The Power of Nothing

May 2, 2024 | Personal Stories

I’m tired, y’all. 

I’ve just come out of a solid 3 1/2 months where I couldn’t shake the persistent fatigue and listlessness that plagued my mood and motivation on a daily basis. I assumed it was lack of sleep, although I’ve pretty much always been a midnight-oil-burning, 4-hour-a-night trouper, especially since I had my first daughter 10 years ago. I considered possible tolerance to my thyroid medication, except the dosage had just been recently raised. My mind also went to the panicky C-word place it can often go when I feel like my body is betraying me. The latter has been a more frequent phenomenon since my dad died of cancer in 2021.

That’s it, I realized. As the calendar moved closer to March, I started to notice increasing sadness and memories of Dad. I found this odd because the holiday season had passed and his death anniversary- April 1st- was still pretty far off. Why would this flood of emotion and malaise be hitting me in January and February? 

I’ve written before about how the period immediately following the December holidays can be a low point for many. While the holidays can be a time of great sorrow and longing, there is so much to do and so many people to see during end-of-year celebrations that there is plenty to keep you distracted. But when that ends, and (if you live in a seasonal climate) the coldest part of winter sets in, you may be left with thoughts of “What now?” Feeling inclined to hibernate is only natural.

It took some searching, but I began to understand that this didn’t fully explain what I was experiencing. Many of my memories recently were of Dad when he was sick, living in our home, and dependent on my husband and me for all aspects of his care. It was an extremely stressful period, when I was working full-time from home, my husband was a full-time SAHP in charge of our daughter’s home schooling (we were still in the thick of COVID quarantine protocols), and we were all clinging to the hope that the treatment would work and Dad would get better.

He didn’t. It was March 17th- St. Patrick’s Day- when we received the call from his oncology team that the cancer had spread. The recommendation was hospice. In disbelief, I looked at Dad as he started to cry and he said, “I don’t want to die.” The day of his death was devastating, but this was the exact moment when a part of my soul was crushed and taken forever.

St. Patrick’s Day also holds significance because I attended many annual celebrations with my BFF as an honorary Irish-American. One year I even wore a T-shirt that read “I’m Not Irish, Kiss Me Anyway.” (That was long before Ancestry confirmed that- spoiler alert- I am, in fact, 9% Irish.) She unexpectedly died 1 month after Dad, also from cancer. 

So there I was, grappling with grief that stretched on for months, all while transitioning to a new group therapy practice, building and marketing my private practice, rolling out my consultation services, devoting any open calendar space to be present with my kids (one of my priority values), and continually adapting to life in my new home abroad. As I spell it out here, it is obviously a lot. But when I’m doing all of those things and not taking stock, I pretty much just accept that they are my responsibilities and need to be done, period. 

In Real Self-Care, Pooja Lakshmin, MD, writes, “Instead of allowing ourselves to be human beings, we are human doings, and the self becomes quantified and measured, merely a sum of tasks and accomplishments.” Perfectionism is pervasive in our capitalist, consumerist culture where productivity is king and our Puritanical roots are still part of our collective DNA. It’s something I help clients work through and overcome on a regular basis, but it was only during this recent period of gloom that I was forced to again face my own impossible standards.

Saying it out loud helped. I confided in my business mentor and she gave me the permission I needed to slow down, take inventory of my overflowing plate, and temporarily abandon anything that I could set-and-forget for a while. I put a pause on my newsletter and social posts. I prepped my DEI workshop for a presentation I had already booked, but I focused most of my workday energy on transitioning my clients to the new practice.  

Most importantly, I allowed myself to do nothing. This looked differently depending on my mood. Sometimes I watched TV. Sometimes I read books. I cooked and baked a lot, which brought me joy. I spent breaks with my family, which often included playing tug-of-war with our pups and getting ice cream with the kids. Sometimes I needed to cry and be sad, including over a green beer on St. Patrick’s Day at the (self-proclaimed) ​Highest Irish Pub in the World​.

Sometimes it was just literally nothing. No doing, just being.

The one consistency was that I always felt at least a little uncomfortable- what Buddhists call shenpa or “that sticky feeling.” Productivity and the Cult of Doing are classic American examples of shenpa. Like many, I feel guilty when I rest and engage in leisure.

InGetting Unstuck, Pema Chodron writes about embracing the discomfort and resisting the urge to scratch the emotional itch. When we scratch, it is often in destructive ways that keep us disconnected and stuck in harmful patterns. Striving for perfection is often the way I scratch the itch. Instead, I’ve been getting curious about why that is my reflex.

I am still learning to let go of my own perfectionism, which includes taking a hard look at how it impacts both myself and my family. I am adjusting to grief as a lifelong process that ebbs and flows unpredictably. I am continually finding ways to be more embodied and understand my internal processes. I am figuring out how to be ok with not being ok. And I’m slowly coming around to giving myself grace.

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