The Art of Doing Less

Elisa A. Escalante/ LCSW/ 11-9-2022

“And what is going to happen? When it is all said and done? Everything is gone now, and you forgot yourself…” EaE

Example A- He was an older adult male, in his early sixties. He already had been diagnosed with a heart arythmia, and he was getting regular panic attacks. Despite both the heart condition and anxiety hinting and begging him to slow down, he continued to cave and dive into his work addiction and compulsions. He loaded himself up with projects and a continued upward trajectory of a stressful and anxiety provoking daily life. It also did not help that the military indoctrinated him into a self sacrificing ‘The mission comes first at all costs mentality’.

Example B- She had traits of OCD. Everything had to be in it’s proper place, everything had to be clean ALL THE TIME, or else her body went into panic mode. Then, she had a newborn, and despite her best efforts, nothing stayed clean, regardless of how hard she tried. Everyday she panicked and dealt with increased irritability as she tried to outclean her child and spouse when he came back from work. Then commenced, more marital strain.

Example C- Her kids were finally grown, her nest was empty. She also recently retired. Lonliness, a lost sense of purpose, identity crisis all on the rise. Who the hell was she now? She felt empty and lost without all that distracted her before.

Example D- 2 Jobs, two kids, two different marriages all back to back. Stress, anger and resentment were building up. He was doing everything, he was always trying his best to exhaustion, and yet, he was ‘always falling short’. The harder he tried, the more his family butted heads with him. The more he gave advice and reasonable instructions, the more they did the opposite. Everyone drifted a part. Then he found himself doing almost everything on his own, there was no more teamwork in his family.

Before I address thoughts and behaviors with people that are prone to OCD, anxiety, perfectionsim, work addiction and/ or burnout, I start by painting a scenerio to help me explore their emotions. The scenerio: “So Imagine I walk into your home, and let’s say I eat and leave the dishes in the sink. Then I move to your clothing drawer and I start taking the clothes out and throwing them on your furniture. And what If I leave some clutter on your coffee table and don’t throw it away? How will you feel? And, what are you going to do?

Naturally the common answers I hear are things like “I would punch you”, or “I would yell”, or “I would have to clean it right away”, “You are no longer allowed in my house…” etc etc. So everything often adds up to the fact that I can easily control their emotions and behaviors. My next question is “Why?” (I can ‘why’ people to death by the way.) “Why must the dishes be done immediately?” “Why can’t there be a wrapper on the table?” “Why can’t the laundry not be folded this time around?” “Why must you do everything right away even when you’re exhausted?” “Why clean up after that person if they made the mess?”

Now we dive into thoughts that were often ingrained due to survival programming and some common values & principles. Common answers include anxious and obligatory thought patterns that start with statements like “Have to”, “I must”, “I should”, “I need to”, “I don’t have a choice”. And common values/ principles may include growing up in a home where everything was expected to be clean & orderly otherwise there was severe punishment. Or growing up in a world where expectations were plentiful, and the human need of ‘time off’, and ‘breaks’ was not up for discussion. And lastly, there is also the concept of avoidance. A full plate or workload can distract us from…. X,y,Z. “When I clean or dive heavily into a project, I’m finally not obsessing or ruminating over x,y,z.”

The ART OF DOING LESS is 4-fold. Which is why telling someone to simply ‘slow down, and take a break’, is NOT going to cut it. First, we address the behavior, then we address the cognitive piece, then we must address those that are panicked or angry as they learn to get conditioned to the new ‘us’; they are only conditioned & accustomed to the old ‘us’. Lasty, we must accept our new identity, as we have changed.

Behavioral: The behavioral aspect is actually the simplest part. Doing less can look like taking a day off. It can look like study breaks every 30 minutes. It can look like stepping away from your work desk and walking outside for a breather. It can look like hiding from your family in the bathroom and taking a longer than usual shower. But what happens? Less is done, and then commences our thought patterns.

Cognitive: The anxious & obligatory thoughts commence. ‘Should/ must’ thought patterns. Also, aggravation if no one else is helping… as usual. Aggravation at yourself if you ‘are not doing what you are supposed to’. Panic, or at the very least, discomfort sets into the mind and body. Then comes, the compulsion to get up and do what you always do. You cave, you don’t allow yourself rest. You clean up after the house slob, yet again. Your body is tired, yet you continue to push. You might even be half assing this project, because you do not have it in you to do it 100%. I challenge patients to sit in these thoughts and compulsions for a bit, to do the ever so popular thought reframing/ logging interventions. Counter everything in your belief system. Are the thoughts helpful or not? Are the actions going to be the best for you and everyone else or not? Are you avoiding your thoughts with harmful action? Are you enabling others by stepping up, yet again? Do you get some sense of accomplishment from being the ‘I Do everything’ person all the time?

Conditioning: Overtime, if people continue behaviorally doing less, and challenging their mind to ease their compulsions to go back to the norm, there are two types of conditioning taking place simultaneously. Self conditioning, and Other-people conditioning. Change takes time, change must be reinforced until it feels like habit. Other-people conditioning is very tricky too. Some people highly benefitted from your anxiety, OCD, and heigtened sense of obligation. They might even resent your newer ‘healthy’ changes. Ultimately, if they refuse to allow themselves to condition to the new you, it could be time to let them go. While others may show resistence, but ultimately adapt. These adaptations can actuallly be quite positive, but in disguise. The lazy room mate or child can then stop being enabled and learn to clean up after themselves. The lazy coworker can finally get things delegated to them and learn to be a team player.

Identity: So the change has taken place, it is now a new habit, people have adapted, and so have you… to some extent. but who are you now? How does it feel? To no longer be the ‘cleaner & organizer?’ Or the ‘Mr or Mrs. Fix it all the time”. How does it feel to let go and stop trying to help people help themselves, and watch them as they fall flat on their faces? How is it? Sitting in only a ‘semi clean’ place vs “hospital clean’? Who are you now? Can you embrace being more ‘human’? Human in the sense that perfection is no longer something you must attain. Maybe even grief due to the fact that you miss that old you.. those old habits. Those old ingrained survival programs? Those old compliments people gave you because your demise led to their luxurious lazy lifestyle….

Let it all set in. Embrace it, even the discomfort. Don’t run, don’t hide, don’t deny it. Don’t kid yourself, you were not happy with it. If you were completely happy with it, why are you at the end of this article trying to learn to slow down? The ART of doing less is, in fact, 4 Fold. Good luck to those that needed to read this.

Published by functionallymentall

Social Worker, Writer, USAF Veteran

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