Spreading Ourselves Thin

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First, A Parable

Stories have a way of getting through to us and sticking with us for the long haul. The discussion this week is an important one, so we will start this thing off with a parable about spreading ourselves thin from the The 4-Hour Workweek (affiliate) by Tim Ferriss:

An American investment banker was taking a much-needed vacation in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. The boat had several large, fresh fish in it.

The investment banker was impressed by the quality of the fish and asked the Mexican how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.” The banker then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican fisherman replied he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman replied, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos: I have a full and busy life, señor.”

The investment banker scoffed, “I am an Ivy League MBA, and I could help you. You could spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats until eventually, you would have a whole fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to the middleman you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You could control the product, processing and distribution.”

Then he added, “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City where you would run your growing enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15–20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You could make millions.”

“Millions, señor? Then what?”

To which the investment banker replied, “Then you would retire. You could move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

From Investment Banker to Fisherman

This story knocked the wind right out of me because I saw myself as both the investment banker and the fisherman at different times in my life. These days, I’m a little more fisherman- I want to live a good life now. I like my job, working on meaningful projects, learning new things, and growing as a person, and I want to enjoy the life I currently have as much as possible.

I don’t want to wait until retirement to spend quality time with my friends and family and do what I love. I don’t want to wait for some day, years or decades down the road, where I can finally eat what I want and “let myself go” like people say they will when they get older. I want to enjoy delicious food and appreciate my body now.

Screw waiting until I’m old to eat what I want. I’m doing that now.

If current me is more like the fisherman, college Erin was the investment banker. My subconscious’s motto was “get busy working, or get busy failing”, which resulted in me feeling like I was drowning in my obligations around the clock. I securely tied my self worth and value to how busy I was, so I only felt worthy, valuable, and important when I was hitting the books or working on projects.

This started well before college, though. I lived the first 22 years of life, perhaps aside from age 0-4, with tight shoulders and a racing mind. I couldn’t relax because I always felt like I had so much to do and not enough time to do it. In my mind, resting would result in failure, and my goodness, the world would crumble beneath me if I failed at anything. Because I felt anxious all day, I couldn’t wind down and sleep at night, so I’d spend most of the night ruminating and not resting.

As a kid, I always admired Snorlax’s ability to relax whenever and wherever.

I rushed through meals without enjoyment like I rushed through everything else- nature walks, exercise at the gym, and I hate to say it, time with friends. Speeding through meals made it incredibly difficult to know when I was actually full, as scarfing down food, spoon or fork on a swivel, doesn’t exactly give your stomach enough time to tell your brain it’s full. I would eat trail mix and cereal so fast, barely breathing between handfuls or spoonfuls, and this would leave me feeling stuffed, guilty, and worthless.

In response, I would exercise more than normal or restrict at my next meal to make up for all that I had eaten before because ingesting extra calories meant that I would gain a few pounds, and that would mean I was a failure too. I would then feel hungry and deprived, and we all know how the cycle goes on from here.

Taking a Step Back From Spreading Ourselves Thin

Now that I’m on the other side of undergrad, I realize I was struggling with my mental health and self worth big time. The only way I knew how to cope was by filling every waking moment with something that made me feel important.

Me in the library on more than one occasion

I was so busy trying to get perfect grades and a hot bod that I never took time out to ask myself why. Why did I insist on wearing myself so thin for higher grades and a smaller body? Why did I feel that my self worth was tied to these arbitrary measures, and why did I have panic attacks when I knew I might fall short of them? Why couldn’t I just relax and have fun like other college students?

I didn’t start asking myself those questions and doing that mental health work until the very end of my college career. It started when I hit rock bottom while freaking out about an upcoming exam that didn’t really matter because I was already accepted into an internship. I realized my intense stress levels didn’t line up with the reality of the situation. Someone I knew had just started going to the campus counseling center, so I decided to put myself on the waiting list and hope I could figure my stuff out.

Not long after that, I got a call that the counseling center had an opening, and I was able to make an appointment. The counselor warned me that when people first start exploring their mental health issues, they often feel worse before they get better. Yep, that was definitely my reality. But after a few months of my counselor walking me through deep, reflective questions, I started putting pieces of my past together and feeling clarity about my anxiety and relentless perfectionist tendencies.

I wish I would have asked myself this question much earlier in life

I had spent years doing all of the things I thought I was supposed to do by constantly striving to build up my resume and pursuing greatness because being average didn’t feel enough for me. Our culture tells us we must always hustle so we can buy all of the stuff that will make us happy, like a big house and a shiny car.

Several years later, we can relax in retirement with a smile on our face knowing that we were successful. Then, we get busy doing all the things we have been waiting to do for our entire lives, like relax and travel. We accept this notion and pursue it without asking ourselves if that’s what we really want to do.

The same is true for our bodies. We’re told in a thousand different ways that smaller bodies are better, whether by parents, teachers, other kids, television, magazines, and anything else. Kids pick up on this messaging when they’re so young, and most of them aren’t taught to think any other way.

