A couple of months back (actually, it wasn’t really that long ago) I went into the kitchen to make some rolls for lunch for the family. I opened the cupboard and just found myself staring at all the shelves, trying to work out why I was looking in the cupboard… when I eventually snapped out of the haze and grabbed the rolls, I walked over to the fridge. And the same thing happened, I found myself just stood there, staring into the fridge.
I remember getting really frustrated with myself – not just because it was taking me a while to find the butter… but because I couldn’t even remember why I was looking in the fridge in the first place.
Again, I snapped myself out of it, grabbed the butter and walked back to the chopping board – only to realise there were more things I needed from the fridge(!). The distance between the chopping board and fridge is not huge, the task of making rolls for lunch for the family is not a difficult one, but on that lunch time on that weekend everything seemed to take a huge amount of mental effort.
I want to reassure you that I did manage to feed the family – but somehow the process of making rolls for lunch took a very frustrating 45minutes(!).
Now, the story of taking ages to make lunch might not seem like the most riveting one to share on here – but I wonder if it seems familiar to you? Have you had moments of mental overload like that? Have you found yourself extra tired but not really understanding why, and that lack of knowing why only adding to the frustration?
I have. I’ve had many moments like that during lockdown, but I am starting to understand a little about the why. Here’s two I identify with very easily.
Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in You I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of Your wings
until the disaster has passed.
1. Your Subconscious Habit Loop
If you had to guess how much of your behaviour is sub-conscious (i.e. just happening without you having to think about it or causing any drain on your conscious mind) how much would you imagine that was?
Psychologists believe it is a staggering 95% of our daily lives! Think back (if you can remember) to when you learnt to tie your shoe laces, or write with joined up handwriting, or do a three point turn… all of these things require a complex set of thoughts and actions – and so to save us from complete mental exhaustion on a daily basis, our minds learn to process these skills at a subconscious level.
Psychologist Charles Duhigg, in his book, The Power of Habit, talks about “Habit Loops” – things that we describes as doing “unthinkingly”, which is how it feels to us. We don’t actually decide anymore to put the kettle on in the morning – it’s become a habit, a routine; and not having to mentally decide that saves us that little amount of mental energy… and that is multiplied throughout the day. If you’re drinking a cup of tea/coffee right now – you probably don’t remember the actual process of making it that well (if at all!), because your mind was able to be on other things whilst you were doing that.
This can, of course, be both a positive and negative thing. Habitually washing your hands after using the bathroom is a good use of the power of habit… but constantly needing to check your phone or facebook every couple of minutes, or depending on caffeine to get you through the week and alcohol to get you through the weekend can be very damaging indeed.
One word that has been used an awful lot through this pandemic is the word: “disruption”… it’s now become a cliche, but in terms of our habits and routines it is a gross understatement. That 95% of life that we could let run on autopilot is been radically disrupted; for more people, most things have changed, and for some people it feels like everything has changed.
Just getting through the next task, getting through the next day, the next week, (or for me that day) even just getting through lunchtime requires more mental energy than before because everything takes mental effort.
So, we’re drained because we have had to, (and in some ways still are), learn new routines, rhythms, relationships… and that alone can produce what many are describing as “background anxiety.”
2. Background Anxiety
Have you ever found yourself finishing a task, or having a conversation, or reaching a conclusion about something – and feeling a greater sense of relief and release than you were expecting to. We sometimes use the phrase: “Wow, I think I must have been more worried about that than I realised!”
We’re having to reinvent the routine, to build new habits, to rewrite the subconscious script, at a rate most of us have never known before – and precisely because we are in new territory, there is a new level of background anxiety. “Will this work?”, “Have I forgotten something?”, “Is what I’m doing enough?” …all these questions are swimming around in the background, and can sometimes bring unexpected emotions to the surface.
“A Change is as Good as Rest”?
But realistically – this is how it is, right?
Does knowing any of that actually make any difference?
What exactly can we do, even now we know that?
Good question. I’m glad you asked. 🙂
The answer is yes… and no. Understanding unexpected tiredness and/or emotional drain can help – sometimes a lot – but not on it’s own. I wonder if this knowledge points us somewhere else too.
When asked what the two greatest commandments were, Jesus is clear:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
Jesus tells us that the single greatest thing we can do with our lives is to love; to love God, to love others, and to love ourselves… Yes, you read that right: embedded in the second greatest ever commandment is need to love ourselves. Jesus’ “golden rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6.31) is just a practical application of this. It’s meaningless if we have such crushingly low self-esteem that we are happy to be treated as a doormat, or a target of abuse, or even worse.
Imagine someone you love describing their mental exhaustion and emotionally drained state to you right now. Can you imagine saying to them: “This is just pathetic! You should be able to cope better really.” “Honestly, pull yourself together – just get on with it, just get it done will you?”
No, you wouldn’t say that to someone you love when they were at their lowest and trying their best… and yet that’s exactly what how we talk to ourselves at times. I spoke to someone recently who was honest enough to say that they never swear at anyone – but often swear at themselves in their minds.
“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” If that is the golden standard, then it seems to me that Jesus would have us treat ourselves a lot better than we so often do.
When I was interviewing pastor and author Andy Percey about the need to learn to rest, he used the phrase: “Because you’re worth it.” and I know I wasn’t the only one who found that profoundly moving. Because we don’t feel that, we just don’t think that, we don’t really believe that.
We know God is worthy of our love, and we know we should love our neighbours… we will sing passionately about those things, we will listen to preachers and podcasts about them, we will read books and blogs about them, we will strive hard for them… but when it comes to what should be the gold standard of how we measure our love for others, we give precious little attention to how we think about or treat ourselves.
What would it mean today, to give yourself just a little love. Just a little time, just a little patience, just a little understanding, just a little grace?
You don’t need to beat yourselves up more, or to be your own slave driver, or hard-nosed critic, or laughing bully, or swearing and demeaning coach…
Are you not worth just a little love, even from yourself?
Sometimes it just takes 45 minutes to make a sandwich, but it takes a lot longer to undo the self-harm of self-scrutiny, self-criticism, and self-judgement. The impact of loving ourselves enough to give ourselves time, understanding, patience and grace can allow real healing to flow.
God loves you, you know? He actually, really loves you.
And not in a begrudgingly dutiful way… He’s thrilled about it, He sings His heart about it. It’s why He made you. It’s why He saved you. It’s why He’s got a place ready in heaven for you, and He doesn’t regret it, not even for one moment. God thinks it’s a great thing to love you.
Maybe we might just like to try it sometime too.
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