Doing The Work When You Just… Can’t

Have you heard of Spoon Theory? If you haven’t, I highly suggest you go read the article on Spoon Theory before you continue. As a general summary, Spoon Theory is a […]

Have you heard of Spoon Theory?

If you haven’t, I highly suggest you go read the article on Spoon Theory before you continue. As a general summary, Spoon Theory is a highly effective way of describing the finite mental and physical resources that people with a disability or chronic illness have at their disposal on a given day. These limited resources transform each mundane activity an average person takes for granted into one that requires careful evaluation and decision making. It is a poignant narrative that had a huge impact on my worldview, and helped to develop my sense of empathy towards the unseen struggles my fellow humans might be dealing with on any given day.

Everyone’s resources are finite (some, more than others)

While the point of Spoon Theory is to emphasize the unique struggle of dealing with energy reserves that are much lower than normal due to a chronic or ongoing condition (and therefore I am not trying to minimize its importance by any means) the fact is that everyone has a finite set of mental and physical resources available to them. There are plenty of studies on the limits to willpower, as an example, and how continuously exercising restraint in small ways leads to a difficulty resisting something later due to eroding your “reserve.” Bodies get exhausted, minds get filled, stressors take their toll. Pain, loss, exhaustion, sadness, or worry deplete us of our usual resources, and our normal tasks “cost” us more of what we have left than they otherwise would.

Owning my humanity

In order to explain what I mean, I’m going to have to talk about myself for a bit. This isn’t here for me to complain, but for me to give you context and remember exactly how human all of us really are.

I am generally a privileged, able-bodied, middle-class woman who, through a combination of luck and hard work, is fortunate enough to be able to live a fairly flexible lifestyle doing work I enjoy which also pays my bills, lets me travel, and has generally changed my life. On good days, this makes me really happy and optimistic. I approach my work enthusiastically and want to build up my business.

I also have chronic back pain that has not gone away since it appeared in 2009, due to overwork and bad posture. I usually joke that I have no idea anymore what “not being in pain” feels like, but it’s not really far from the truth. On a decent day, it’s there like a sore muscle from a workout, and I can still manage a relatively normal schedule. On a bad day, or with too many days in a row where I sit or stand too long in one place working, it’s a throbbing pain that brings me to tears, and keeps me up until late at night tossing and turning and unable to fall asleep.

Because of this, I no longer have the choice to put long days and nights into projects and working on my business without serious physical consequences. In fact, my pain usually gets worse if I spend more than 6-7 hours at my desk each day for a week, which limits my future job prospects (I probably could not work a traditional 9-5 job ever again, regardless of who wants to hire me). Even sitting at conferences, traveling on airplanes, or visiting restaurants/bars with friends will have some nasty effects that often affect my productivity the next day. And I have to spend a decent amount of money and time every week on treatments (physical therapy, massage, and chiropractic, in addition to an exercise routine) just to feel relatively “normal.”

I also have some pretty regular (read: cyclical) episodes where I just get irrationally sad. They last for about 1-3 days, and during this time it’s like all optimism is gone and everything is impossibly hard. Often I just start crying for no reason, and usually I just want to sleep a lot. Being creative feels like running a marathon through molasses, being around other people sounds horrifying, and I know that the only things I’ll be able to tolerate are simple, small tasks, or methodical, distracting problem solving… once I get the energy to finally sit ay my computer.

Owning my weakness

On top of this are money worries, life worries, health worries, and any number of typical human issues, all fighting to use up my resources. And yet, life still goes on, doesn’t it? A day where I wake up with pain, or with sadness, or with worry, is still a day where I have clients, and projects, and responsibilities that I need to address. Not completing work could mean a missed deadline at the worst, or a communicated and extended deadline at best, but either way it’s a loss of billable hours, which could exacerbate money worries even as I’m trying to prioritize my health.

How do you deal with a deadline if you’re in too much pain to sit and work? How do you conduct yourself in a meeting or networking event if you just want to curl up and cry? How do you give yourself unplanned time off when every hour is money you don’t make? And how do you accept your limitations while knowing other people have it so much worse? How do I deal with setbacks when I’m using all of my energy just to show up?

Do I choose to keep my meetings on schedule, using up my limited physical or mental resources on those rather than completing billable work? Do I choose to work on a smaller or less important task that I know I can get done, even though a larger task is due sooner? Do I choose to let myself sleep, or try to work through exhaustion? Do I borrow against tomorrow and try to push through today, hoping that I can finish what I need to do before I crash? Do I try to work up the mental energy to communicate with my clients and try to extend deadlines, or isolate myself and try to work in short bursts to keep them?

In pursuit of acceptance (of myself)

As much as I try to practice self-love and self-care, it is hard to reconcile it with a culture of “hustle” and a desire to keep bettering myself. How do you accept yourself for who you are, including your limitations, weaknesses, and flaws? How do you not turn your feelings outward, feeling jealous or resentful towards your peers for seeming to have it easier than you? How do you not turn your feelings inward, feeling broken, ashamed, or guilty about not being able to overcome your problems?

I am imperfect, and I fail at all of these things constantly, and retreat to my nest once more to feel tired, scared, and overwhelmed. But when I crawl out from my nest after a while and blink in the daylight, I try to remember that empathy should extend not only to everyone else, but yourself, and I give myself permission tomorrow to try again.

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4 responses to “Doing The Work When You Just… Can’t”

  1. Hi Michelle:

    My partner in crime, Amy, suffers from chronic pain as well. Because you don’t look broken on the outside, people who are close to you don’t always understand why you have no energy.

    I’ve read a lot of things published by people in side our community. This is really more prevalent than many folks even realize. There are many people who push really hard just to show up. Just wanted you to know I really know where you are coming from with this post.

  2. Of course you’re freaking out. This chronic pain thing is new, and it’s no joke.

    One thing you’ve gotta pay attention to immediately is the quality of your sleep. If you think of yourself as a light sleeper, and you regularly find yourself awake in the night for more than a few minutes, your sleep may be at the root of both the back pain and the sadness.

    It can be fixed.

    Your internist can prescribe any of a number of things that are not traditional sleep aids but do have the effect of deepening your sleep so you get the stage 4 sleep that repairs tissues and washes the brain (seriously).

    If you’re going to be in San Diego we can talk more then, or sooner over email or the twitterz.

    Been dealing with this myself since forever – diagnosed in 1992.

    Sleep well, m’dear.


  3. Michelle,
    Thanks for the honesty. As someone who also deals with chronic back pain, I have felt and experienced many of these same feeling and frustrations. I’m constantly grateful for coworkers and leadership that are understanding. Again, thanks for sharing.

  4. Owning up to your humanity and imperfections is painful but a good thing. There’s a lot of suffering in this world, and the first step is to acknowledge that (says the Buddha) rather than hide or run or pretend otherwise. A little meditation practice can go a long way—just knowing how to stop and breathe for a bit in a stressful situation can help ground and lessen the potential for bad reactions.

    I have a very bad back, and also get pains and cramps from long sits at a desk on computer work. One of my lumbar discs is decompressed, basically a flat tire down there, where a neurosurgeon cleaned up a herniated disc and wrapped a fat graft around the injured spinal cord.

    I have to exercise at least once a week at the Y in the pool to keep my back limber. At my age of 63, it’s getting more important to monitor my health. So, continue on a path of monitoring your condition, and trying ways to control and heal as possible.

    Even though there’s suffering, there’s also happiness, find the balance.