How often do you use the word “busy” in a response to a question such as “How are you?” or “What’s new in your life?” If this is common for you, you’re in the majority. We live in a society that values productivity and hustle and is less likely to recognize the benefits of self-reflection, meditation, practices are truly relaxing and rejuvenating (more so than self-indulgence), and other mindfulness-related practices. Not only does a consistent hustle make it difficult to have the time for mindfulness in our lives; it actually can create an alternate way of dealing with stress and pain that makes it difficult to be quiet and to reflect. What am I inferring? When we don’t intentionally integrate mindfulness practices into our lives to re-center and to cope with difficult emotions, it is actually easier to remain busy and to distract away from what is going on below the surface with us.
How is staying busy an addiction?
Illicit drugs get a bad rap, and understandably so, given the ways that they harm a person’s body and can create chemical dependency — the body believing that it needs the drug in order to function normally. When you talk with brave, strong individuals who have maintained their sobriety, you often hear common responses to what got them into drugs initially. Loneliness. Wanting to forget past trauma. Feeling utterly unloved. Believing that they are not worthy, not good enough. Drugs are a great way to escape these core-shaking feelings and memories.
But those who struggle with substance abuse are far from being the only people who use ineffective coping mechanisms to escape difficult emotional experiences. In fact, I would argue that we ALL do at some point in our lives. Netflix binges, shopping, overeating, sex, and exercise are all fine in moderation but can quickly become ways we avoid our emotional experiences, ways that we numb out.
Highly competent, successful adults are at risk of using this ineffective coping mechanism.
I believe that one of the most common and incredibly damaging coping mechanisms of highly competent adults is to stay busy. To throw ourselves into more and more work, to consistently have to-do lists we are attending to, to join commitment after commitment, to feel unable to say “no” to requests, to need to be busy in order to feel worth something or to feel important. It can be difficult to distinguish a motivated, successful, passionate individual from those who are staying busy to avoid painful feelings. You might even be wondering right now which camp you fall into. There’s a good chance that you have had seasons of both — times in which you were driven by a healthier work ethic and times in which you began to escape your own experiences by remaining busy and avoiding the discomfort.
Am I using busyness to avoid or to numb out?
Here are some questions to reflect on to determine if you are escaping or numbing out through your busyness:
- Do you have pride in who you are and in aspects of your identity outside of work? Can you describe what you like about yourself without referring to your job?
- Do you enjoy quiet time by yourself without experiencing increased anxiety or lack of focus?
- Is “being too busy” the excuse you use for why you are not making new friends, why you are not healthier, why you are no longer doing a hobby or activity you love, or why you have not made a life change yet that you know you need to?
- Do you have identified values and goals that determine what each day looks like and how you spend your time both in and outside of work?
- Do you avoid getting closer to your partner or a good friend through having “too much to do” on a regular basis? This includes often opting out of serious conversations due to racing off to do something else.
- Do you have activities or practices that you enjoy and do regularly that help you feel calmer?
- If you quit your job right now, would you believe you are still lovable, good enough, and a generally likeable person?
- Are you able to sit with your own thoughts without doing anything else for 15 minutes without becoming more stressed?
- Do you have dreams that you often reflect on and are actively working toward? This includes acknowledging connected fears, risks, and barriers present in the journey to achieving a dream.
- Can you acknowledge your vulnerable, softer sides and perhaps even your weaknesses without disgust? Can you look at them and tell yourself that you are human like everyone else, with your strengths and with your weaknesses?
How can I be a healthy professional who is also motivated and hardworking?
If you answered “no” to several of these questions, you may want to examine the mechanism of staying as busy as you are. Give yourself grace and tenderness in this evaluation process — there is a reason you require this coping and form of escape, likely a vulnerable reason. This is a great opportunity to lean into the discomfort to understand it further and to also incorporate new practices, activities, or connections in your life that foster joy, curiosity, and peace. Learn to recognize even 10 free minutes as a gift to be used in a way that fills your cup.
You might also be interested in researching some of the practices of highly successful leaders. You know what they don’t do? Hustle themselves into the ground. Yes, they are typically incredibly hardworking and driven and put in long hours when they need to. Yes, there are times when things go sideways in their business, leading to overwhelming stress and the need to quickly reevaluate and reform a plan. However, you will also likely come across leaders who speak to meditating every morning or taking time to engage in a spiritual practice or reflective journaling. This is what helps them recognize what is important and what is not, in both business and in life. This is what helps them stay connected to their values and their mission, even in the exceptionally stressful seasons. This is what helps them recognize when fear or inadequacy is rising up to meet them, and they can greet the emotion, understand why it is there, and then re-center and move on, without the emotion stealthily sabotaging.
I want to acknowledge that some seasons of life, such as graduate school, or certain professional tracks, such as medical residency, may push us beyond what feels healthy and balanced but are also necessary for pursuing what is important to us. This is not the same as those of us who use busyness as a coping mechanism. What I will note, though, is that when people are coming out of an exceptionally busy, trying season such as graduate school or medical residency, they might be more susceptible to using busyness to numb out or to convince themselves that they are worthy. It is so important to implement what healthy mindfulness and self-care practices you can during the chaotic seasons and to then double-down on them even more so when you have the time. Engage in vulnerable, open connection with your loved ones during the transition to increase your own awareness and connection of yourself as well as how others experience you.
Learn more about implementing mindfulness and connection into your busy life.
Therapy is also a wonderful space to explore why you cope with pain and stress the way you do as well as to explore new possibilities and a new way of being. You may contact me here to begin a conversation about how I can be a support to you.