Though I knew I wanted to, I haven’t felt ready to write this post for a while.
I hinted at this in my 2018 wrap-up blog post. A year ago, I was having a tough time. In addition to chaos in my personal life and a nonstop travel schedule, I was dealing with depression and anxiety that was becoming unmanageable. I’ve dealt with both anxiety and depression for most of my life, but this time it was a big signal that something was not working. I had seen so many incredible things throughout the year, worked hard on my craft, and built valuable business relationships. But looking back on it, a lot of the exciting things I did in 2018 were at the expense of my physical and mental well-being. My depression made it difficult for me to even get out of bed, and my anxiety manifested as constant, uncomfortable chest pressure. Nothing felt easy, not even simple tasks.
I started 2019 with a new plan. It involved doing less, being super intentional with my priorities, and taking a hard look at how I was spending my time.
Before I could take a step back, I had to look at an important factor: money. How much could I really afford to hit pause, if that’s what needed to happen? It can be challenging to look at your finances in a normal state, and I was super depressed, so this wasn’t exactly on my list of super fun activities! I made an agreement with myself that if this period of time meant I needed to get a part-time job to supplement my income, I would. I had to get over my own ego, and the stories I was telling myself that this would equate to failure. Doing what you need to do in order to take care of yourself is not failure, it is the opposite of that.
Before we continue, I’d like to acknowledge that being able to take a step back and prioritize your mental health is a privilege. Some of the services available to me are not available to others because of a wide range of barriers: money, time, and location, just to name a few. This blog post is not meant to be prescriptive, or sound anything like “if I can do it, so can you!“. Everyone has a unique situation and I encourage you to seek out the right help for you personally.
For me, this period of time was a clear ultimatum where I had to separate what was working from what was not. I knew I had a big hole to dig myself out of, and my first step was to hit pause. I put getting better at #1 on my to-do list and looked at my options for professional help.
I started weekly therapy, treatment for depression and anxiety, and fellowship in the form of an ongoing program. We’re not just talking bubble baths and face masks (no hate to those things), but professional, regimented, weekly and daily support that was sometimes expensive, and often inconvenient. I cannot overstate how grateful I am for all of these things.
Sometimes I would leave therapy surprised at how completely physically exhausted I felt from it. I’d come home and sleep for a few hours, dealing with feelings of guilt and shame, blaming myself for resting instead of working. I felt like I always needed to be doing something “productive”, and had to focus on re-wiring my brain to really absorb that my value does not come from my work, or what I “do”. Over time, I started to feel better. The fog lifted and I slowly got back to work. I began thinking about how I wanted to structure my life moving forward.
I started paying acute attention to what made me noticeably anxious. One of my biggest triggers was spending too much time on social media. I noticed that I was comparing myself to others, experiencing jealousy, and noticing an impulse to be combative because of it. When my anxiety would take hold, I’d become avoidant with things like friends, family, business, and finances. Because of this, I choose to limit my time on social media and practice mindfulness daily to maintain a healthy relationship with my time online.
I was writing again, but not for an audience. I wrote down what I wanted my life to look like in the future, and I tried to get specific: 5 years, 3 years, 1 year–– what did those look like? I asked myself what energized me, and what things in my business totally deflated or exhausted me. I looked at what kind of life I wanted outside of my business, and what creating that would mean. I observed my relationships, and my boundaries within them.
Over time, I put all of this into practice and restructured my life in a way that makes me feel supported and empowered, and I am unapologetic about making changes as they are necessary.
What surprised me the most about my choices this year is how much my business has improved as a result. I’m not only talking about my income here, though that grew, too. As I got clear on what I do and what I don’t do, what I can and what I can’t participate in, the quality of my projects and clients improved. I felt more fulfilled by the work I was taking on. I gained confidence and initiative.
When I made space first for rest and my mental health, I found that I was able to get clear on the direction I wanted for myself and my business. Because of this clarity, I saw the projects that were a right fit for me immediately, and said no the others without getting anxious about it. I was then able to outsource and delegate tasks to people that can do things better and faster than I can, while I focus my attention where it is better for the business, and for my well-being.
Taking care of yourself is imperative. You cannot do everything, and you cannot do it all alone. Nothing replaces sleep. Your body has limits.
Because of my decision to pause and re-prioritize, I was able to produce better work. I was able to be more present with my clients and collaborators. My mental game got stronger, and believe me, you have to have a strong mental game if you have any kind of internet presence. And ultimately, I was able to pursue and attract better, bigger opportunities. For example, I gave a TED Talk this year at TED HQ… there is absolutely no way that would have happened if I had not slowed down to re-focus.
This is not a story of a big traumatic event, or my life falling apart. What I experienced is something I believe to be very common. I was on a train headed straight to burnout, and I’m lucky to have found the help I needed. Where I had fear, I now have peace. It’s not perfect, it’s a process.
Wherever you are in your life and career, I encourage you to check in on how you’re feeling, and to do it regularly. If you are going too hard and too fast, your body will literally stop you eventually and force you to slow down.
When I worked as an adventure guide, I had to go through training manuals for each organization I worked for. There is a line from one of those manuals that I’ll never forget. Among the logistics, procedures, and directions, the page read: If the plan sucks, change the plan. I try to apply that same guidance to my life. If something isn’t working, change it. Take care of yourself. There is no replacement.
Photos snapped by Nicki Whittum, Joe Henderson, and Rachel Jones Ross.