The mechanics of faltering

Yesterday I wrote about having a calling but no answer to it, today I want to talk about how that works in practise. I have a regular and dependable burnout cycle, I’ve repeated it over more than a decade, with each cycle taking six to eight weeks, typically. That’s got to be getting on for 50 bouts of getting wiped out physically and falling into pits of despair. If not more.

I have a calling, to write and to serve, and it gets me out of bed in the morning. I run all day, as hard as I can, doing as much as I can, saying ‘yes’ as far as is possible. I throw everything I have at trying to do something worth doing. I don’t take whole days off, and I push my limits until I collapse. I do this because I feel so driven, and because for assorted reasons, I do not feel safe or comfortable about stopping. Then I fall over, and on none of the occasions of my falling over have I achieved enough for that to feel ok. Often the timing is inconvenient. I look at all that I have done, and see how insufficient it is, and depression kicks in. Once again, I have failed. Eventually, I pick myself up from this and try again, promising myself that next time it will work. Next time I will do better. The next project, the next voluntary job, the next book will be the one that makes it all worthwhile.

Repeat.

It is the burnout that causes the despair and the feelings of failure. It is the despair and feelings of failure that prompt me to run like a mad thing towards the next burnout. Clearly this isn’t working, and for the first time I’m coming out of the dark patch of the process and questioning whether the answer is to gird loins and other body parts, brace myself and start doing it all again. I’ve got this audio project on the go, and this one, surely, this one (if I really give it my all) will be the one that gets somewhere…

I’ve started asking what underpins this process. Answers: I move the goalposts because anything I achieve, by dint of my having achieved it, ceases to look as big as I thought it would be. Some of that is learning and perspective – there was a time when I believed all I’d need to do was get a publisher and the rest would flow from there, and that’s not how it works. Some of it is sane, and some of it isn’t. I carry a suspicion that anything I have managed, probably wasn’t good enough anyway. Alongside this, I don’t feel entitled to stop, to rest, to let up, to go easy on myself and I don’t feel entitled to be happy. What this means is that any attempt to break the cycle feels like being lazy. I’m not trying hard enough, unless it actually hurts, and if I’m not trying hard enough, how can I possibly succeed? This is not a game it is possible to win, because there are diminishing returns around morale, confidence and energy reserves. I’ve spent ten years or more beating myself to a pulp on a regular basis for not being good enough and not deserving anything better.

I just can’t put my worn out body and fragile mind through much more of this. Every time I go down, it gets that bit harder to stand up and try again. One of these days, I will not be able to get up, odds are. If I slow down, much less quit, I have to contend with feeling like a failure, and a fraud. I have to face all the little voices (other people’s mostly) that say about how lazy and useless I am and that someone like me could never hope to do anything much. I have to face them being right. The years of running hard have never made them go away, never silenced them either in my head or in my life. I have to accept that there are people for whom I will never be good enough or worthy of respect, and that I do not get to prove them wrong. They’ve helped keep the goalposts moving and there is no winning this game.

It is a hard thing to look your own inadequacy in the face, but there is nothing remaining other than to turn and face it, and accept it. Running and pushing has stripped me of my faith in my own work, robbed me of energy and inspiration. Either I keep running and lose everything, or I stop now and settle for writing books for the tiny handful of people who like them. I salvage what I can and learn to accept that it will do.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

10 responses to “The mechanics of faltering

  • anne

    You are a seriously talented writer. Perhaps it is time to reevaluate the voices that you listen to- at the end of the day, the only one that matters is your own, and sometimes you may need to tell that voice to hush.

  • landisvance

    As someone who has lived the vast majority of my life as you describe I need to beg you to do the work to get at the roots of the feelings of inadequacy. It has taken me a very long time and now I have terminal cancer. I am not dying quickly, could live a few more years, but the fact of my health status has ushered me into the land ¨between,¨ the land where you live in relationship with death but are not dead. Something I read yesterday offered to me that this is a sacred place and that my suffering has the sacred about it – so I am sitting with that to see what appears. You have a gift that you give both from love as well as a sense of call. That is precious and sacred. Taking the time to be silent and to be present with yourself is not being lazy, it is the hardest and most important work we do. It is also the foundation upon which we are able to offer ourselves to the world.

    • Nimue Brown

      Profound thanks for sharing this. I can’t begin to imagine what that sort of journey must be like, but I am glad you have the support and the scope to do something with it, and I am deeply touched and moved by your sharing this insight.

  • Terry

    Nimue from this wtiting you seem to be struggling with perfectionism Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_(psychology)
    Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.
    You describe it more as being brought about by the critical voices surrounding you but also by your own inner turmoil as a result of those voices. My siblings and I grew up in a home and around those types of critical voices and opinions as well. It’s a difficult task indeed too retrain yourself to accept your shortfalls, and to also find the inner strength to dismiss the negative perceptions around you. All of us fall short, we are all imperfect. Reward yourself for your strengths and accomplishments, rest if you need, take private time if you need, enjoy your accomplisments and strengths however they present themselves, enjoy your loved ones and those that support you as a person, a human. Be well Nimue!

    • Nimue Brown

      Yes, I suspect that may be it, and I’ve got to the point where whatever it takes to break it is going to be worth doing, no matter how messy. I can’t see any tidy way out, but I can’t do differently until I break this open, so, breaking it is.

  • Cadno Ddraig

    G.K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” That is one of the most freeing and cheerful things anyone has ever said, and should therefore be heeded with diligence. Listen, you intelligent, accomplished and hilariously funny Woman! Become an uncarved block immediately! Learn the value of uselessness.

  • lornasmithers

    Nimue, considering we’re probably around the same age (mid thirties?) you have achieved a phenomenal amount – several Druid and comic book publications, volunteering for the Pagan community and the Green Party. These are all valuable (and should be enjoyable) endeavours.

    Perhaps it’s time to take some time out and focus on your achievements? Have a celebration and a holiday before returning to your writing and volunteering refreshed? My guess it would be worth it in the long-run?

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