I Have a Work Problem: When You Can’t Stop Pushing Yourself

Work in a “Busy kitchen” by VV Nincic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Work has been a problem. For me and my family. We have no idea when to stop pushing ourselves past what’s healthy. Or how to set boundaries around who owns what feelings. What has been true for us is, that we feel responsible for the emotional states of others and this pushes us to work ourselves past the point of what we’re capable of handling in order to rectify or cover over our feelings of guilt and shame. In short, no bueno.

The Root

This became clear to me not too long ago when a few things happened that coincided with a perspective shift. I have been working in the restaurant industry for most of my working career, the same as my family has been doing for decades. In the restaurant industry, we work long days, through rushes and under difficult conditions. It was tough, but we had a lot of fun too.

Recently, I’ve switched to a new position that is office based work. I went into the job expecting the same type of environment. High stress and high energy. After all, the people I worked with seemed to be constantly busy and stressed in the same ways we were in the restaurant biz. So I jumped in with both feet, ready to wade through the human services industry. Things did not go as planned.

Change of Perspective

As I said, I started the position with the same tenacity that I was used to from the restaurants I’ve worked in. I was reaching out to people, making plans to meet with them, to find new resources. I was going hard and expecting that everybody else was on board. This however was not the case.

It seemed that the more I was doing, the more I was making others uncomfortable. I hadn’t realized it at first, but I was definitely stepping on some toes. When the situation finally came to a head, my supervisor and my boss’s supervisor called me into a meeting. We spoke for a few minutes when I realized that we were talking about how my attitude had become a problem.

At first this made no sense to me. I was doing my job and doing it well. My instinct was to think, “everybody else needs to step up their game.” But reflecting on this situation now, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation.

Difficult to Manage

One of my old jobs was as a bread baker in a popular, local bakery. I was good at the job, worked hard and not afraid to jump in where they needed a hand. Unfortunately, I was arrogant, mean and not afraid to let my opinions be known. And I had a lot of opinions.

It was in this bakery that I had experienced some major life changes. One being ending my marriage with my then wife. I was in a bad place and hostile. More so than was the norm for that environment, which was pretty hostile to begin with. I was baking with the owner one holiday when I made a big mistake. We got into an argument and he ended up letting me go.

What was so memorable about the experience was, he told me I was a good baker, as he told me to leave in frustration. But difficult manage. And this was essentially what I was being told again. Good at my job, difficult to relate to. Only this time, by the grace of God, I didn’t get fired. So I decided somethings needed to shift.

Impossibly High Standards

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why was I putting myself in these strange and confusing situations. I was good at my job. It was my personality that was the problem. I do this because I feel as though my self worth and value hinges on how hard I work. As a family member of mine would say, “how serious I take myself”. That was confusing too, translating “serious” to “works hard”.

But what happens if you take yourself too seriously? What happens when you take your responsibilities to the extreme, work too hard? Placing your productivity over the relationships you have with those you work with? As I’ve found, you put yourself in situations where you get talked to. Not for your job performance, but for your interpersonal skills. Something I need to work on.

Relaxing Your Standards

Upon further reflection, this too was a learned behavior. I was taught to have a good work ethic. I was also consistently being told I was lazy by my parents in my youth. Their standards were what I would call unreasonably high for a child to add up to. But I tried. And in so doing, I inherited their impossibly high standards. Something I’m now in the process of unlearning.

And it’s no easy. I find myself picking apart every job I see done. Whether it’s by myself or another. Nothing is ever up to my standard of how I would like it to be. My motto was, “if it’s not done perfectly, it’s not done right”. This is also an unhealthy stance to take. The perfectionist in me is something that took a long time to come to terms with. Something I’m still coming to terms with.

What has helped me is, to sit in the uncomfortable feelings, the dis-ease of my standard not being met. Reminding myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be done well, or that good enough is sometimes good enough. Also, reminding myself that I’m not perfect. Which is something I definitely thought I was when I was younger. And another reminder, that even if I feel as though I’m coming up short, I still care for and love myself.

You Are Loved Regardless

And ultimately, this is the message that we send ourselves when we tear ourselves down for not being perfect. Or are being criticized for not adding up to an impossible standard: that we are not loved unless we are perfect. Anything short of an impossibly high standard and you are forced to sit outside of the feelings of love and acceptance. This is a cold place to be.

It’s also a place that needs a lot of inwardly turned attention and affection. Because when the affection of those who were supposed to love me, was withheld, I learned to withhold it from myself. Not knowing why I “wasn’t loveable”. But if others didn’t love me, there must be something wrong with me. This was how I saw myself until somewhat recently.

