by Dana Baduna, PhD, LMFT
This article illustrates a frame for handling “change” when encountering the unexpected. The author, a therapist, had been planning a vacation to a foreign land with the hope of disconnecting from her hectic and pressured professional lifestyle. Instead, suddenly faced with unforeseen events that disrupted her plans, she discovered how a most needed “personal self-retreat” at home became the ideal break-away. Tapping into her own resources to initiate an overdue “transformative makeover,” she gave her life a new joie de vivre.
The trip to Argentina, intended to expand my cultural horizons as well as get me rested, never happened. Instead, my vacation became an inner trip of discovery and a physical, mental, and spiritual retreat from my busy lifestyle.
I had been prepared to travel to Buenos Aires with my boyfriend, my first trip to South America. I had eagerly looked forward to exploring this famous city, tasting its food, meeting its people, and getting lost in its renowned Euro-American culture. Just as exciting was the idea of taking two weeks off from work. Almost eight years had gone by since I had last been able to slice off this much time from my schedule, and the emotional toll of “lots of work and little play” had begun catching up to me.
My boyfriend, who has close family in Buenos Aires and speaks Spanish fluently, was born and raised in the United States and so enjoys both cultures. He was going to be my guide and translator. The vacation was planned (what to see, where to stay) with the help of many emails and phone calls to family members in Buenos Aires who were generous with their suggestions and advice; plane tickets were bought, and arrangements made to put our practice on hold (my boyfriend is also my partner in private practice). We were ready to begin our trip.
Three days before our departure date, winds of change swept through our plans, raising concerns about our finances and work. To supplement our practice, we both worked as independent contractors, providing counseling for a private not-for-profit social services agency. We had learned to juggle both work sites, each with its own demands and responsibilities. But the agency supervisor was informing us that, due to a lack of funding, the counseling program we had worked for these past couple years would be closing in two months. Our contracts were not to be renewed. Though, due to the economy, we had expected a probable reduction of hours, or even that one of us would be let go, hearing this drastic news was still unpleasantly surprising.
It soon became evident that this unexpected change affected me emotionally much more than my boyfriend. I now felt wrong about going on vacation, and preferred to stay home and attend to our practice. Given the fact that he had family and friends in Argentina, which he had not seen in several years, we agreed that this should be more “his” trip rather than “our” trip: I decided to postpone my travel plans until next summer, while he decided to go ahead and visit his family.
The Decision to Stay Behind
Expectedly, my decision to stay home exposed many contradictory and varied emotions. Some of these were: disappointment and sadness over not taking the trip, missing and longing for my boyfriend, frustration and anger over the closure of an important and necessary program in our community, and ambivalence over having decided to spend a chunk of time alone. Unexpectedly, this decision also evoked a sense of relief, a feeling of freedom, and a desire to examine patterns in my life that I had overlooked due to being too tired and overworked.
While the intensity of my emotions made me feel out of sorts, to capture some self-control I made a couple of key choices: First, I decided that I would take my time off from work anyway and embark on my own at-home journey of recreation; second, I would keep my stay in town private from my friends and most family members, and enjoy a bit of “living incognito;” third, I would consider the “break” as a time to refresh my mind and spirit, and to better understand my emotional upheaval. Thus, the previously busy work scheduler instantly became a tabula rasa, a “white, open space” that hinted at a plan of self-transformation. And, since the word vacation means “to vacate” or “to empty,” all these last-minute choices made me feel somehow, appropriately, on track.
How Will I Spend My Time Off?
In thinking about my time off, I wanted to go beyond the realization that vacations are meant to separate one from the mundane routines of daily life. I was interested in searching for some underlying issues that would explain my malaise and emotional exhaustion. So I began by deconstructing trends in my life that I had previously noticed yet ignored as if they could go away all by themselves.
Professor Cindy S. Aron (1999) writes in her book Working at Play that “vacations are also exercises in self-definition. In affording time away from the demands of everyday life, vacations disclose what people choose to do rather than are required to do.” In applying this idea to my situation, I recognized that I wanted to take this time and see it as an opportunity to re-arrange certain parts of my life.
The younger and less experienced me would have reacted to these unfolding events very differently. I would have complained to my friends and family, had a big fight with my boyfriend before his departure, and searched for injustice and unfairness in it all. Such reactions would have only escalated my feelings and emotions, which would have just kept me miserable and guilty, thus wasting my time off and doing nothing positive or constructive.
