing to stand steadily on the ball while we juggle all the pins and the balls and the fiery hoops.
It’s a serious worry many of us have, especially in an endlessly long season of arctic temperatures, snow, ice, flus, viruses and whatever else may be going around. None of us can afford feeling ill, falling behind, feeling weak. We all have way too much to do. But, funnily enough, it is always the case that the exact point in time where we can least afford to fall ill is precisely when it happens. This is no coincidence, though. Your body knows when you are over-worked, over-stretched, over-stressed and over-tired. Bodies know when they are being abused. Bodies aren’t stupid.
Sometimes, whatever you catch absolutely floors you and you have no choice but to stay in and recover. Other times, the feeling of illness is much more gradual, more subtle, more complex, and easier to ignore. You notice you haven’t quite felt like yourself the past few days. Then those days stretch into a week, the week spills into the next week, and suddenly you don’t know where the month has gone, but you feel like you’ve lost your groove. Whatever the ailment – be it physical or psychological, or a bit of both – the drill is the same: we need to put ourselves first. It is funny, actually, how we put just about everyone and everything ahead of ourselves sometimes, until something happens to make us realize that this may in fact be the wrong strategy.
Being an over-ambitious perfectionist myself, with too many goals, too many research projects, too many creative aspirations and too many hobbies, it is a perpetual battle for me to balance everything I want to do in my life, and the need to slow down sometimes, to take care of myself. Me. On most days, I am full of dreams and full of energy. But, I have also had my fair share of bad days over the last few years, and I admit that I still struggle with being kind to myself when I need to be.
I am lucky to have some amazingly warm and wonderful colleagues and friends – here in Montreal and around the globe. Some of them are particularly gifted with insight and wisdom. Here are 15 precious tips they’ve shared with me over the years. It takes conscious effort to practice these on a regular basis, and to break the cycle of unkindness and harsh demands. But it is so important to do so, not only to feel better in the short term, but to live better.
- Accept how you are feeling. Whether you are feeling like you’re coming down with something, that you are struggling emotionally, or that you are low on energy – accepting it is the first step. It is what it is, no matter why you got it, who gave it to you, how much you didn’t deserve it, and how bad the timing is! Accept that you cannot feel great every day of your life. Today is just one of those days.
- Don’t bully yourself or beat yourself up over it. Whatever you are confronted with, it will just run its course and then let go of you. Being overly hard on yourself won’t help you get better faster (quite the contrary, probably). Another favorite: Refrain from making a mental list of alllllllll the things you are behind on! Avoid comparing yourself to others who have had a productive day (they feel well, you don’t). Stop reminding yourself of all the things you didn’t manage to do. Something that works is to focus on what you did accomplish – congratulate yourself rather than criticizing yourself when you get through your day. Seriously, what kind of bully berates themselves when they already feel down?!!? Well…..I do [shy smile], but I am trying to stop that nonsense.
- Remind yourself that IT IS OKAY to take a time-out. Who said you had to work non-stop? Who said you HAD to do all these eight-million things every week? Are you any less awesome if – for a short period – you do fewer things and take care of yourself more?
- Convince yourself that IT IS NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS! It is a sign of being human. Everyone has days like this. Everyone! Whether you see it or not, you can safely assume that your colleagues, friends, family members – perhaps even your superhuman supervisor – have days like this. Why shouldn’t you? It’s important to cast aside ideas of what others may be thinking of you. First, it really doesn’t matter, and second, they are likely not thinking what you think they’re thinking. You are not weak! You’ve just been very strong for probably too long, and now you need a mental and physical break.
- Give yourself TIME. This seems trivial, but it is honestly one of the most challenging things for me. We talk about “time” constantly. We count it, chase it, buy it, save it, manage it, waste it, lose it, give it to others, run out of it, long for more of it. What we don’t do is give ourselves enough of it. When we are not feeling well, this is one of the first things we have to learn to do. Give yourself time to breathe deeply, to sleep soundly, to eat, to unwind, to go to the doctor if need be. It’s a constant challenge for me not to pack my days to the brim and not to have every single hour of the day accounted for. Something we may not realize is that even if we are scheduling fun things, we are still scheduling. Try to have windows of time in which you fully give yourself a chance to rest. Also, don’t back yourself into an inflexible schedule when you know you’re feeling low on energy. It will only make you feel worse if you have to miss meetings or appointments. When you know you’re feeling under the weather, keep things as loose as you can.
