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Recovering from burnout, I’ve become very self-protective. How do I step back into the swim?

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

You’ve done a brave thing by changing your life, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, don’t let that change become its own chore


After years of struggling with a punishing combination of emotional instability and over-work in high pressure jobs, I eventually got sick, dropped out and am finally on the road to recovery, with a new understanding of how to take better care of my mental health and the value of a healthy body.

I’ve been appreciating simple pleasures, good old friends and the benefits of a quiet life, but it’s a particularly daunting time to start stepping back into the swim. Although I’m now aware of people and situations that aren’t good for me, I have become very self-protective – not helped by the pandemic. It’s very easy to decide it’s too crazy and unkind out there.

I am concerned that by avoiding what feels too challenging or frightening I may settle into an unnecessarily restricted life, and limit opportunities to explore new experiences and people that could do a lot to restore my confidence. Do you have any suggestions?

Eleanor says: Sometimes when I’m wondering whether I’m doing it right, where “it” is everything, life itself, I like to splash around in some water. Not laps; nothing that has a purpose. I like to think of Ivan Ivanovich swimming in the rain, “flapping his arms and sending waves back, swimming and diving, trying to reach the bottom. ‘Ah! How delicious!’ he shouted in his glee.”

Related: I keep leaving important work to the last minute. How can I stop procrastinating?

You’ve done a brave thing by realising you wanted life to change, and a braver one still by actually changing it. It’s natural to wonder now how you can best preserve your happiness after working so hard to find it. But it can be all too easy at that point to start treating recovery as a task in itself; the next in a long line of projects with an “or else” attached. I need to relax or else my health won’t improve. I need to stay peaceful or else the anxiety will come back. This kind of thinking stops us gleefully splashing; it keeps us on the banks wondering whether splashing is the best thing to do.

I think your task of finding the best balance between “in here” and “out there” may be the same: it isn’t best solved by reasoning it through on this side of the decision, then implementing a solution. It’s best solved just by splashing. You don’t need a unified correct answer about how much interaction with the world is best for you; you just need to be guided today by what feels delicious.

It can be hard to see that when you’ve been through a lot, because ordeals make us so sensitive to the possibility that they’ll repeat. They drain us of so much time, health, and energy, that we become fiercely protective of what little reserves we have left, scanning for any threat that may deplete us more. It becomes very hard to accept that there could be any such thing as ‘just splashing’ – any decision we don’t need to get exactly right – because everything starts to feel high-risk.

But the goal isn’t to have a life in which nothing ever again deflates your energy and sense of peace. The goal is to know that when that happens, you will be OK. You could try something that scares you and wish you hadn’t; you could make a new connection and find it hurts you; for any way of venturing “out there” that may hurt, you will be OK. No single decision will catapult you to rock bottom again, and no single hurt can undo the happiness you’ve worked for.

When you know that, decisions start to feel a little less high-risk. You don’t need to be guided by what’s “too” self-protective, or whether the world is “too” unkind. You can simply to lead with what feels right, now.

You can start small, with a new connection, or a new hobby. Try to see it as a decision you’re making just for today, one that you can undo tomorrow. That’s all you have to do; feel your way forward a little bit at a time.

***

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Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.

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