“Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you.” ~John De Paola
Pushing has always been the way I get things done.
Actually, I should be more specific: pushing myself harder has been the way I get things done.
I grew up believing that life was hard, and that the only way to survive was to give up indulgences, buckle down, and trudge forward. Uphill. Against the wind.
In my small, suburban high school, I spent hours after my classes ended wrestling with quadratic equations.
I had the overwhelmingly generous help of my teachers, who tutored me for free in their after-school time. I had the patience of an incredibly gifted best friend to accompany me at study sessions.
Still, I felt alone in it all. I cried (weekly, probably) over math and science. Other subjects came easily to me, but the black-topped tables of the science classroom consumed my experience of school. I still remember how smooth and cold they were under my elbows.
I continued on to college at one of the most expensive private schools in the U.S., sinking into student loan debt with every lecture. When depression swept me away during my first college semester and my grades suffered, the only solution I saw was to work harder, to sleep less.
The results weren’t good: I exited the school year with deepening depression and a blossoming eating disorder.
It seemed the harder I tried, the worse things got.
Over the next several years, things improved, though I still didn’t feel like I had much control over my life. Happily, I fell in love at first sight with the prettiest (and kindest) girl I’d ever seen, and she shone her light into many of my dark corners.
Following college, I didn’t have trouble finding work. I was able to pay my student loans consistently. I’d found love, which was more than a lot of people could say. But things still felt difficult.
Then, at very long last, I decided to undertake a project to be kinder to myself. I started sleeping more, and feeling better.
I began eating what I wanted to eat instead of what I was “supposed to” eat. I stopped going to the gym six days a week and instead went when I darn well felt like moving my body.
What happened then? Things blossomed. Life seemed easier, because I was consciously letting go of the urge to fight. Opportunities came to me.
I gradually began to notice that there was more good to be found in my life than bad—more ease than struggle.
I’m a little afraid that I’m making this sound like an overnight shift into ease, or like my life is all rainbows and gumdrops now. That’s not at all the case. I’d say it’s been at least seven years since the first inklings of change took root.
I’ve tried at least six different therapists. I’ve gone on and off antidepressants, and on again. I’ve deprived myself of sleep and remembered why it doesn’t work.
Then I’ve forgotten and done it again. I’ve pushed myself to work ever-harder in poor conditions, and I’ve gotten angry at my bosses. I’ve gotten angry at myself. I’ve wrestled with what ease could look like in my life.
Most noticeably, I’ve fought my own propensity to push myself to get somewhere else, and to get there sooner.
I’ve wanted to sacrifice the present moment for some imagined future, and I’ve stopped myself, hundreds of times, from doing so.
I’ve thought to myself, if I put every spare cent in my paycheck toward paying off student loans, maybe I could be done sooner. I’ve wanted to skimp on buying the foods that nourish me in order to cut corners.
I’ve wanted to stay up late and write another blog post, imagining the difference that midnight thrust might make in the future (a future that, as we all know, will never arrive, because by then I’ll be bulldozing on toward the next future).
Over and over again, I’ve reigned myself back. I’ve done what I can. I’ve gotten nine hours of sleep. I’ve eaten well and spent weekend afternoons in my pajamas watching Breaking Bad.
I haven’t regretted it.
Every time I hold myself back from indiscriminately pushing, I experience the unsettling openness of being right here, right now.
I become receptive to pleasure, nourishment, connection with other people, and connection with myself. In that moment, I accept my imperfections.
I begin to see everything that’s around me right now: the colorful people bustling down New York City sidewalks, the mosses peeking gently between stones, the light glinting off glass skyscrapers.
I take a second to fight the urge to push, and that second transforms my life.
If you can relate to that instinct to push yourself unnecessarily hard, you may want to try these simple guidelines to bring yourself back to the present:
- When you’re feeling the urge to push yourself harder, take a moment to pause before acting. Think about what you need most right now. Is it sleep? A nourishing meal? Connection with a friend? Whatever it is, do that.
- Close your eyes for a moment and pay attention to your body. Tune into where you feel tension, or anxiety, or where you just feel good. Take a few very deep breaths, into your belly. Ask yourself if you have any options right now that sound more appealing than pushing yourself harder. When you receive an answer, follow your instincts.
- Reach out to other people for help and input. Sometimes, we don’t see any options besides working harder. But other people, be they friends, therapists, coaches or mentors, can often see opportunities for self-kindness that we can’s see ourselves. You might be surprised by the insights other people have to share.
Most of all, I want to gently urge you to be aware of when you’re pushing yourself, and open up to the possibility that there truly are other, kinder, options.
Photo by Leans