The Liberation in Doing Nothing

Sounds like a boring or annoying article, doesn’t it? Well, your preemptive boredom or annoyance, says a lot about your fear of doing nothing. Read on. I know you want to.

In my childhood I witnessed both my father and mother being very busy people. Though they didn’t have a lot of money, they at least had work ethic, and a strong sense of purpose, driving them to occupy their time. I learned from a young age to practice a type of ambition and excellence, where I would do everything to the best of my ability, and excel through my sheer effort and stubborn determination. And, yes, I mean, everything. I even rested, played and adventured in this same spirit.

Fast-forward to my adulthood, and I had learned to be an expert at always doing something. Work was obviously a way I did this “something”, a whole lot. I even chose highly demanding occupations, or multiple at a time, so as to have very little “free” time. Then, during the times I knew I needed to rest, practice self-care, relax, or essentially, not work, I created complex conditions for their fulfillment, and would be quite ambitious and creative about ensuring I was doing something. I went to lots of therapy, and had lovely coaches. I made my self a project. I learned several types of meditation and yoga, and I would practice them vigorously! I tried out all sorts of unusual self-care practices, and was rather regimented in doing them. I ate extremely healthy, and made sure to take all my supplements. I made sure to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night, barely, if ever, drank alcohol (unless that was scheduled far in advance), and I stayed away from drugs.

After many many years of being this way, in my late twenties, I realized I was always on the hunt for self-care and adventurous activities to do, to help myself feel more energized and happy about about the life I was living. I was feeling more and more burnt out from work, and no amount of meditation, yoga, or extra sleep was helping, so I figured I needed to do more of something else. I needed, work-life balance, or so I thought.

Then I realized the experience of needing more, not less, was what was burning me out, and promptly decided to do less in my life. That is when I came up against the wall of terror that rose up in response to trying to simplify my life, and do much less. This terror, which I eventually realized was based in shame, was such a strong feeling, it actually tricked me into believing I was instead either experiencing boredom or anger. When I thought I was bored or angry, I passively entertained myself in order to make these feelings go away. I would then engage in mindless, addictive activities, such as scrolling Facebook and Instagram on my phone, or binge-watching Netflix. And, when I found myself feeling shame and guilt about how unproductive I was being by doing these passive activities to occupy me, I would either do them even more to distract from those feelings, or I would get up, and return to being more active or busy. I eventually settled on the rationalization that I needed this mindless stimulation as a way to shut off my overactive brain, as well as to soothe myself. This was the closest to doing nothing, that I thought I could get to, because it required even less effort than meditation, and because I was tired of effort-ing so much, this was my solution.

Fast forward several more years, and now in my current days, I see what this was really about. I didn’t know how to truly do nothing. I didn’t know how to do it because, 1) it was never modeled to me by my family or society. 2) When I tried to do nothing, terror arose to motivate me to do something, because it was there to protect me from feeling the deep sense of worthlessness I would feel if I actually did nothing. And, 3) it is rather difficult to do nothing, as I am pretty much always doing something, by virtue of existing, and having a mind.

I am going to address reasons number 1 and 2, below, as addressing reason number 3 is rather futile to explain, and makes this article seem pointless.

You see, so much of my worth, and I believe much of America’s worth, is based on staying busy, and never not doing nothing. And, if we do “nothing”, we feel it must be a purposeful, utilitarian type of nothing, otherwise we are wasting time, or are wasted space. Even the process of consuming entertainment, food, drugs/alcohol, culture, and objects, is a productive activity, because it has a purpose and an ideal generated outcome. This is so, because to do be consumptive of entertainment and “fun”, follows cultural roles of being a citizen, and perpetuates the norms that we should want these “things” in order to remain connected (or in high-esteem) with each other by partaking in them. This process of consumption is said to serve a proper purpose: we are fulfilling a need for “living the good life”, by making fun/joy/gratification happen, for ourselves and others. This is a big part of the American Dream. My parents were wonderful models for me of this American tendency to always be productive, and I am sure their parents were great models for them, too. And, since we are all rewarded in our system for being busy and productive, and are labelled as lazy, spoiled, stupid, and wasteful, when we don’t make our time, energy, self, and resources useful, of course we choose not to do nothing.

I really wanted to get past the exhaustion I felt, so as a last resort, after having busily and with great expense, tried almost everything to regain my energy, lately I decided to do nothing. When this made me extremely anxious and agitated, as it always does, I made a pact with myself to now let myself feel everything that arises as I just sit there, gazing about, in a somewhat unfocused way. I have also been allowing myself to drop ideas I have about how to occupy myself, while addressing the feeling that motivated the desire to do something in the first place.

I am realizing that about 80% of the time, what motivates me to get up and do something, is a feeling of anxiety or anger, related to feelings of low self-worth. This is leading me to see that the vast majority of activities, things, people, places, experiences, etc… that I have occupied myself with in the past, were at least partially for the purpose of fulfilling my goal to avoid feeling worthless. And, though sitting around, not accomplishing much, and also perhaps “neglecting” other areas of my life that I tell myself need to be tended to, is at times extremely anxiety provoking and scary, I am finding my sense of self-worth is becoming stronger! Additionally, I am finding that my abilities for experiencing joy, peace, and relaxation, are increasing dramatically.

So, if you find you are getting burnt out in your own life, ask yourself if perhaps you need to remove the complexity and busy-ness, and do far less. Then, give yourself permission to do nothing. Then prepare to face the waves of shame-based programming that will hit you. But, I promise you, on the other side of that, is the actual rest, rejuvenation, peace, and joy you have been seeking.

Try it out. Do nothing.

Coach. Psychologist. Writing about new perspectives, love, relationships, Narcissism, healing, transformation, & culture.

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