[7 Minute Read]
More and more people are recognizing the importance of self-reflection, personal growth, and emotional healing, yet some individuals find themselves stressed out by everlasting inner work, caught up in a fixation around "fixing". In some ways, they become addicted to "doing the work".
When is it time to put the self-help journal down and stop "healing yourself into the ground"? The journey towards healing should ideally be a source of freedom, not stress. Read on to learn more. At the end, I'll share a little bit about my own experiences with "healing burnout" and when I knew it was finally time to stop.
3 Signs You're Ready for a Break
1) You feel a sense of dread or exhaustion
And it's not because you're scared of being vulnerable or feeling dread around facing a specific topic - you're just plain tired. You've done a lot of work already, you've gained a lot of insight, and now you're ready to just sit back and "apply" some of your skills. You actually feel pretty good, overall.
2) Your relationship with your therapist has hit a plateau
This applies more to a therapy setting. You talk about the same things every time, you don't make much progress, or you just feel like you're not learning anything new in your sessions (maybe your therapist suggests something and you have a fleeting "I guess I knew that already" kind of thought). You might even be making small talk with your therapist as opposed to working on goals. In general, you're kinda...Bored.
3) You've accomplished a lot of your goals
You feel pretty good about where you're at. You've started to integrate things you've learned. You don't avoid difficult feelings, you've noticed an improvement in how you handle problems or face stress, and (if you're in therapy), maybe you've even talked about how well you're doing with your therapist. Maybe your therapy was about dealing with attachment issues but now you're a lot more secure and in a healthy relationship. This could be a sign that you've achieved some big goals and are ready to step back.
Reasons we fixate on inner work (past its time):
The Endless Pursuit of Productivity:
There is nothing our society loves more than rewarding productivity. Girl boss. Attaboy. Rise-and-grind. "Hustle culture" has gone from pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps into a full-on obsession with monetization, "aesthetic", productivity, and non-stop accomplishment. We fail to recognize the equal (if not more significant) importance of slooooowiiiing doooown. Slowing down is liberating. Slowing down is beautiful. FOMO is now JOMO - the "joy of missing out". There's a great book related to this concept of slowing down and "recharging" called Wintering by Katherine May. I wish I could tell you I read the whole thing but I didn't. I was too tired of reading and journaling and healing that I kinda got the message after about 3 chapters and decided I was going to do something else instead. I can't remember what. Probably a nap. But hey - if reading about healing still appeals to you - go for it! Wintering is a really awesome concept to embrace in your life.
Coping with Trauma:
For many, inner work is a means of coping with past traumas. Unresolved emotional wounds can impact various aspects of life, from relationships to personal well-being. The fixation on inner work may stem from the urgency to mend these wounds and create a sense of security. Unfortunately, the very process of confronting traumatic experiences can trigger stress and anxiety. Learning to sit with those very scary and difficult feelings of anxiety is tough. The journey of healing traumatic experiences takes time. It may take months or even years to reach a sense of calm or acceptance, and that is perfectly ok. You can STILL build the life you deserve and experience joy and contentment along the way. Peace doesn't need to wait until you're "totally healed".
In a world fueled by likes, follows, and hashtags, the pressure to present a curated, "perfect" version of oneself is intense. The phrases "being your best self" or "living your best life" are thrown around a lot, and while they are only words, they create an image of an individual who is so unbothered that it seems almost superhuman. Inner work then becomes a quest for validation and acceptance. Individuals embark on a journey of self-discovery and introspection, hoping to uncover and rectify every last perceived flaw. A perception arises of a "linear" journey with a fixed destination: one where we are totally pain-free, without shame, and without any weakness that leads us back into feeling "bad". This fixation often arises from the fear of being judged or falling short of societal (or personal) expectations. The solution? Lighten up on your expectations of yourself. You do not need to reach total enlightenment to lead a fulfilling life. Recognize that others do not need to validate you or where you're at. They literally probably don't even care. You are the captain of your own ship. And trust me - those people "living their best lives" experience upsets and bad days, too. It's called being human.
