Should I push myself or take it easy?
Last post I wrote about how even simple stuff can seem really daunting if you're having a tough time.
If your comfort zone is changing by the day, it’s hard to make decisions about, say, whether you should go to that party this weekend, or whether you should take that job you’ve worked so hard to get.
We looked at why it’s important to push yourself out of your comfort zone sometimes. We also looked at how bloody hard that can be.
Which all begs the question, how do you know when to push yourself, and when to take it easy?
Relax! But not too much!
As a society, we dole out conflicting advice about what to do when you’re having a tough time of the feelings variety.
Some say, ‘take it easy. You need to give yourself a break, and accept you’re not up to some of the things you’d usually do.’
Others will tell you, ‘you’ve got to push yourself, that’s the only way to move forward’.
Both sets of advice can be well-meaning. And both can get you in a tangle.
As is our general vibe here at the Big Feels Club, we suspect it’s not one or the other - but somewhere in the gooey, nuanced-in-between. Let’s dive in then...
The joys of Investigation Mode
When you’re having a hard time, it’s tempting to ask, ‘what should I do?’ rather than, ‘what do I want?’
*Should* I go this party tonight, or am I feeling too fragile?
*Should* I take on this job right now, or is it too stressful for me?
This makes sense. If I’m having a shitty time, what I *want* is complicated. I want to curl up in bed and avoid everybody, but I also crave connection and funtimes. In these moments of decision, of course I wish someone would just tell me ‘here’s what you *should* be doing right now’. It would really take the pressure off.
But asking ‘what *should* I do’ puts us in a certain mode. I call it ‘Investigation Mode’.
In Investigation Mode, the focus becomes: what am I capable of right now? What’s best for me?
When I’m in Investigation Mode, I watch myself like a hawk for signs of deterioration or improvement. I’ll wake up each morning, and the first thing I’ll think is: how bad is it today?
And the funny thing is, for me at least, asking ‘how bad is it?’ tends to leave me feeling, well, pretty bad. (Thanks brain!)
So, how can you check in with yourself, without just doubling down on the self-judgement?
A new way of checking in with where you’re at
I think we need a new way of checking in with ourselves, one that doesn’t just focus on how well we are (or how bad we feel).
Here's one way of thinking of it.
There are three basic phases of life, and we’re constantly cycling between them: Pushing Yourself, Overdoing It, and Resting. Your answer to the question ‘should I push myself or take it easy?’ may change, depending on what phase you’re in.
The pushing yourself phase
In this phase, you’re probably feeling pretty good about things. You’re getting out of your comfort zone, which is hard, but it mostly seems to have a positive payoff. You’re nervous but you’re growing.
For me, that means I’ll have a lot of nervous energy, and then also get quite exhausted after using that energy to do something like speak in front of a large audience, or go to a party.
The overdoing it phase
When you’re overdoing it, you’re finding your limits (sometimes all at once), and saying ‘yes’ more than ‘no’.
For me in this phase, the nervousness is still there, but the nervous *energy* isn’t. Instead, I just feel really tense most of the time.
Honor calls it ‘feeling crispy’ - the phase that happens right before you are totally burnt out. In this phase, life can feel really overwhelming, but it’s also where some damn interesting stuff tends to happen.
As Honor puts it:
"There's an aliveness to these points in my life that is both terrifying, and well, alive. Laugh-crying-at-the-sky alive. Falling-over-with-exhaustion alive. The kind of alive that I don't want to do at the time but I will also miss."
So the overdoing it phase is a mixed bag. For most of us, it can’t go on forever. Which brings us to...
The resting phase
In the resting phase, you have a chance to recuperate and reflect.
If you’ve managed to land gently in the resting phase, after noticing yourself overdoing it, this can actually be really nice. You might feel quite safe here. You'll probably also feel a little bored or lacking purpose. So again, it's a mixed bag.
The resting phase can also be where you ask yourself some big questions you’ve been avoiding. Questions like Am I happy in this relationship? Is my career going well? This can be equal parts unsettling and useful.
But sometimes you don’t land gently in the resting phase. Sometimes you crash, hard. When this happens, you can end up asking some bigger, scarier questions. Do I actually like myself right now? Or even, What’s the point of this whole being alive thing?
Oof. So the resting phase can be nourishing, but it can also be really scary and lonely. Especially if you think you’re the only one asking those scary questions.
Some of us cycle between these phases quickly. For others it's a slow, gradual thing.
If it’s useful, you might also think of these phases as specific to different parts of your life. At work, you might be in a resting phase - you’re comfortable, or you’re between projects - but in relationships, you want to push yourself more and meet new kinds of people.
There’s no ‘right’ phase to be in
Generally speaking, the ‘pushing yourself’ phase is your sweet spot. Life is challenging enough to keep you engaged, but not so challenging that you lose your shit completely.
But there can be value in the other phases too. The overdoing it phase can be where we learn what works for us (and what really doesn't). The resting phase can be where we finally get the chance to unpack that learning and make different decisions for the future.
In this way of seeing things, there’s no ‘right’ place to be. There’s no target to aim for.
Still, it sometimes feels like we get stuck in one phase, and that can be really hard. What do we do then?
Your prescription, when you’re feeling stuck
Here are a couple of completely unqualified, try-at-your-own-interest prescriptions for when you feel stuck in one particular phase. Each one is a different way of answering the question, ‘do I push myself today?’
(Note: these aren't about what you *should* do. These prescriptions are just things you *could* do, to see what effect they have.)
If you think you’ve been overdoing it...
Your prescription is: disappoint people. Here's Honor again:
"I guess I'm just learning how to be burnt out better, and one thing that I've really learned is that when you're burnt out, you *should* be disappointing people – and yourself! Like, if you're not disappointing people then you're not doing it right, ‘cause you're not resting."
I would add another component to this prescription. Don’t just disappoint people. Make sure you feel guilty too. I mean, sure, technically the guilt is optional, but if you’ve been putting other people’s needs before your own for some time, guilt is a great sign you’re on the right track.
If you think you’re stuck in the resting phase...
You might try the trick from last issue - pushing your comfort zone a little more than you think you should:
“To the best of my abilities, I will do *one thing* outside my comfort zone, each day. One thing. Some days that might be performing to a room of people. Other days it might be making the effort to look someone in the eye as I talk to them, for just a millisecond longer than I want to.”
It’s not about making the right choice. It’s about creating more space for your uncertainty.
Here’s the thing. When it comes to this question, ‘should I push myself or take it easy?’, often there is no right answer. Not at a day-to-day level anyway.
That party tonight might make you feel better, and then that feeling may pass. Or the party might make you feel worse, and then that too will fade.
But if you think to yourself, ‘I had to skip the party because I’m a garbage person’, that probably won’t feel very good.
We can notice the broader trends, we can do our best to try new ways of doing things. But the biggest message of all this is: wherever you are at right now, it makes sense that you don't always know what to do.
If you’ve been saying ‘yes’ to everything, it takes a while to realise you need to start saying ‘no.’ If you’ve been saying ‘no’ to everything, it takes a while (and a fair bit of courage) to remember you can say ‘yes’.
As you move through these natural phases of life, it may take a while for your decision-making to catch up with where you’re at. And that’s not because you’re such a screw up. It’s because, that’s how this whole life thing works.
In other words, this old staple: