As I write this, my body is slowly coming down from some serious stress and burnout. Stress to the point of: my mind was racing but so fried from overwork that I couldn’t concentrate or implement anything – I could just think of what I had to do. My back felt tight. I felt useless but I had to get a million things done.
I was a mess.
To make things worse, I had made plans with friends to see a live screening of a play that is taking place in London right now (they’re showing it on movie screens in NYC. Pretty cool, right?).
I knew that would take up a lot of my night and I wouldn’t get to do the rest of the work that needed to be done (a carefully prioritized list of everything I had to do), or do the self-care that I desperately needed.
But I also knew I needed a break. At least a half-hour break, just to see what was up in my head and do some writing to clear out the crazy thoughts.
So I sat down to my journal.
And the answer came almost immediately: you need to cancel for tonight.
Almost as quickly came the thoughts no you can’t, don’t be a flake, and you would be a bad person if you do this. I don’t see my friends that much because we’re all busy, and I hate canceling.
But on an even deeper level, I knew the truth:
- I’d already had a stressful week and I had more busy days ahead.
- If I didn’t care for myself today, I would show up, but have trouble concentrating because what I’d really want was to stay home and be alone.
- I would be even more depleted at the end of the night and set myself up for even more fatigue tomorrow and into the weekend.
So I sent my friends an honest e-mail, apologizing for canceling and telling them how overwhelmed I felt. And you know the best part? One friend replied with a message, almost instantly, that said:
I love you <3
It’s totally okay. Trust yourself J
It was fine.
This type of guilt about doing what I need to do is rarer and rarer with me (and, frankly, this type of stress only happens once in a blue moon), though I used to have both all the time. In fact, I usually couldn’t even get to feeling the guilt because I wasn’t very good at even knowing what I truly wanted and needed in the first place.
So, from my authentic struggle, here are four steps that work:
1. Get honest about what you really, truly need and want
No one, not your mom or your boyfriend or your even best friend can know what you need and want better than yourself, when you are being honest with yourself.
But the “being honest with yourself” part is tricky and many of us are out of practice.
2. Understand what story you are telling yourself about why you can’t have what you need and want.
Again, this is big and messy and complicated. But the most immediate thing I’d suggest is making a list where you write down “I can’t do __________ because _______” and fill in the blank a MINIMUM of 10 times (why? Because when you have to keep writing answers, that’s when you get to the really, really good stuff. Stuff that surprises you).
3. Ask yourself: what is the worst that could happen? And what if the tables were reversed?
Generally, I don’t get that upset when people cancel – I know that sometimes my life is overwhelming and self-care is essential, so I don’t mind too much. And if the worst that could happen is that my friends think I am flakey and don’t want to be friends with me anymore…and well, if I went to this event when I felt terrible, I wouldn’t want to be friends with them, because I’d feel resentful that I had to go and wasn’t allowed to care for myself.
4. Call someone you trust and say “I need you to give me permission to _____________”
Let’s be clear: you do not need permission to give your essential self what it needs. You can take care of yourself better than anyone else. Period.
Except that sometimes it's nice to have a security blanket when you're feeling scared.
And for me, that security blanket can be a call to a friend who I know just wants me to be happy and doesn’t really care either way (don't call one of those people who are sometimes wildcards, and make us feel worse or like we’re not allowed to want what we want), and say, “Hey, here’s what I want to do. I know I just need to do it but I’m kind of scared right now. Can you just give me permission?”
And then this kind, loving friend says, “Katie, you have permission (to shave your head, to skip this party, or whatever).”
You don’t ask for permission because you need it.
You ask for permission because when you are feeling scared, it’s nice to have an outside party remind you of what you already know:
You are lovable.
You deserve to feel safe and good in the world.
You are allowed to be as much yourself as possible.
(And if all else fails, you can imagine asking me for permission. I will always say yes.)
I’m sending you love and strength and courage to do what needs to be done. You don’t need my permission, but you have it.