Have you ever thought about what your life, and the way you live it, is going to do to you?
Nah, probably not. Me neither. For most of us that’s an issue that comes up when we think about boxers and football players and hookers. Most of us work in offices, or sit in front of computers. But even if we’re farmers, we think, well, we’ll work and then one day, if we can afford to, we’ll retire. If not, we’ll keep working some more.
That’s what I thought, and I was naïve. Really naïve, with two whole dots over the ï.
One woman I know, accomplished, successful, said to me recently, “I’m recovering from my life.” This was after I’d asked her why she did so little when she used to do so much. But...what did she have to recover from!?! She wasn’t a boxer or a football player or a hooker! Her brain, her knees, her body weren’t worn out from being beaten up. She’d spent her working life sitting in a freakin’ chair, for goodness’ sake!
From the outside.
From the inside...well, that’s where it makes all the difference. You can’t judge people from the outside. You have to listen to them.
Let’s look at some of the dimensions of a person’s life experience that could add up to a life you need to recover from, perhaps even a life it’s impossible to recover from. After all, I just read this morning that James Bond committed suicide. Not the fictional character. He was indestructible, of course. No, this was the real secret service guy—also super-handsome, by the way—on whom Ian Fleming based his James Bond character. But the toll his life as a secret agent took on him was too much for him. He couldn’t recover from his life, and so he ended it. So you see, this is a big deal, and not just for former secret agents.
One of the dimensions of our lives that wear us out is conscientiousness. Now, sure, it’s good to be conscientious. To think about the things that need thinking about, to do the things that need doing. This whole damned world is held together by conscientious people. Hooray for us!
But! There’s so much to think about! So much to do! And so much resentment over the assholes who aren’t doing their share! So while you get a merit badge for being conscientious, what it’s like to live that is like living a life at a running pace while wearing a heavy pack on your back.
Another dimension that makes all the other dimensions worse is the extent to which we do what we do for other people. Because of their needs, their goals, their concerns. Yes, on our jobs we’re the ones who get paid (though rarely enough!), but they’re the ones rewarded by all the things we do that give us stress and burnout. We wrote about all this in our book The Emotional Energy Factor.
Take most doctors today. Most doctors want to treat sick and injured people. That’s why they became doctors. So why are they so frustrated and dissatisfied? Because of paperwork and insurance crap and organizational bullshit that take up so much of their time and are so totally unrewarding. It can feel like being beaten up.
It’s the same with truck drivers. They generally like the job. But endless regulations and monitoring and so on can be exhausting and demoralizing.
Same with waitstaff in restaurants. Serving people is fine. Dealing with crap from people and stupid bosses is hell.
Then there’s the dimension of anxiety. You know what anxiety is? It’s where you go straight to PTSD without stopping at the T. It’s just the on-going trauma of anxiety itself. Fear of screwing up. Of failing. Of not succeeding. Of not measuring up. Of seeming “less than.” Of one catastrophe or another. Of one catastrophe after another. When soldiers at the front in World War I went through a couple of months of this, they fell victim to what was then called shell shock. Well, a lifetime of anxiety-filled work can leave anyone shell shocked. Meaning they need to recover from their life with calm, silence, and nothing to disturb them whatsoever.
Another dimension is conflict. This is where in your work life to get anywhere—even to get anything done!—you have to push against others and deal with their pushing back against you. It can feel as though your days are a constant struggle or flat-out fight with bosses, co-workers, customers, clients, providers, regulators, monitors, eavesdroppers, and critics, plus friends and family who just don’t get it. This isn’t exhausting the way a long day of digging a ditch is. It’s destructive the way a long lifetime of digging ditches can ruin your back and knees. In this case, it’s your nervous system that gets shot to hell.
There’s lots more, but I’m going to mention just one additional dimension. I’m going to call this running hot. Over pacing. Revving your engine. Sometimes two people can be in the same environment, doing the same work, achieving the same results. But one manages to be relaxed. To play it cool. To not—for example—to be conscientious about stuff that doesn’t really matter. To not worry about unlikely outcomes. The other is way more intense than the work and the goals of the work require; and that’s the person at risk for ending up needing to recover from their life.
So what do we do about this?
Step one is not to blame ourselves. If ever there was a condition that was caused by the environment—the social and economic environment in this case—this is it. But still, we’re not helpless. There is a lot we can do, whether we’re just starting out in our twenties, or we’re in mid-career, or later in life. What it is we can do...that’s for the follow-up post next time.