But the me of today is quite different. I have seen what we can accomplish if we stay mindful of the present moment. Taking charge of our own time is one way to harness our personal power. Having better control of our time means being more aware of where we choose to place our attention in our lives. If I let the past take over, I give importance to a static state of mind and am therefore stuck and unable to change. But if I keep up with time in the present moment, I’m evolving with it, feeling awake in the here and now. I chose to use writing, exercising, and self-entertaining as ways to keep my attention in the present.
Reflections Through Writing
Writing is a simple but significant tool to use when overwhelmed since it makes us express the emotions felt in the moment rather than suppressing them. It can help us calm down so we can think through the problem at hand. The discipline of writing can take one from a place of confusion towards inner clarity.
Armed with a journal, I began to collect and write down all the poor lifestyle habits I had noticed the last couple of years. The list reflected several trends which had slowly crept into my daily schedules and affected my working, eating, and relaxing routines.
The trends were:
* Working ten- to twelve-hour days instead of eight hours
* Working late evenings four to five times a week instead of one to two nights a week
* Dining out late—eating at 9:30 or 10:00 pm, instead of before 7:00 pm
* Eating meals rich in simple carbohydrates and fats
* Having vending-machine snacks
* Worrying about large caseloads
* Spending more time in an office rather than at home or in nature
* Exercising once a week instead of four or five times
* Gaining weight, feeling heavier, and moving slower
Gathering these habits together in my notebook, and seeing them in black and white, gave way to a new understanding of my emotional exhaustion and unhappiness. As my work schedule had overstretched to accommodate the demands of work, so had my waist and hip lines, furthering the neglect of my body, mind, and spirit needs.
Looking In a Mirror
I was beginning to realize that I was embodying all the consequences of the poor habits I had been practicing. While literally looking in a mirror, a quick scan of my current body frame easily confirmed these dissatisfactions: Body—overweight by twenty-five pounds, tired, flabby, and with low energy. Mind—sharp and alert yet easily agitated. Spirit—parched and torn, pulled in different directions. I yearned to feel and look so much better than I did.
Figuratively, I began to see other changes that were also a reflection of an over-worked self. I thought I had kept a good balance between my professional and personal lives, but was becoming aware how I had gotten stuck in a half-fulfilled lifestyle. If anything, opting for long hours at work can give one higher paychecks and many monetary benefits but also invite internal dissatisfaction. Prevailing at the professional level does not necessarily translate into personal wellness.
In his book The Importance of Being Lazy, professor of philosophy Al Gini (2003) argues how our workaholic society is in desperate need for more time off and a return to having the time to “do nothing.” He points out how “we are captives of our jobs; we are consumed and time bound by what we do.” I had easily fallen into such a trap: the more absorbed I had gotten with my work, the harder it was to step aside and do the right things for myself. I may have carried all the right intentions to spend time with family and friends, and to relax, but had real difficulty breaking away.
This realization hit me hard. The message behind the slogan “work hard, play hard” can be ironically misleading; the translation can read more like “work hard, work hard” since if you work that much, there’s little time left for play. Even a satisfying work life (including the perks and pay benefits of a great career) can still make us feel like we lost touch with ourselves if it involves too much time and energy and marginalizes one’s passions or needs.
An Understanding Attitude
Giving little attention to the voice of my inner critic, “You should have known better,” I decided to respond pro-actively to my realizations and discover needed solutions. I knew in my heart that if I didn’t start changing these habits, in a few years I would be on a collision course with a possible medical emergency. Endorsing the path of prevention, I wanted to intervene before asked to do it by a medical doctor. Long estranged from my own leisure and relaxation, I was hungry to find it again.
Grabbing Change and Running With It
Alan Parry (1991) writes that “when a person finds her own voice, she takes charge of her own story.”
Perhaps because this was the right time for change, my transition to action was easier than expected. With one less work position to manage and more white space in my calendar, I felt more optimistic about committing to things that I had wanted to do but been unable to do.
In retrospect, what I had denied myself were not big or expensive things but, rather, the opposite—small, unique, and personal wishes. They included time to exercise in nature, play card games, read fiction books, lay by the pool, watch sunsets, write letters occasionally instead of emails, keep better in touch with friends. These were activities that would have placed the hectic work life on “pause” and taken me away from the demanding tyranny of work. I decided to divide my time off in three ways: doing right by the body, having fun with the mind, and enlivening the spirit.
