Just Say No

I need to catch up on the past few days.  The wind-down at work before a long vacation (well, any vacation) is extremely challenging.  It’s always a herculean push to get projects wrapped up, passed on to other people, or otherwise gotten to a point where I can leave without abandoning the client.  When I’m by myself, it usually turns into the all-too-standard work-around-the-clock drill.

This time, though, wasn’t quite the normal drill.  For one thing, I was coming off of an incredibly busy last few months, and I was exhausted and burned out.  Even with the vacation as a light at the end of the tunnel, I couldn’t keep up the pace.  For another thing, even if I’d wanted to keep up the pace, I couldn’t have.  Moving is time consuming and exhausting in itself, and this move, while not exceptionally difficult, was not exceptionally easy, either.  And finally, I wasn’t by myself.  I was hosting Amanda, and the last thing I wanted to do was be gone working all the time.

So I launched a “Just Say No” campaign at work.  During the past few weeks, I turned down more work than I have since I started at the firm.  No.  No.  I’m sorry, but NO.  Not maybe.  Not in a couple of days.  No.

And it worked.  Kind of.  I didn’t get the new assignments, and for the most part the senior lawyers were respectful and didn’t push back.  (One partner pulled the classic stunt, though:  “Oh, I see, you’re working 12 hour days and leaving on vacation soon?  Well, if you could squeeze this in before Friday anyway, that would be great.”)

But turning down new assignments is not the same as finishing the current ones — and I still had a LOT of those.  So although it could have been worse (and would have been had I not said no), the past couple of weeks have still been a challenge.

At first I thought I could do everything:  Stay on top of work, entertain Amanda, finish moving into my apartment, satisfy my church callings.  That daydream lasted for almost a week.  By the end of a non-stop week, I was tired and frazzled and had moved into what, for me, is a very bad cycle:  I set extremely high standards for myself, get over-committed, find myself falling short of my expectations, and then start berating myself brutally for every failure.

Unfortunately, that’s what happened.  I felt like I wasn’t making enough headway at work, because I simply couldn’t spend enough time working.  But the more time I spent working, the less I could spend with Amanda.  But the time I spent with Amanda was time not spent fulfilling my church calling.  And time spent on all those other tasks prevented me from finishing my unpacking and settling into my apartment.  It was one big failure fest.  

A primary root of the problem was obvious:  My normal life has no margins.  When, from my usual perspective, things are going well, I operate at or very near 100% capacity.  Which means that when unusual things happen (either for good, as with Amanda’s visit; or for ill, as with the recent flooding), there is no room in my life to accommodate those things — I necessarily tip into the overload point.  And as much as I like to pretend otherwise, something always has to give.

But there was another aspect, as well; specifically, a deeply internalized feeling that my normal life is unacceptable.  Working a 65-hour work-week, and then an additional 8-10 hours over the weekend, with the other week-end hours devoted to the mundane tasks of grocery shopping, exercising and sleeping, might be totally normal (and even, admittedly, generally acceptable) for me.  But I always assume that it’s not actually acceptable to other people.  The expectation (either real or projected by me) is that I should lead a nicely balanced life, with interesting social, spiritual, intellectual and physical elements, and the judgment (either real or projected by me) is that the life that I ordinarily lead is inadequate and represents a failure on my part to prioritize appropriately and to be what I’m supposed to be.  Moreover, it’s a double-judgment:  I’m failing because I try to do too much, and the fact that it’s too much means that I’m failing at what I do, because if I was better at doing it, it wouldn’t be too much.  So, to have someone (in this case, Amanda) see my normal life, particularly when it’s been taxed past the 100% tipping point, made me fear that all of these judgments would be realized and the failings brought to light and condemned.  In short, that I would be seen as I am, and that I wouldn’t be good enough.

I figured out all of this during a nap last Saturday.  It wasn’t a very restful nap, but it did put my mind at ease.  Being able to articulate something, and to analyze it, means I can deal with it.  And realize that most of it is in my head.  I got up from the nap and told Amanda the gist of all of this (albeit in abridged form), and resolved to do a better job at not being neurotic and just accepting things (myself) the way they are.*

*Note: The irony of the fact that I’m ending this story by setting another (possibly unmeetable) expectation for myself is not lost on me… 

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