The Message in the Mess: what our busy lives are telling us

What our busy lives are telling us

When people ask us how we’re doing the words “busy” and “stressed” tend to surface. Come to think of it, those answers have been on repeat a lot lately. Lately. As in the past four years. As I find myself uttering the same response over and over I have started wondering, Do we really live this way? Has our life really boiled down to busyness, stress, to-do lists, and running from one event to the next? Another thought terrified me. If this is our life now, what will it be like when we have kids? I couldn’t even go there for fear panic would set in. Based on our current lifestyle, I couldn’t even imagine our lives picking up more speed!

But let’s be honest. “Busy and stressed” is just the polite, socially acceptable answer. In reality, what I really mean is “We’re absolutely exhausted running around like crazy people just trying to hold on to our sanity allthewhile wondering how we can get off this roller coaster!” At least, that’s how it feels. But that response might result in a few blank stares, awkward silences, and uncomfortable shuffling of feet.

I remember my parents recounting this exact feeling. Mom and Dad would crash into bed at the end of each day, utterly fatigued, asking each other, “how do we get off this roller coaster of life?” They felt whipped around at every turn and  like they were being dragged along at warp speed.

Though few may admit it, I suspect I am not alone. An article from ABC news stated that middle class Americans are overstressed and overworked, calling it the “sweat under the white collar”. Both men and women now share the roles of breadwinner and homemaker, while more and more children are placed in daycare. Long hours, hectic schedules, events, social outings, volunteering, to-do lists, dinner, laundry, yard work, baseball games, swim practice, and just keeping up with the kids’ schedules is enough to make you feel like you’re drowning. But we press on. We push through. For a while. Until sooner or later we find ourselves coming up for air, on the verge of burnout, wondering how things got so out of control.

The idea of “getting off the ride” may look a little different for each of us. For some this means finding a sense of peace and turning to yoga, quiet time, or time away. For others, it means gaining a sense of structure through lists, whiteboards, schedules, etc. Some believe that if they just create enough balance in their life, things will improve. Still others search for a way to unload their stress through physical activity, entertainment, counseling, or time with friends and family. All of these are great ways to reduce and manage stress in life.

Manage. That’s the key word here. While I am an avid supporter of finding ways to balance life, manage stress, and find some peace, I feel given enough time we will find ourselves back where we started. Like a bandaid over a seeping wound, sometimes these “fix-it” solutions just aren’t enough. Sometimes only major surgery will do.

Perhaps the answer we’re searching for isn’t in figuring out how to get off the ride, but understanding how we got on in the first place.

The Message Within the Mess

Do you feel too busy? Are you overworked? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you have a hard time saying no? Do you feel like your life is out of balance and out of control, like you never have enough time, or that you are running around without a moment to breathe?

There is a reason why we always find ourselves “busy and stressed”. There is a madness behind the method. If you take the time to listen long enough, you’ll discover there is a message within the mess. The exact message may be unique to you and your family based on your personality, past experiences, priorities, and future desires. Here are a few I have seen play out over the years. Each of these have good qualities about them but without moderation or balance these can easily turn into compulsions that can destroy us and those we love.

1. Driven to Succeed. The drive to succeed, to feel important, to receive a pat on the back from peers or co-workers can fuel many long hours in the office. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to be successful. Many ambitious people have changed the world. But when we need to be successful, our desire can turn dangerous. Do we measure our self-worth by how much we accomplish? Do I worry about what others think of me or how they view my accomplishments? Or do I push myself because I can’t live with bad thoughts or regrets about myself?

2. Difficulty Saying No. This is a big one. I have watched many people I love go down this road, and let me tell you it is not a pretty one. My own father basically worked himself to death overloading his plate with too many responsibilities because others were counting on him to come through. When someone has a hard time saying no, I believe there are 3 main issues that are fueling the behavior:

The desire to please others. If the opinions or affirmations of others matters a great deal to you, it will be hard to say no when someone asks you to do something. If your self-worth is directly affected by what others think about you, then your schedule, time, and decisions will be ruled by others. The choices you make will not always be what is best or healthy for you but what would generate a favorable response from others.

The desire to do good. It is also hard to say no when there’s a good reason to be involved. Serve at the homeless shelter? I should really bless others. Volunteer at church? I should really use my gifts. Participate in extra projects at work? I should really help out since I have the expertise. Help my friends move? Fix my neighbor’s car? I mean, shouldn’t I serve and help others when they’re in need? But while the opportunity may be good, it might not be good for you right now. My favorite motto is “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing” and it’s true. But the biggest problem with the self-talk above is that it involves the word, should. We use “should” as a way of motivating ourselves but in reality it reinforces feelings of shame, guilt, or regret. When you hear yourself saying “I should be or do…” you are holding up an expectation of what is “right” or “better”. The message it sends is that if you don’t do it, you are somehow missing the mark, letting yourself or others down, and that what you’re doing now is not enough. Using that kind of self-talk as a way to motivate or make decisions usually results in feelings of frustration and adds more to our lives than is usually healthy. Instead, try replacing “should” with the word “could”. When someone asks you to do something, tell yourself “I could do…but I choose not to” because it’s either not a good fit for you now, it would add too much to your plate, it would require time away from your family, etc. Stating it this way gives you the freedom to choose otherwise without feeling a sense of false guilt.