Doing Right By the Body
In doing right by the body, I included the following: I walked every day at the beach, beginning with thirty- to thirty-five-minute strolls and gradually stepping it up to one-hour power walks. Before each walk, I prepared my body with stretches; and after each walk, did a self-affirmation and a relaxing five minutes of deep breathing. Often, I scheduled the walks at sunrise or sunset—when it was cooler—and admired the beautiful shifts in cloud formations and sky colors. I made a concerted effort to take in all the beach beauty around me and rejoiced at being in touch daily with nature.
Each day I prepared natural healthy salads and made the portions smaller and richer in proteins, with less carbohydrates and fats. I used Weight Watchers and Kashi meals occasionally to help diversify. For snacks, I had fresh fruits and Triscuit crackers with almond butter or organic peanut butter. I bought a steamer for $6.99, steamed fresh vegetables, and added them to meals. I made sandwiches on natural whole grain bread only and substituted mustard for mayonnaise. I made a conscious effort to chew my food slower and longer. If I dined out, I elected to have sushi or Thai food.
I also rediscovered the pleasure of drinking teas instead of loading myself with coffee several times a day. I had mate tea at least once a day; this is an Argentinean herbal tea which helps digestion, reportedly reduces appetite, and helps with the release of fat cells; plus, in a symbolic way, it made me feel closer to my boyfriend.
Having fun with the mind
To de-stress my mind, I became a Blockbuster-rentaholic of comedy, romance, and action flicks. I rented both older and newer movies that nagged at me to be seen (The Reader, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Maybe Definitely, The Wonder Boys, Last Tango in Paris, Finding Forrester, The Hours and many others). Some days I watched as many as three or four movies as I got absorbed emotionally in the various themes and personal stories. I finished several books that I had previously started and left unread. I listened to tango cd’s and appreciated the emotions in the music despite not knowing the words. I made a point to get up and dance every time a good song came on the radio.
By giving my body lots of rest, my mind felt healthier. I took naps during the day, and went to bed early as often as I needed to. I enjoyed the coziness of all the soft comforters and pillows around me. I pampered myself with a body massage, facial, manicure, and pedicure.
Enlivening the Spirit
In nurturing my body and mind and reconnecting with nature and its calming yet energizing quality, I sensed a lightness ascending from a deeper place inside me and enveloping my being. I delighted over the chance to fully partake in what I was doing in the moment. After the first week, I lost all my anxiety, emotional exhaustion, and tiredness. I felt happy, refreshed, and emotionally and physically stronger. I was functioning at a new level of vitality, feeling better than I had ever anticipated.
Opening Up o the Gift
As it turned out, my vacation became a precious gift of much-needed time and space, relaxation and rejuvenation. Reflecting back over my original plans for the trip, I could see there was a side of me that had craved the time to be alone. More than traveling abroad, I became aware of a need to travel inward, which to me held a deeper importance. It was, in retrospect, what I truly needed.
It was the unexpected change in our work situation that led me to this opportunity. Instead of getting lost on a path of complaints and unhappiness, I recognized that it was a gift, and enveloped myself in trying to exist within the ever-evolving moment, seizing its advantages via positiva.
I realized that a self-designed home-retreat can be time spent truly noticing what is going right and what is going wrong with ourselves. With some needed quiet and solitude for reflection, having a journal and a mirror as teaching tools, I uncovered how my body, mind, and spirit had reached a state of depletion and what I could do about it.
Delving deeper than what meets the eye, with a bit of courage and an inspired plan, we can begin to detangle ourselves from troublesome habits that otherwise can take over our lives. Sorting out what is really important to us from what isn’t can give a new perspective and purpose to our lives.
Although I can’t tell what my trip to Argentina would have held for me, my retreat at home opened my inner world to fresh and unforgettable experiences. The trip to Argentina will wait until next summer.
Recognizing the power that exists in noticing “life in the moment” and seizing its advantages helped me not get lost on a path of complaints and unhappiness.
Although significant life changes often happen gradually, I learned that a spontaneous break from the customary patterns of life can also initiate a meaningful change. But, mainly, it is from the style with which you approach the situation that valuable lessons can appear.
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