Contracting, releasing….striving, relaxing… achieving, receiving
Last week when I did 108 froggies in my kundalini yoga class there was no way my thigh muscles could have continued for 1 more. Yet amazingly once our hearts after beginning to beat at 22 days old generally don’t stop during our lifetime and continue to beat over 3 billion times.
The ability of the heart muscle to achieve this is astounding.
For much of my early career the drive to achieve seemed to characterise everything I did. When I found something important I worked hard to achieve it. I remember when at 12 years old I thought the neighbourhood kids needed more fun in the summer break so I set up a summer camp in our backyard (poor mom!). From then on I made sure I was working at something. This work ethic continued into my 20's partially because I was young and trying to prove myself. And then there came a point where I falsely believed my external achievements would define me and make me happy.
When I entered my mid-career years I seemed to succumb to the “if I just keep working harder, longer hours all these problems at work will disappear and everything will be rosey” approach. I donned the superhero outfit, pushed myself harder by working 12 hour days, tried to juggle too many balls at once (mother, wife, working women, daughter, friend..) and ditched my self-care.
Was it because the workplace demanded it, or because I put too much pressure on myself?Most likely the latter.
The thing is this happened so insidiously.Slowly triathlon training wound down to just biking then walking, then no time or energy to move my body. Eating became a chore rather than a daily nourishment practice. Caffeine and sugar became the preferred pick me up for mornings and afternoons. Gratifying activities got stuffed away because fun was not allowed until the work was done – which was never, thanks to the magical continuously replenishing "to do" list. Frustrations with others and life turned to irritability which morphed into anger overnight. I recall feeling like a walking robot going through the motions, get up, go to work, come home, get up, go to work. There was little joy.
When I finally crashed and burned I thought how could this happen to me? Why hadn’t I seen the signs? Why didn’t I know what to look for earlier? Why didn’t I realise I could take the pressure off myself?
It’s challenging to not do something when you don’t know you’re doing it. I thought if only I realised that the pressure I was placing on myself was manifesting in so many tangible ways and trying to get my attention. I often think had I realised, the signs were so obvious:
Not being able to turn off and unplug – I rarely felt a sense of accomplishment because I was totally focused on the ‘to do’ list. I’d check my phone all the time thinking I’d forgotten to do something on that list.
Disturbed sleep, broken sleep, waking between 2am - 4am when cortisol levels were up was a clear sign that the stress was creeping to unmanageable levels. I couldn’t remember when it went from one bad sleep a week to an every night affair.
Irritability with life, everyone and myself became a habitual pattern rather than a one off. The inner critic took control and ran rampant most days. Exhibiting itself in perfectionism – a misunderstood trait covering up for the incessant internal thought “I’m not good enough and therefore must try harder”.
Ongoing muscle aches and tension in my body. I kept putting each sprain and strain down to something else, until the pattern was all too clear. I was burnt out and fatigued.
Not practicing self-care. I learned much later on how incredibly important this truly was. At the time I thought doing something for myself was a luxury, an indulgence and there wasn’t time for that.
This brings me back to our hearts.
If you were a heart you’d know this kind of life isn’t sustainable for 80+ years.If you were a heart you’d know that between each beat, there is a pause.If you were a heart you’d know that after striving, you must relax to receive. I recall reading Andrew May's recovery rocket and the penny dropped. Elite athletes train hard, play hard then have down time to relax and recover. Makes sense, eh? Once I got this, pausing became a pastime. Pausing long enough to check in with my inner voice.Pausing to take in the sunshine on the green grass. Pausing long enough to notice what I was eating and whether it was nourishing me or not. Pausing long enough to listen to another and not jump to conclusions or ill feelings. Pausing long enough to do what made me feel good. Pausing long enough to understand that I had a choice in every moment as to how to spend it. Pausing to understand how each choice would impact on my heart. What choices will you make for your heart? for your self-care?
Katherine Winlaw is an internationally registered art psychotherapist who works with individuals and teams to promote personal and professional wellbeing and create workplaces where everyone thrives. The mindful art techniques she uses are available to anyone, and do not require artistic skill. Her most popular programs are for boosting staff wellbeing, improving communication and conflict resolution as well as life and career transitions.