Letting Go of Exhaustion

13 minute read

An Introvert’s Guide to Rest in an Extroverted World.

Alas, the speed of biology is so much slower than the speed of technology. So. Much. Slower.

Coming off a long holiday season, I found it jarring to try to get back into my nourishing routines. Somehow it was harder to cook nourishing meals, harder to find energy in exercise, harder to fill up with meditation and prayer—much harder than it had been only a few weeks prior. I felt like a sack of potatoes that had taken on water and become extraordinarily heavy—and yet somehow empty.

It took all of January for my body and soul to settle down and find each other again. I had been running too fast. And not for the first time.

I think sometimes we wear busyness as a badge of honor; we pursue fight or flight as “fun”. Because we think we’re supposed to. The Holidays are a good example of just how far we will go to make ourselves busy, even when we’re on vacation. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown calls this particular aspect of American pride: “exhaustion as status symbol and productivity as self worth”.

Before I go any further, I should probably tell you: I'm an introvert. I’m part of that other half of the population which draws its energy from being quiet. You seldom hear from this half, except perhaps on blogs or in books, because introverts prefer the world of letters to the world of loudspeakers most of the time.

I say this by way of disclaimer. Because my observations on exhaustion and what to do about it are based on what’s working for me, for my temperament.

So if you’re an extrovert and you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about and the holidays were totally energizing for you and you immediately got back to your routines with a Rocky Balboa vengeance and you can’t read this post fast enough, then Ok. I get it. Count yourself lucky to live in a society that fist-bumps you all the way. Go forth and prosper. The rest of us need a little group therapy. (Actually, you may want to stick around. I have an observation that may save you from your own brand of burnout.)

Relax, You're Normal.

So let’s talk a little more about introverts, because I think introverts are especially vulnerable to exhaustion in America.

First, if you’re an introvert, you probably feel much more alone than you actually are. You probably play your cards close to the vest because you feel weird. You may even pretend you’re an extrovert in order to seem “normal". But studies show that anywhere from one third to one half of the population are introverts. So take heart. That’s a lot of souls out there to keep you company.

And in spite of any labels you may have inherited, you and I both know that introverts are not necessarily “shy”. And that they do not dislike people. In fact, according to some experts, introversion is chiefly about stimulus sensitivity, not about personalities or neuroses. In this view, introverts are just normal people whose energy management system happens to hum along nicely in low-stimulus environments (like solitude or quiet focus) but overloads quickly in high-stimulus environments (like parties and loud unfocused activities). Sounds normal to me.

So: introverts thrive in low-stimulus environments. I buy that. But that doesn’t mean a skilled introvert can't hold his or her own in a high-stimulus environment—at least for a while. I consider myself one of these introverts with good extroverted skills. My skills look great on me for about 2 hours, until they begin to crack and peel like stage makeup under too much bright light. My "skill set” is a little precarious that way. Actually, my “skill set” drains the heck out of me. My nature, on the other hand, is nourishing—even calm. Contemplative. Boring.

I would never depart from my nature, but for the fact that the rules of social engagement are (understandably) made by extroverts. Imagine golden retrievers making all the rules for cats, and you get some idea of what it’s like for introverts: open offices, loud bars, raucous sporting events, packed classrooms, cluttered schedules, endless praise for the "team-player", subtle shame for the quiet person who has his or her own ideas, expectations to always be available, always be on your game, always be awesome, and answer the phone!

This may be more true in America than elsewhere. Look around. We live in an empire of enthusiasm. "Everything is awesome!” (See The Lego Movie).

The American Caricature of Being Awesome

America is arguably the place where the very idea of substituting personality for character went from being just a politician's trick to a well-crafted everyman’s manifesto. This is the country that practically invented the entire genre of "self-help" books with the publication of How to Win Friends and Influence People, which should have had the subtitle, “How to Fake It till You Make It—and if Not, Well, Shame on You”. I read that book. I became that book. And, perversely, it “worked". By that I mean, the jaunty promise of success was fulfilled. But at tremendous cost. I was constantly confused, like most introverts are, by the hollow and depleted feeling my success carried with it, like I needed caffeine—lot’s of caffeine—to keep it all going. Like I had to prop myself up with stimulants, sports drinks, self-help books, and slogans or it would all shatter, today, this afternoon, right now! It was all going to hell unless I ordered another espresso.