Diet culture takes full advantage of this lack of reflection by telling us that we want to be small and skinny because that will make us feel good and we will be more worthy of love and acceptance. Most of us never question that either. Instead, we trudge along with our food restriction and rigorous exercise, in the endless pursuit of a beach body that we think will finally fix all of the internal problems we are dealing with. Everyone else is doing it, after all.

We can try regulating our internal emotions with external things, like fitness and grades, but it won’t work.

I appreciate the sentiment of working hard and pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, but I can’t get behind working hard for work’s sake and material possetions. I couldn’t be where I am without metaphorical elbow grease and lots of advantages that others may not have gotten, but I also know I could be in this exact same spot without the constant feelings of not doing enough or being enough that I felt while getting here.

I gave myself the illusion that I was super busy so I could feel important in college by never sitting still and always doing something that felt productive so that I could get out of my own head for most of the day. Many of us don’t make time for peace and quiet because we are avoiding the stillness that will make us feel our feelings, think our thoughts, and ask our questions. Instead, we work, check social media, work, watch tv, work, and find other distractions to fill our day, never really taking a step back and reflecting on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Everyone, anytime there is a moment of silence or a chance to take a break at work

Finding Stillness Instead of Spreading Ourselves Thin

How do you feel in the absence of work or external stimulation like music, podcasts, or books? Can you sit in silence and reflect on the weighty questions in your life, or do you immediately reach for your phone so social media can provide a momentary distraction from what looms in the deepest layers of your psyche?

Learning how to pause and take time out of my day to just be has been imperative in healing my relationship with food. My shoulders no longer feel tense 24/7, and my mind doesn’t always race a million miles an hour. The longer I worked at making time for peace, the easier it was to listen to my body’s needs and eat more intuitively. It’s impossible to listen to your body if you’re always racing around or looking at a screen.

I was fortunate enough to have a counselor on my campus who asked deep questions that forced me to stop and think, but I completely understand that not everyone has access to mental health professionals like I did. I also understand that not everyone is ready to do that mental health work, and that’s totally fine.

I hope quality mental health care in America costs no more than 5 cents someday

Whether or not you need to or can go to counselor or other mental health professional, you can still dig deep and ask yourself what you really want in life and why. You can reflect on your need for perfection, a summer body, or your inability to take a break and just be for a while. Sitting in silence will feel uncomfortable, but do your best to stay in that discomfort, and eventually make peace with it. As Glennon Doyle writes in her book Untamed (affiliate), “if you just stop doing, you’ll start knowing.”

I highly recommend the practice of journaling, because I find that my pen seems to know my thoughts and feelings better than my conscious mind does. Writing out my anxieties also allows me to get them out of my brain, and I notice much less rumination after a solid journaling sesh. Plus, it allows me to sit in stillness, but also kind of have something to do. It’s the perfect balance between doing nothing, but still a little something.

If you’re already a regular journaler, that’s awesome! It’s a fantastic habit that can work wonders to help you learn more about yourself and assist you with making big decisions. If you don’t already, try giving yourself 10 minutes two times per week to start journaling, and sit down and explore your thoughts and feelings. You can write about whatever your heart wants, but I also have a few prompts below about diet culture that can help you get started if you feel stuck:

  • What are the feelings I’m searching for when I’m working toward my “dream body”?
  • Why does losing weight or getting fit feel so important to me, and why does it take up so much of my headspace?
  • What are some messages I was given as a kid that reinforced the idea that smaller bodies are “better”?
  • What would I tell my child or a younger version of me about dieting, food restriction, and compulsive exercise? Do I practice what I would tell them?
  • What is my ideal relationship with food? How does that differ from my current relationship with food, and how can I bridge the gap between the two?

Closing Thoughts

Americans juggle so many things at once and we are always on-the-go. It’s not always by choice. Most millennials that I know have more than one job to make ends meet, and adding kids on top of that feels entirely unmanageable. But we can still find silence and time for deep reflection instead of continuing to just do what we think we are supposed to do all the time.

My call to action this week is for you to look for obligations in your life that you can reduce or eliminate so you can stop spreading yourself so thin. Focus especially on the perceived obligations that diet culture has instilled, like working out for two hours per day or constantly researching weight loss supplements. Let’s all be more like the fisherman and find time to enjoy our lives now instead of dreaming about and relentlessly pursuing the day where we can finally relax, both about our obligations and our bodies.

How will you be more like the fisherman? Let me know in the comments below!

As Always, A Book Recommendation

If you’re looking for your next great read, my absolute favorite book on the topic of sitting in silence and contemplation is Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday. Ryan Holiday writes about Stoicism, the ancient practice of basically keeping one’s cool in any and every circumstance. His other two books, Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way are works of art on their own, but Stillness is the Key is my favorite of the three. (affiliate links)

This book offers an amazing, comprehensive reminder of the importance of slowing down, stepping back, and taking a long, hard look at ourselves and the lives we lead. It has been incredibly influential in my life, and I wish everyone in America were required to read it.

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