As an adult I’ve become the kind of person about whom people say things like, “She has so much energy”, and “she works so hard”, always Busy. Busy. Busy. I’m uncomfortable when I’m at a loose end and a terrible patient when I’m ill because I’m so uncomfortable with being forced to stop doing things.
My father’s illness has made me realise just how important it is not to get set into certain ways of being and doing because allowing this to happen will cause a lot of pain when you (as at some point you inevitably will) find yourself in a situation in which you can no longer be that way.
I have a habit of doing too much, especially in the autumn for some reason. By November I’m usually in state of chronic stress and near collapse. Why? Is it a need for praise? Is it a need to feel important? Is it the influence of the liberal feminist ideology that tells young, white, middle-class women that they ought to be “exceptional”?
It’s probably a bit of all those things, but this tendency to value overwork is something that’s relatively new in my life. As a child and teenager I always made sure I had plenty of time to myself. I didn’t overwork myself (I was one of the kids who always forgot their homework and ambled through school avoiding extra-curricular activities as much as possible). I put most of my energy into the subjects I found interesting. This wasn’t always a good thing – it was partly a persona that I adopted to hide my lack of confidence and I really do regret not putting more effort into maths and science in particular, which would have benefitted me a lot. However, I’ve come to think that my more “lazy” attitude was actually healthier, and certainly more self-protective, than the habits I’ve developed since as an adult.
In fact, this overwork thing only really started after I began my PhD and was exposed to the academic culture that encourages and rewards extremely long working hours – there is an attitude in academia which implies that if you’re not working yourself to death, you’re a bit of a failure. This was exacerbated by the failure of a relationship in 2004, after which I really started plunging myself into “activities” to distract myself from my unhappiness and try to boost my self-esteem.
The last thing I want to be in my life is a workaholic so I’ve decided to take an axe to this habit of doing too much. I have a commitment to an event for IWD in the second week of March, but after that, for one month, I am going to work my office hours and not take on any other commitments outside of them. The only activities allowed will be personal ones that I find relaxing and enjoyable, like reading and writing, watching movies, socialising with friends — nothing that constitutes work, and especially, nothing that I feel I should be doing. This sounds nice, but I think it’s going to make me intensely uncomfortable some of the time, not least because it will involve saying “no” to people.