At the time, I didn’t realize I was not alone. For introverts living in America, often the only certainty is a kind of moral confusion about who they are supposed to be. And that sends them all into hiding, where they hide from each other as effectively as they hide from everyone else, including themselves.

As Susan Cain puts it, in her book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking:

Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America. Some fool even themselves, until some life event— a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like— jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.

That’s what happened to me. I quit my job and had to face my true nature. It wigged me out. Because in spite of the fact that I was extremely exhausted—catatonically exhausted—I found I was so addicted to my extroverted skills and so dependent on extroverted productivity for self worth, that I just couldn’t stop. I kept pumping myself with caffeine and feeding the machine. Even when I didn’t need to.

Then one day I asked myself, “What would happen if introverts simply allowed their nature to lead the way? What if they put biology before biography and just let the wisdom of the body speak?" In other words, what if they stopped trying to be extroverts?

What if?

And here's the really crazy question that came next. “What if extroverts aren't really even extroverts?” I repeat. What if extroverts aren't really extroverts--if by "extrovert “, you mean the caffeinated American caricature we all seem to be chasing?

Think about it. Sometimes I wonder if the real reason Starbucks does so much business is because we’re ALL trying to achieve some unrealistic level of energy that is, biologically speaking, just not there and never was. Nobody can authentically keep up with the Joneses if the Joneses are all on drugs. I’ve heard plenty of extroverts complain of “capacity issues” as leaders. Plenty. Extroverts burn out all the time. So, if even our social heroes can't keep up with the always-on, always-available, always-must-be-exrtraordinary expectation, then who can?

Letting Go of Exhaustion

It is a fallacy to think that one just needs more time. Unless a deeper solution is found, "more time" will just fill up in the same way as the time we already have. The way to liberation and rest lies through a decision and a practice. - Dallas Willard.

So there I was, on sabbatical with plenty of time to rest and no rest in sight. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Clearly I needed “a deeper solution...a decision and a practice”, as Dalles Willard puts it, or I would just keep filling up the time in the same way I always had—frantically living in my skill set.

What’s emerged out of that realization is a number of evolving disciplines. I share them with you here off-the-cuff, in infantile form, because routines of rest are never finished anyway. You can't just check them off your list. Sanity is not a to-do item. In fact, I think sanity is the very opposite of a to-do item; it's a process of returning, refining, and recommitting to routines of rest in order to keep them meaningful and frankly, restful.

Eight Routines of Rest That Are Working for Me Now:

  1. Take a Sabbath. Yep. One day in seven, I TURN OFF MY PHONE, all the way off, FOR 24 FREAKING HOURS. My wife and I pack food and outdoor clothing for the whole family the night before and then we head to the hills after church. We go off the grid. We walk, bike, ski, snowshoe, whatever. There is no expectation of anything else. Not even the expectation of conversation. The point is to just be. Outside. Breathing hard. Together. I realize this is audacious and a bit cumbersome. But it's worth it.

  2. Own It. If the phrase, “exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self worth,” resonates with you at all, then just own it. Say it out load. Naming the monster is the first step to taming the monster. If you can raise your hand and say “Hi, my name is Jane and I’m a exhaustion-a-holic”, then you are on the road to recovery. You may now start 12-stepping your way back into the calm energy of your natural self.

  3. Move More Slowly. This one is really hard for me. I’m learning (slowly) to travel at the speed of biology rather than the speed of technology or pharmacology. That means I’m driving the speed limit (more often) and weening off caffeine (sort of). OMG. This is hard. Stay tuned for status updates.

  4. Meditate. Yes, I do that now. I actually revel in the beautiful corniness of just sitting there, listening to a soundscape with some breathy female voice speaking affirmations into my skull and guiding me through a limb-by-limb relaxation exercise, starting with the soles of my feet and working all the way up to my overburdened neck and shoulders. Don’t knock it till you try it. If it wasn’t working, I wouldn’t fess up to it. There are a hundred and one ways to do this; I really enjoy my subscription to Calm, through the Apple App Store. 20 minutes a day seems to be my sweet spot.

