Learning to “Say When”
There comes a time, no matter how much you have on your plate — work, family, chores, community, bills, charity, friends — when your body, your brain, your heart and soul says “ENOUGH!”
There are always signs along the way, clear points at which saying “when” would be appropriate, but often, we miss them, or blow them off without a thought. We continue moving without considering the potential effects, sometimes running on fumes, in order to do more, frantically attempting to keep up the illusion that everything is OK.
Spinning as fast as we can is common practice in our world, so normalized that we may negatively perceive the person who stops for a breath. For a multitude of reasons, we are incredibly good at ignoring the signs and symptoms that we are reaching the limit of our endurance… societal conditioning, more is better, quantity over quality, doing over being, peer pressure, guilt, the “shoulds,” the belief that other people’s needs are more important than our own, the fear of what it would mean if we do need to stop, and a variety of other well-rehearsed arguments.
If you deny yourself the right to say “when,” there will be consequences; the extent of those consequences will depend on 1) how long you refuse to accept the signs and 2) your own system’s key indicators. Just as a car will flash a warning signal when the oil is low or the engine is too hot, if you ignore the warning for too long, something is bound to give. There may be a follow-up warning which you can’t ignore, or a severe repercussion, like your car dies. And while I don’t know exactly what will happen in the car analogy, I am only too familiar with the elaborate warning systems built into human beings. There are backup systems to the backup systems, and they will kick in and kick your butt, without a doubt!
Your body will fight back. It will get sick, it won’t perform the way you ask it to, it will sneeze or cough or grow fangs. It will be tenacious in its mission to protect you from yourself. When you ignore these things, your body will pick up a bigger hammer and hit you. It will get sicker, or hurt more, or fall down. But the bigger problem is — this is a description of just one of our backup systems. Let us not forget that we are more than physical beings, we are multi-dimensional, and our wellness (or lack thereof) exists on multiple levels… emotional, spiritual, social, intellectual, and vocational.
Each of these dimensions is fitted with its own warning system, and while the physical warning system comes pretty standard, the warning systems inherent in our other dimensions of wellness are pretty unique to the specific human being they are wired to protect. The emotional warning system may cause one person to explode in anger, while causing another to cry uncontrollably. Other emotional signals to watch for are obsessive or compulsive behavior (eating, shopping, and sex to name a few), anxiety, and fear.
Spiritual warning systems can be even harder to predict as human beings are extensively varied in how they express spirituality. Religion, purpose, nature, community, philosophy, worldview, solitude, service can all function as aspects of spirituality, and when we are overextended, we may see warning signs in any of these areas of our life. The simplest example is a loss of faith in whatever we believe in — God, the Universal Spirit, the earth, or perhaps ourselves.
When we are running on empty we may also receive intellectual warnings — we can’t think straight, balance our checkbooks, get our technological devices to work properly, remember a word or a name… Or maybe we’ll be faced with social signals — we pick fights with friends, struggle to communicate with family members, or respond disproportionately to challenging situations. Or perhaps our vocation — work, school, or maintaining the household — will begin to emit warnings… we can’t concentrate, we get poor performance reviews, clients complain, we make stupid mistakes, or fall asleep on the job.
When we need to say “when” and don’t, we are living on borrowed time and there is no way to know when or where the next shoe will drop. Any one of these backup systems may blow in order to protect us from ourselves, because even though we are NOT meant to override our warning systems, we were created with free will and inevitably that leads to some human beings trying to exert that will over their own built-in, God-given circuit-breakers.
True, we can sometimes get away with running full out for a long time, but I caution against it. I am a recovering Never-Say-When-er, and I paid a high price for all that running on empty, and not just while I was running and blowing circuits. When I finally said WHEN, I couldn’t move, think or feel for the better part of six months; all my dimensions of WELLness had morphed into dimensions of ILLness. I was lonely, sad, sick, and empty. And I was an Assistant Professor of… wait for it… WELLNESS! I had not been practicing what I preached, not for a long time.
First I was working on earning a PhD, then I was teaching higher education, and yes, I was doing my best under the circumstance, but the truth is, I could have stopped running. No one was forcing me to get that PhD or teach that ridiculous volume of classes. Here’s the rub — If I had stopped, I would have had to do something else. And I didn’t know what that something would be, so I kept myself locked into the rat race for fear of not knowing what to do next. From the other side of that mountain, I can tell you I made the wrong choice.
The only way to figure out what comes next is to stop running long enough to see that there ARE other choices, and to figure out which of them are right for you. If along my path, I had said “ENOUGH” earlier, I might not be where I am, but it would have been just as good of a place. And I would have been happier, saner, and figuring out my right livelihood at a much younger age. Still, I wouldn’t have been able to write this article with quite as much authority. Then again, I guess I would have been writing a different article, and that would be OK too!