What if you didn't have to do everything, right now, without help?
May 29, 2018
I recently got sick traveling home from a great trip. I ended up with a weird combination of the flu, strep, and an ear infection, followed by a ruptured eardrum and laryngitis. I was so sick that all work and most other responsibilities, including those that had already backlogged while I was traveling, had to be put on hold.
I’m grateful that I was able to get the support I needed and that I was able to ask for and receive help. There was a time when postponing meetings, putting overdue responsibilities aside, and asking for help would have felt nearly impossible!
Even though my predicament was largely unavoidable (my American flu shot couldn’t protect me from the German flu!), it reminded me how risky it can be to see the bulk of our responsibilities as essential, urgent, and only ours to complete.
To be fair, we all have some tasks we absolutely must do to survive and keep those who depend on us alive. Tasks like eating, working so we can pay rent, picking the kids up from school, feeding the dog, and taking our medications are essential.
Those aren’t the only responsibilities we have, of course. There are also the tasks that may not always be key to survival, but sometimes still feel essential for different reasons. Maybe they’re essential to staying on your boss’ good side or feeling like you’re doing enough at church. They may feel essential to keeping other people happy and comfortable or keeping your house and life presentable to guests.
Many of us feel a great deal of urgency and importance when we think about our wide range of responsibilities. Yet most of us have also had to face the question:
If I got really sick, what tasks would I have to postpone, delegate, or drop?
When I ask overwhelmed people this question after they’ve told me their very long laundry list of 100% essential tasks, sometimes they don’t even pause to breathe before answering some version of, “I DON’T KNOW. I have to do it all.”
They’ve felt so much pressure for so long that it not only feels like every task on their To Do list is important and urgent, they also feel they’re the only one who can and will take action, so asking for help seems pointless. (I sometimes call this American woman syndrome. The expectation to do and keep track of everything on our own is so strong!! If you're nodding your head in exasperation, you might like this.)
When we are juggling too many “completely essential, completely urgent, and completely mine” responsibilities for too long, we can find ourselves in the desperate place of burnout.
When you tip over into burnout, you truly no longer have a choice. Exhaustion makes it too hard to function. It wears down your immune system so you’re more likely to get sick and stay sick. It even saps the energy you need to prioritize the important self care that could have saved you from exhaustion to begin with, making even simple self care practices feel harder.
Burnout forces you to postpone, drop, or delegate your responsibilities, and usually not in a way that makes you feel tons better.
What if, instead of waiting until we were sick or burned out or completely exhausted or thoroughly resentful, we asked ourselves this question while we still have the energy to choose:
If I could drop, delegate, or ask for help with one task today, what would it be?
You may already be so overwhelmed that your gut response is, “I DON’T KNOW. I have to do it all.”
Some self care practices that protect your energy over the long-haul, like setting boundaries and asking for help and teaching someone one of your responsibilities so they can continue it permanently, temporarily require extra energy to set in motion. Starting those practices can take some get-up-and-go when you’re already tired.
So if the question feels too far out of your comfort zone today, you might ask it a little differently.
What if all of the things aren’t equally important and life-or-death?
What if all of the things don’t have to be done immediately?
What if all of the things don’t have to be done by me?
What if some of the things don’t have to be done at all?
What if more help and support are available to me than I realized?
Pause and get curious about one of the questions. You might be surprised to find that more breath and space and flexibility and support are available than you realize.
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