- Don’t drown in discouragement. It’s natural to think negatively about yourself, your worth and your progress when you’re feeling sick or tired. But don’t let feeling crappy cloud your vision. You are probably more on top of things than you feel you are. Keep the big picture in mind and banish discouraging or devaluing thoughts that will just bring you down further.
- Be realistic, not perfectionistic! Adjust your expectations. It is unrealistic to think that any one of us could be at our best, every single day. Yes, on good days, you can do ALL THAT and more! But on not-so-good-days, try not to be a perfectionist. Let go of what is not urgent or critical at that moment, even if you’re usually on top of these things. It can wait a day, or two. This is something that is atrociously challenging for me, and I am still far from mastering it.
- Try to cheer yourself up. Dwelling in negativity makes everything feel much worse. Cheering yourself up is probably one of the hardest things to do, but you have to try. Close your eyes, think of a place you love and imagine yourself standing there. For me, it’s Venice. There’s one bridge I adore, and I could stand there for hours, in the breeze, in the changing light, watching everything and everyone pass me by. You could also think of someone you love spending time with, or a super funny incident that happened when you were last together. I bet you’ll smile!
- Focus on YOU and your well-being. Being sick is THE time to prioritize self-care. Try to soothe yourself in any way you can. Eat well, move slow, sleep in, drink plenty of water and juice, take a bath, take a walk, get some sun on your face, listen to music you love, read a book for fun, shut off your e-mail, quiet your racing mind. Do whatever makes you feel a little better. Don’t think about what you need to do. That is all an illusion, anyway; what you need to do first and foremost is take steps to get better.
- Let go of the GUILT. If you feel sick, you can’t work effectively. If you feel guilty, you can’t relax effectively! So, why put yourself in such a lose-lose situation? Let go of the guilt, and enjoy your time off!
- Say NO. When you feel under the weather or stretched too thin, it’s vitally important to turn some requests down, say no to some favors, and prioritize only what is essential. Don’t be afraid to say, “Sorry, I can’t,” once in a while. The earth won’t open up and swallow you whole if you do! If people don’t understand – too bad for them. Do not concern yourself with that. As depressing as it may be to temporarily change your superhero ways, slowing down your body and brain often means having to turn down some extra activities or commitments. It’s not the end of the world and the consequences won’t be dire – there’ll be plenty of chances to help out, to hang out, or to tackle new learning experiences as soon as you feel better.
- Get help. If you notice that you’ve been down for too long, don’t put off getting help. Taking care of yourself should be priority, because if you don’t have good health, you don’t have anything else. Don’t say you don’t have time for doctor’s appointments or counselling; if something is slowing you down and making you feel unlike your usual self, you’ll get out of it faster if you make it a priority to figure out what it is.
- Seek solitude. Not for too long, and not in a way that makes it dangerously easy for you to hide from the world, but for just long enough to think of yourself and not what others are thinking, doing, and asking of you. I even find it soothing to log out of Facebook for a while and not to fill my head with others’ voices or pictures of their days. Just disconnecting for a day can do wonders to quiet the mind. Similarly, staying clear of situations of stress also helps immensely. If you know that something or someone typically causes you anxiety, take a little break from it/them for a while.
- Talk to other (positive) people. This may seem like a direct contradiction of the point above but, the truth is, it helps to do a bit of both! Very often, talking to others and listening to their perspective gives you clarity and strength. Almost certainly, they – and people they know – have had similar feelings of having fallen off the horse, and they can tell you how they got back on.
- Look forward to feeling better. Think positive, and focus on the fact that you WILL bounce back, and suddenly you’ll be unstoppable! Keep telling yourself that the more you rest now, the faster you’ll bounce back and catch up, and the stronger you’ll be! Look forward to that day and to the things you will do once you’re back on your feet.
Of course, in all honesty, none of this is always easy to do, and I personally find myself alternating between applying these tips and sulking miserably.
The bottom line, though, is this: Be kind to yourself. Be attentive to your needs. Be gentle with your expectations. Give yourself time to rest and recharge, without any extra pressure or guilt-tripping. Try to keep the big picture in mind.
And remember: Spring is coming. Soon.
(It has to, because we are all waiting).