The Myth of Rapid Transformation:
Many individuals expect instant results and become frustrated when progress is not as swift as they hoped. This impatience can lead to stress, undermining the very purpose of the healing journey. It's like standing in front of an oak tree and yelling at it to grow faster. It's just not going to happen. Chill out and let the tree do its thing.
It's crucial to understand that healing is not a destination but a continuous journey. Embracing imperfections, acknowledging progress, and practicing self-compassion are essential components of this process. Rather than fixating on rapid results or achieving a perfect state, try to shift your focus towards learning, growing, and finding peace with where you're at.
So how can I avoid fixating and find balance?
Here are a few tips so your inner work doesn't become a source of stress that makes you want to bury yourself under the covers and never come out:
1) Set Realistic Expectations:
Understand that healing is a gradual process, and setbacks are a natural part of the journey. Set realistic expectations for yourself. Take breaks if you need to. You're always growing, even if you're not journaling daily, meditating, or actively "doing the work". It's not unlike exercising. You need rest days, too.
2) Practice Mindfulness:
Cultivate mindfulness to stay present. Being self-aware can help recognize when you're feeling triggered or dwelling excessively on past traumas or future expectations.
3) Seek Support:
Share your journey with trusted friends, family, or a mental health professional. Having a support system can make the healing process more manageable and also give you feedback on where you're at.
4) Embrace Joy:
Acknowledge and celebrate small victories along the way. Every step forward, no matter how small, is a significant achievement. Find joy where you can.
5) Prioritize Self-Compassion:
Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Remember that inner work is about self-love and acceptance.
Healing is not a journey towards ridding yourself of "bad" emotions, triggers, or emotional upset. While inner work is undoubtedly transformative, it's essential to approach it with a balanced mindset.
What if I want to quit therapy? Will my therapist hate me?
Assuming you feel comfortable and safe with your therapist, and the two of you have a good relationship...Tell them how you feel! The goal of therapy (generally) is not to be in therapy forever, it's to help you achieve your therapeutic goals. If you're doing well, your therapist will likely be happy to hear this! But, don't just ghost them (if you do, I'd argue you're not ready to end therapy yet). It's much better to have an open discussion about dialing things back as much as you need, or even ending completely. And, no - they won't hate you.
Towards the end of my own much-needed therapy journey...
...I began to feel tired at the mere thought of reading yet another self-help book or completing one more therapy workbook. My wonderful therapist (knowing that I loved therapy "homework" in the past) would often share a new resource for me to check out, because I had relished learning everything I could in the past. I had started to study psychology during our time together and I was often fascinated by my troubles as much as I was burdened by them.
But I had done so much work in the 2 years prior (and I really did enjoy and need every minute of it) that I had finally reached a point where all I wanted to do was breathe. Breathe, and be.
I wanted to simply exist as myself.
I was finally beginning to trust myself. I was slowly transforming. I had acquired the tools I didn't have before to navigate stress, change, and challenges...And I needed to listen to myself. I needed to stop. I needed to give myself a chance to try it all out. I knew the theory, but now I needed to apply it. Over two years, my sessions went from weekly, to biweekly, to monthly, to every other month, to only as needed to stopping completely (though the option for a session as needed was still there).
Despite all that, I still felt the tinge of disappointment in myself. "You can always do better!" I thought guiltily. "You like working on yourself; it used to feel so good! Think of the GROWTH!" (my inner critic was always trying to prove herself and couldn't bear the thought of letting down my therapist). It was, in some ways, like an addiction. But one I had to quit. Another voice (my Self) was responding with a different idea: "Maybe...We can stop? Maybe we're just good right now. Maybe we can rest". Huh. How about that. I decided to listen to her. Her voice mattered, too.
So if you suspect you're at this same point, then maybe your lack of desire to do inner work is not a sign that you're "not trying hard enough" or have hit some kind of spiritual blockade. Listen for that inner voice inside of you that's calling for rest. You may turn to inner work again in the future, if life calls for it...But for now, enjoy the sense of freedom you've achieved thanks to all your hard work.
Just breathe, and be.