    One of the simple things I’ve noticed, since I started meditating, is that I digest my food better. This is no surprise really, since body-scan meditation is known to increase "vagal tone” and take us out of the “fight or flight response” and into the “feed and breed response”. The vagus nerve is responsible for initiating stomach acid secretion and digestion (among other things). Knowing how to increase vagal tone gently is probably one of the single-most important missing links to human health in our always-on culture. It makes me wonder how many of my previous digestive disorders weren't really medical diagnosis at all, but simply manifestations of the stress response, which shuts down all non-emergency systems, including digestion.

  5. Do Yoga. I have a set of 19 asanas (postures) I do every morning on my own. I can’t even begin to tell you how good it feels. It’s hard to describe how yoga changes the tone of my day. The phrase “calm energy” comes to mind, but that seems inadequate to describe the well-being and sense of capacity that yoga initiates. I used to go to classes, but I find I rarely attend them any more, because they are too long, and because paper thin Lululemon tights are, frankly, distracting. (But maybe I’ve talked you into it.)

  6. Take a Walk Instead of a Coffee Break. This is a great way for me to find energy in the afternoon (around 3pm) instead of trying to power through with coffee. As a bonus, I sleep better at night for not having had any caffeine after 12pm. (Caffeine can raise stress hormone levels for up to 12 hours after ingestion—long after its alertness effects have worn off. Your mind gets tired, but your body still feels restless from left-over adrenalin.)

  7. Soak Up Some Radiant Heat. If you have access to an infrared sauna you may find it surprisingly energizing. It’s different from sitting in a standard sauna which turns you into a noodle. If you can’t find an infrared sauna, try sitting close to someone you love for 30 min with no agenda and no words. There’s calm energy there, I swear. And of course, the sun provides radiant energy. Several billion Joules worth. Go outside for 20 minutes and bottle some of it up inside your body.

  8. Just Say “No”. The easiest way to say “no” is to have already said “yes” to something else, something deep and essential to you that automatically helps you say “no” to a hundred other things. I’m learning to say “no” very effectively now, because I’ve already said yes to my essential intent. If you want to learn more about setting your own essential intent, check out The Marriagestartup Podcast Episode 10, by my good friends Les and Laura Camacho, in which they review and attempt to implement the book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg Mckeown.

Do You Need An Excuse?

Okay, here’s an opportunity to hunker down for a spell with full cultural support.

If you have any sort of Orthodox background, you’ll know that Lent is just around the corner. Lent is a Christian season of saying “no” to certain things in order to “yes” to deeper spiritual intents. And it’s 40 freaking days long! Long enough to break a habit, I’d say. So here’s my idea. For the first time ever, I’m going to observe Lent. I’ll be giving up caffeine--for reals. Because my deep intent is to let go of exhaustion for good and live with genuine energy that is in alignment with my nature. Phew. There, I said it. Wish me luck. I’ll keep you posted.

And now, I’ll ask you. What might you give up, in order to paradoxically become more whole and complete? Think about it. Remember that time, in and of itself, does not heal all things. Only when you combine time with something else, “a decision and a practice”, will you find those nourishing routines that yield “liberation and rest”.

It really doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert, or an extrovert, or something in-between, (an “ambidextrovert”?), you probably need to give up something--even if it’s just the American caricature of the always-on, always-available, always-awesome self you cannot be.

Maybe it's time for us all to reinterpret rest: Rest is not moral turpitude or failure. (And neither is being an introvert). It's your biology speaking. Are you listening?

Yours in Health and Resilience,

Marc Wagner, MD, MPH

P.S.
If you find yourself wondering whether you might be a closet introvert (or if someone you love might be), check out this concise article in the Huffington Post: 10 Ways Introverts Interact Differently With The World. It's a quick way to get some clarity.

I also highly recommend Susan Cain’s book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Super fantastic.

And finally, here's a wonderful 2.5 minute animation by Susan Cain that sums it all up.

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