I have always been a hard worker. The compliments about my productivity have been endless. People are always amazed at how much I can get done.
“I wish I had your energy.” “How do you stay so organized?” “It is amazing how much you fit into one day.” They say it like it is a choice. They say it like I have chosen this as my life’s dream, as though productivity was an Olympic sport and I have always aspired to the gold medal. And while I always take the compliment, I find the entire conversation very confusing. It was never a choice. And it has never been for fun.
I learned a long time ago that I had one acceptable path in life. If I wanted to be loved, translated to “stay alive”, I had to be perfect. I had to pay attention to every detail. I had to stay as hyper-vigilant as possible. And there was no time for relaxation or enjoyment. Life was about survival. Life was about working hard. Life was about getting through the day without any major messes. My life involved walking on eggshells and hoping nothing drastic went wrong while staying on my toes.
I wasn’t the kind of person who got to relax. If I didn’t earn it, I didn’t get to keep it. And by earn it, I mean work twice as hard as everyone else. In childhood, if I took a break, I was quickly accused of being lazy and useless. There was no downtime for me. There was no enjoyment.
In adulthood, this translated well in the workplace. Corporations love the hard workers. They love the employee who is willing to stay late every day, even pull an all-nighter if the project required. They love the employee who defines herself by her work and is always trying to get that next promotion. And when I wasn’t working at the office, I was volunteering. I was constantly working at something. I knew the secret was in the work. There was some point when it would all make sense. There was a destination. There had to be.
So when the energy started to wane, which it always does, the panic set in. I am going to miss a detail. I am going to be accused of imperfection. I am going to get in trouble for my laziness. They are going to know the truth about me. But as I look back on my early years, I realize the hard work wasn’t the answer. Working hard to impress others never actually met my goal. Don’t get me wrong, I got promotions and raises and things like that. Everyone loves a hard worker. But nobody ever gave me what I was looking for.
I wanted to rest. I wanted to rest securely in the understanding that I was going to be okay. I wanted someone to tell me I was going to be okay. I wanted to feel peace. I wanted just one person to thank me for all I had done and let me know I didn’t have to keep running, working, chasing the red dot. I was so exhausted. But nobody ever said I could stop. I just wanted to stop.
But my inner drill sergeant would have never let it happen. It was too scary to stop. Life might end if I stopped because I would have no more identity. But recently, it has occurred to me that I can stop whenever I want. Don’t get me wrong, I still have to pay the bills and raise the kids. But I don’t have to run the hamster wheel any longer. I never had to. In adulthood, the hyper-vigilance has never gained me a thing. Planning is helpful. Working is helpful within reason. But nonstop running is not helpful.
So I have started to question the message from my controller. The message that tells me I must run, run, run is not a friendly message. It is a survival message. It comes from my trauma. I don’t have to listen to that message to be safe anymore. I can live a calmer life and there will be no punishment for it. I can live a peaceful life and nothing bad will happen. Life isn’t meant to be what the abusers taught me. There is no destination. I am there now. And I am okay.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW