August 15, 2012

Vacation Impossible: Why It’s So Hard to Take Time Off.

Are you one of those people who rarely takes a vacation? Or forget about vacation—are you one of those people who rarely even takes a day off?

Maybe you simply identify as a workaholic. Maybe you have so much to do that there is just never time or money. Or, maybe you actually feel uneasy about having free time. There are a number of common reasons people find it hard to take time away from their work or from being busy all the time. These reasons are all rooted in survival.

Here’s what I mean. Early in life, we develop a unique sense of self. It stores the way we feel that we must be in order to survive. Once developed, our sense of self becomes the generating mechanism for every moment of our lives—without our conscious control.

So, if survival dictates that we need to just keep going and doing 24/7, we will keep doing just that, no matter how many times we learn that it’s good to take breaks and take care of ourselves.

One survival mechanism that keeps someone busy all the time is the one that says it’s not safe to feel anything. One big component to the sense of self is what I call Learned Distress, the feeling that “there is something wrong with me being just the way I am.” So, it’s not surprising that a common survival mechanism would be to cut oneself off from feeling that. People with this pattern survive by avoiding or keeping their Learned Distress buried. There are a couple of variations on this pattern. One type of person has to avoid feeling and then work like crazy to make it seem like everything is always OK.

The other variation on this pattern is someone who keeps feelings tightly under control and then also keeps life situations controlled within tight boundaries to feel safe. Often, because this person’s comfort zone is to have to keep things under control, their brain will generate lots of intense situations that need controlling. For both of these patterns, the sense of self will generate the need to keep working, working, working as a way to avoid feeling.

Often, people with these patterns will get sick if they take a break. Their buried feelings have to find a way out eventually, and often, this is generated as physical illness right at the time when they feel like they can “let go.”

Another pattern that uses work as a way to survive is the type of person who is very successful at achieving goals, but struggles with relationships. Someone with this pattern is usually driven and competitive, and can accomplish any task they set their mind to. But the flip side is that they feel like a complete failure when it comes to personal relationships. They bury themselves in work or other tasks to stay within the comfort zone that we all feel drawn to—where we’re immersed in what we’re good at and we can avoid what we tend to fail at.

Yet another “no vacation” pattern is the type of person whose survival depends on having a crisis today to prove that tomorrow will be better. Unfortunately, the sense of self only lives in the present moment, so that “better tomorrow” is eternally in the future, and this person is eternally in crisis. Someone like this often has crisis in multiple parts of life, so having to work all the time just keeps this pattern going, whether it’s because they’re managing work crisis or because their work schedule will generate crisis elsewhere. Or, the crisis could be that there’s never enough money to take time off. Even when this kind of person takes vacation, it’s likely to be crisis-filled, so even if they crave a peaceful break from their chaotic life, they rarely get it.

When I’m working with a client who would like to be able to enjoy a vacation or more leisure time, I start by looking at their survival mechanism, so that we can peel away layers of it.

For the first two patterns I mentioned, we start by working on it being safe to feel, period. As that safety zone opens up, they start to feel that they can relax and allow themselves more open time. For the person who keeps themselves working to avoid feeling the failure of personal relationships, we work on the feeling of them being safe to share who they really are at the core. For the always-in-crisis person, we work on feeling that it is safe to relax and let things be good now.

The best part of my job is getting to listen to the result of this work. One of my clients who fits the “keep everything under control” pattern took a vacation to Hawaii, where she has visited before in her “old control mode.”

She didn’t plan it out, but kept finding herself doing new and adventurous things that she never would have considered before—most of which she had been too scared to do. She went whale watching on a small boat and sat out on the bow with her feet dangling over the edge, then went out on an even smaller boat in the middle of a whale pod. She also went boogie boarding for the first time in big waves, as well as swimming in the bay with sea turtles. And finally, she went on a helicopter tour, where she sat next to the pilot with only glass beneath her feet.

She said, “Finally, I learned to enjoy myself! It’s time that I got some joy out of life!”

Have you found it hard to take time off? What does your inner voice say when you consider doing it? This can give you some clues as to what is holding you back from your next vacation.


Editor: Brianna Bemel


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