Let’s talk low energy. Does anybody get enough sleep or down time? Daily life is tiring, vacations wipe us out, and demands are sky high. The most taxing scenario is when other people are asking us for more than we can comfortably give.
If problem people are exhausting us—such as children, co-workers, or dysfunctional family members—our natural instinct is to yearn for long periods of time with nothing to do and no demands. We think that is the solution, but such fantasies just make us frustrated. Even as we daydream about retirement or look forward to the day the kids are gone, we are barking up the wrong tree.
The problem is not only that we need more time for ourselves. The problem is how we treat ourselves in the time we have. Chronically tired people have a particular way of giving in to demanding circumstances. They see the situation as something all-important and apart from themselves, like watching an extremely engrossing movie or TV show. Nowhere on that screen do they see themselves or the effects of the drama on them. They don’t recognize themselves as players in the story, just as we would not expect to see ourselves in a movie we were watching. When faced with other people’s needs, they jump in and start throwing their energy with both hands at the problem as if they have an unlimited bank account.
Rarely do they step back and ask, “What is this costing me?” The thought would never occur to them. They do not intend to overlook themselves; they are just trying to solve the problem. They tell themselves that when the problem is over, they will rest and get some down time. But this approach makes them overlook what the situation is doing to their energy and good nature. They want relief, but with this mindset it will never come. Other problems will line up to step in as soon as the previous one is done. The longed-for rest period will keep being deferred. The energy debt accumulates with the kind of compound interest that would make a banker blush.
One of the most draining scenarios is dealing with people whose problems are brought on by their own impulsivity or thoughtlessness. When tired people encounter such a situation, the first thing they should do is to reject the premise that the impulsive person’s problem is the most important issue in the universe. He or she is just one person among many—all of whom have legitimate problems.
The next step for tired people is to cast themselves as an important main character in the problem person’s story. This movie is not just about other people and their problems; it is also the story of how much it will cost us to try to solve it for them. The main fact to take into account is that we do not have unlimited love, time, or energy. These are very limited resources. The energy is not coming from a replenishable source like a loan; it is coming straight out of our future life. Spending energy like that today robs us of our future vitality. There is not always more where that came from.
Our new approach should be to reconfigure any problem so that it includes our needs as an essential part of the story. The important thing is not only what is happening to these other people; it is what is happening to us, too. If we ignore this fact too long, we all will develop emotional or physical symptoms from the sustained impact of the situation. Your body will tell you when you are asking too much of it, as will your worried mind. They will honestly mirror the strain you are under. If it feels like too much, it is too much.
The practical answer is to find healthy ways to feel better, even in the very midst of problems. It’s no good to wait for that long hiatus that will never come. The appearance of a problem should elicit self-care instincts as automatically as altruism. Other people’s crises should ring a bell to remind you to immediately start taking good care of yourself. As soon as you get the crisis call, a good mantra is: manage my energy, seek self-care.
The best way to increase your energy under stressful situations is to act more like an impulsive person. Indulge in little low-cost, healthy impulses that occur to you in the moment. It might be a trip to the bookstore, jumping jacks in the living room, angry scribbling, or simply doing tasks out of their usual order. Impulsive people get a bad rap (and impulsive children get medicated) but have you ever seen a lethargic impulsive person? The terms don’t go together. As parents of hyperactive kids have known for years, impulsive action breeds energy. Switching directions and doing some small pleasurable thing reminds us that our life did not stop just because someone else was having a hard time.
“A change is as good as a rest” goes the old proverb, and impulses are all about reshuffling the mix. Impulses break our attention away from the problem and give us that little uplift. This sends air into the situation and lightens our tension. Watch how impulsive people do it. They keep tossing their wants into the middle of things, much to the chagrin of teachers and law enforcement officials. But their energy is top-notch.
Let’s learn from these rascals and keep other people’s problems from eating us up. You will never lose your sense of responsibility and love for other people, but you can recharge your batteries with a little self-preserving impulsivity on your own behalf. Impulsive people know how to keep thinking about what they want next; that’s why they have such endless energy to cause one disturbance after another. It is time for the responsible people to beat them at their own game.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.