For the next few days I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working. This is from June 2013.
When you’re overwhelmed it’s easy to blame how much you have to do on others. Yes, your boss, your colleagues, your customers and the state of the world all probably have something to do with it.
But maybe it’s time you started to look at your own part in your situation.
The first question to ask is whether you’re paying attention to what’s important or are trying to do everything. Developing your capacity to discriminate, to determine what actually makes a difference and what’s peripheral is foundational here. And it’s often not so easy to tell. So you may have to observe the effect of your actions over time and talk to people who are affected by the fruits of your work as you learn the discernment you need.
But, please, don’t stop there. Because the way you take on every possibility that comes your way is born of the story you have of what it is to be a person, and what it is to work. You might be working at being:
a noble hero: able to take on all difficulties, courageously keeping everything under control, ensuring everybody sees your unassailable strength, never letting on the difficulty you’re experiencing
the saviour: the only one who can do this. “I couldn’t possibly put anything down… they need me”
a martyr: trying to hold the burdens of the world, keeping everyone from harm, sacrificing yourself by scooping up all that needs to be done
Each of these identities will be doing something for you that you value. They can play a powerful role in generating self-esteem, giving you a place in an uncertain world, and defending you from shame and embarrassment. It may well be the case that your colleagues are playing similar roles too, or playing their part by working to have you to stay in yours.
But each of them makes the space for discrimination very small indeed, and the possibility of putting anything down smaller still, because they call on you to push harder, go faster, and for longer in the face of difficulty.
Each adds to your suffering by promising that resolution will come soon: that if you’re strong enough, persistent enough, fast enough, sacrifice enough then eventually the world will stop making demands of you.
Usually, it’s the opposite that’s the case. The world will not stop with its demands, and pushing on relentlessly until it does leads eventually to exhaustion and resentment.
It’s time you started catching on to the way the identity you have taken up is part of the very difficulty that’s breaking you. If you weren’t a hero or martyr or saviour, who else could you be?