This changed for me around the time I started practicing self-care Sundays. I realized that I had been living under the harsh and brutal régime of my family for far too long. Beating myself up in ways such as skipping meals, while also upping my workouts. This resulted in me passing out after a shower one night. This is a dangerous mindset to occupy.

Loving Another Starts With Loving Yourself

I was so used to the critical side of me, that that’s all I listened to. I realized, after practicing self-care Sundays, that I didn’t really know what self-acceptance and love felt like. It had been so long since I’ve been able to accept where I am, or even who I am, that I had completely forgot what those states felt like.

This was quite the discovery. And further more, I had no healthy role models to show me how it worked! So I started practicing self-care on faith, really, hoping something would change.

Wading Through Old Emotions

And slowly but surely, new ways of being began to raise to the surface. Patience was one of the more important ones for me. Because without patience, I wasn’t able to sit with the uncomfortable emotions that I was feeling and had run from in the past. The emotions of feeling inadequate and unlovable were two big ones. With the patience to sit with them, I was able to recognize them for what they were. Old messages that had nothing to do with who I actually am.

Patience for me came in treating my self-care dinners as the opposite of working in the food industry. I chose a recipe I knew I would like. Then I would go out and gather the ingredients at my local grocery store. When it came time to prepare the meal, I would slowly and mindfully, gather and prepare all the ingredients. Usually while a candle was burning with a favorite scent of mine in low, ambient light and with soft, gentle music playing and a cup of herbal tea. I took my time and enjoyed the process instead of rushing through it.

I also realized, during these dinners that these were ways my family had felt neglected as well. They were also withholding love and acceptance from themselves by rushing through their emotions. But if we can learn to withhold love and acceptance, we can learn to reengage with them as well.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The key to why my self-care dinners worked so well for me was, because I kept doing them. It was something I dedicated my time to and did regularly and consistently. Showing myself that, “I’m here, I care”, is important.

And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. If it was the consistent disapproval from my family members that brought me to a place where I wouldn’t approve of myself, no matter how much work I did, then it would be the consistent, positive reinforcement of caring for myself that would show me that I was worth the while. I am lovable. I am worth the time and caring affection I was seldom shown in the past.

But again, this is no easy. For this to take hold, you have to make it a part of your routine. I scheduled mine on Sundays, because that was the first day of my weekend. I knew I would have this day to myself, and seeing how I’m still paying down student loan debt, I don’t take many days off. So scheduling is important.

Find a Routine That Works for You & Stick to It

For me, my routine is my self-care Sunday meal. But I do this this because I enjoy cooking for myself, as long as I can take my time doing it. Because if I’m rushed, it feels like work to me. I enjoy slowly bringing the meal together while burning a candle and listening to some of my favorite tunes. The low-lighting and the aromas from what I’m cooking and my tea are soothing to me. Plus, the meals I make are pretty good. Thanks in large part to Minimalist Baker. But this is my routine and not everybody finds peace in the kitchen.

For your routine, find what brings you joy. This isn’t always an easy task. Before I was more attuned to myself, I would find relaxation at the bottom of 4-5 beers or mixed drinks while vegging out in-front of a screen. Either playing videogames or watching T.V.. None of those are inherently bad, but I was using them as an escape from my emotions. I enjoy having a beer or two while I’m out, or with my self-care dinners. But I no longer drink to excess. I’ve stopped playing videogames only because I haven’t found something I like and I still enjoy T.V., just a few episodes here and there.

When finding what brings you peace, ask yourself, “what are the things I do that I enjoy, that I’m good at.” Having a sense of mastery in a hobby brings with it a feeling of satisfaction. Knowing that you are good at something, like my cooking ability, can bring more overall joy to the experience. Or maybe start a new hobby or pick up a new interest. You never know where it could lead to.

Schedule Time For Yourself

And finally, if you’re busy as most of us are, find some time to carve out for yourself. I know what’s true for me is that responsibilities tend to multiply, not decrees. So finding a dedicated time for you to come back to again and again is important for consistency. Because it’s that consistency, that practice that shows us that we love ourselves by giving ourselves our time.

And it’s not selfish to take time to take care of yourself. This is something a younger me would scoff at. My opinion used to be that self-sacrifice was a given, and if you took the time to treat yourself then you were the worst kind of selfish. Self centered and arrogant were adjectives I would have used in my youth to describe who I’ve become today.

But we change. And healthy change can be a good thing. So long as we don’t over indulge. And finding the balance is key. Not going to extremes in either work, or relaxing too much. Take it from someone who’s seen both sides of the equation. Find your balance and you’ll find peace. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Busy kitchen” by VV Nincic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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