In the Space between Doing and Nondoing


I’ve had so many opportunities lately to contemplate this disease of workaholism that American culture seems to universally encourage through reward, punishment, and covert and overt shaming messages.

Having to compress my schedule a bit recently to make this year’s training and travel goals possible has really brought the issue of doing and overdoing to the forefront. I find the schedule has been heavy at times, but doable, and is definitely easier if I am disciplined in my self care. I’m curious about why I always hover at the edge of the limits of what I can accomplish, instead of comfortably within them.

I also recently spent a week helping out a loved one who was recovering from major surgery, but who still could not comfortably commit to reasonable restrictions, or to intentional rest. Cycles of discomfort, fatigue from overdoing, and then pain and frustration were the norm. It seems that the early messages about work were so internalized and misinterpreted as to make time off, no matter the reason, an extremely uncomfortable, guilt-laden ordeal. And it sounds as if the trend of overdoing continues for this person, now over a month out from surgery.

I’ve struggled mightily with the stigma around my own limited capacity over the years due to my ptsd, and find I continue to question how much is the right amount of doing for me, and still sometimes compare myself to what others appear to be able to do, even though I logically understand this is a meaningless exercise. As I continuously do my own recovery work, I have more and more capacity, and genuine excitement and motivation to be of more service in the world. And as soon as I make a gain in capacity, I seem to immediately fill it up with doing, to the point where I feel just as stretched and stressed as I was at the previous level.

As I complete day 2 of biodynamic cranialsacral training, which is all about healing through being rather than doing, I sit with this question: What is the right amount of doing or activity in my life? How can I know when it is the right amount?

What’s emerging so far is the following:

1) My capacity is going to depend on multiple factors:

  • my living conditions, like the amount of noise, clutter, nature, safety, and comfort my homespace provides
  • the quality of my self care, like sleep, diet, exercise, meditation practice, time in nature, and the ability to say no to what I don’t want to do
  • my support system, or more specifically, the perceived amount and quality of support I have from pets and community resources, as well as other humans
  • my nervous system capacitywhich, as a general functional assessment, is variable, but also fairly reliable and affected by the amount of remaining unresolved traumatic stress. Sometimes I’m going to have a ton of energy, and other times I’m going to feel the need to cut back
  • the type of activity I’m doing matters. Extroverted activities take more energy for me, and introverted activities can be more energizing, as can outdoor and certain healing activities.
  • other factors outside my control, such as illness, and other serious losses or demands on my energy supply

2) And then the million dollar question…where do I actively set the limit on the amount of activity, or specifically, work activity?

  • exhaustion cannot be the upper limit. It is unsustainable and feels shitty to always be just at the edge of collapse. There has to be some capacity left at the end of the day/week/month so massive recovery periods aren’t necessary and random mishaps and pileups of circumstances don’t create deficit conditions that require excessive downtime
  • there’s probably a lower limit, but I don’t think I’ve ever fully experienced it because I frequently can’t stop judging myself for how I spend free time when there’s plenty of it. I think it probably reminds me of the shame of depression-related shutdowns from the past
  • I’d like to be able to use how I feel in the moment as my guide, but it’s tricky because of the delayed response. It has to be a continuous checking process, keeping in mind the previous weeks’ energy expenditures, and the commitments in the next day, week, month, and months ahead
  • Less self-judgment is probably helpful, cuz let’s face it, when is self-judgment ever helpful? It just mucks things up and gets in the way
  • in the end, it seems to keep coming back to a question – where is the motivation for the doing coming from? Is it emerging from the discomfort of just being? Is it compulsive doing to avoid silence or truth? Is it coming from the addiction to ego gratification? Is it learned and taken for granted as truth? Is it who I think I am, or who I am trying to be or not be?

I had the idea recently that rather than committing to staying below capacity as a rule, that I could try intentionally scheduling some ideal weeks (just right – easy peasy), and practicing being conscious and present to whatever discomfort arises, both in the saying no, and in the slowing down and having more time and feeling better. It would be an experiment.

I am also getting a real understanding, for the first time in my life, of what it means to have boundaries with self. It’s the kind of self-discipline that feels firmly rooted in positive self-regard. Self-discipline always seemed like such a downer idea to me in the past; an image of hard work and thankless drudgery. Now it’s starting to feel like safety, and a solid home base to operate from! What a surprise! The care for self makes all the difference. I think this will likely be true for this whole exploration…more self-love will only make it all easier. The alternative, overriding and exhaustion, is really just self-violence.

I’d love to hear about YOUR experiment around levels of doing and nondoing…drop me a line!

About Cynthia M Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who offers somatic psychotherapy, spiritual coaching, and meditation and mindfulness instruction.
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