The struggle with boundaries. A third reason for struggling with saying no could be an issue with setting boundaries. Perhaps you never learned how to set appropriate boundaries. Or maybe your boundaries were always violated as a child and you came to believe that your boundaries and personal preferences didn’t matter. Your experience with boundaries will greatly play an influential role in your ability to say no as an adult. When others have disrespected your “no”, it can make you feel like you have no other choice but to give in. Instead of being the one to control the shots in your life, it leaves you feeling like you are here to serve the desires and demands of others.

If this is you, I would highly encourage you to talk to someone (friend, counselor, spouse, etc.) and take steps in learning how to set appropriate boundaries. The book, Boundaries, is another great resource that deals with this issue in depth.

It’s important to practice saying “no” in a safe environment where others will respect your preferences, opinions, and decisions. Whether you believe it or not, you are the one making choices for your own life. Even if you give in to the demands or wishes of others, you are still making that choice. Realizing the power of choice is within your control can make a world of difference. Closely related to this is learning how to be ok with your choice even if others are not. My neighbor is a toddler. When my friend tells her young son, “No, you may not go into the street” she is setting a healthy boundary. Even when he throws a tantrum, she chooses to ignore it because she is confident and knows that she is making the best decision for their family. When I realize I have control over my choices, I can choose what is best and ignore the tantrums of others. I can do this because I am confident I am making a decision that is healthy for myself and my family.

3. Loyal to a Fault. Loyalty is a great quality. But there is such a thing as being “too loyal”. When we continue to stay in an unhealthy and damaging situation, our “loyalty” has become self-destructive. Here are a few reasons why:

Fear of the unknown. Whether we realize it or not, many decisions we make are out of fear. We may stay in a job because we fear change. The fear of financial pressure keeps us from taking a risk. The possibility of feeling inadequate in a new role keeps us from discovering our own potential. We may remain in a relationship because we think no one else will want us or that we won’t find anyone else. So we settle. We stay stagnant. We stick to what we know and what’s within our control. We reason that no action is better than trying and failing.

But as believers, we don’t need to fear. We have a big God who has all the world’s resources readily available to Him. He is good, He can be trusted, and He is able to provide for all our needs. Sometimes He is asking that we take a leap of faith.

Sense of responsibility. Our own personal sense of responsibility might keep us from making a change. We may feel we “owe” it to the company, church, neighbor, or friend to come through. While it’s good and right to be men and women of our word, sometimes we can allow our personal sense of duty to keep us stuck. When a situation continues to remain unhealthy or destructive, it might be a sign that it’s time to move on. Sometimes our own view of ourselves even pressures us to stay within the muck. We can’t live with “failure” or negative thoughts about ourselves, so we keep spinning our wheels in the mud. If we continue living in a destructive environment, we may need to reassess our view of healthy “responsibility” and hold ourselves to more realistic expectations.

Moral obligation. 9 times out of 10 when we find ourselves in a miserable, destructive, unhealthy situation that never improves it is usually time for a change. But just because a situation is unhealthy, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always an opportunity to bolt. Take marriage, for example. I believe marriage is forever and divorce is not an option for us. We have a moral obligation to each other and to God to remain faithful in our marriage. Even when it gets rough, we stick it out and work it through. When faced with difficult circumstances, it’s important to weigh whether choosing to leave, quit, or change environments would violate your moral values. It’s important to discern the difference between situations where we have a moral obligation and ones where we don’t.

4. Superhero Complex. According to psychology, the hero complex is “an inherent desire to help others, a compulsion to help make the world right”. Everyone loves a hero. The strong desire to help others and make the world a better place is right and good. However, this strong complex can have a number of negative side-effects. Someone who feels this way can take on too much, feel overwhelmed by the number of needs, or become depressed by his or her inability to save everyone. Subconsciously he may always find himself drawn to chaos because it provides the opportunity for him to “fix it’ or “save the day”. Those with a hero complex can be easily manipulated by others because they always feel compelled to “do more”, leaving them feeling overwhelmed with a burden too big to carry. Oliver Queen in the CW show, Arrow, is a perfect example of this. He pushes himself beyond the limit physically, mentally, and emotionally all out of his compulsion to help others. He must save the city even when it means sacrificing those he loves or making irrational decisions. Some of the chaotic situations he finds himself in are even self-created out of his own addiction. He can’t walk away, let it go, or allow others to do the work in his stead.

How does this complex develop? I have my own theories. Sometimes it can be out of a desperate need to compensate for past failures. Or perhaps as a child you were made to feel responsible for your chaotic home life, developing a need to keep the peace or save the family. Or maybe you had a traumatic experience that left you feeling unsafe, out of control, or needing to be rescued. Therefore you may spend your life trying to fix situations or save others in the way you wish you could have fixed or saved your own experience. If you struggle with this, discovering the reason behind your hero complex can dismantle it of its compulsive power.

This is only a small look at some of the messages and behaviors we have found that drive us to stay overworked and overwhelmed. What does your lifestyle say about you? Life doesn’t have to be busy, hectic, and burdensome. The choice is ours. Understanding how our patterns of behavior fuel the pace of our lives can dismantle it of its power, giving us the freedom to choose a different way to live. As we uncover the message behind our messy, busy, stressful lives only then can we begin to experience real change.

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