Tell me if this sounds familiar.
- You work 8-10 hour days hunched over your laptop, hardly stopping for water or food.
- You go back to work after dinner to knock off “just a few more things” from your to-do list but then go to bed feeling restless.
- You then dream about work and sometimes wake up with nightmares about the day ahead or things you forgot to do.
- You spend your weekend trying to “catch up” on work instead of devoting time to family, self-care, or hobbies
- You feel guilty when you do indulge in well-deserved rest.
- You tell yourself you should be doing something more productive with your downtime.
- You don’t feel restored even after taking a few days off.
Do any of the above statements sound like you? Then you’re likely overworking and on a surefire path to burnout.
While giving yourself time to rest may seem like the most obvious way to resolve this exhaustion, taking breaks is easier said than done for many Sensitive Strivers.
Sensitive Strivers and the Vicious Cycle of Over-functioning
Sensitive Strivers bring a deep sense of responsibility to everything they do.
You can be relied on to follow through, keep your word, and meet deadlines. You’re driven and tirelessly committed, which in most instances, can be tremendous strength.
But if left unchecked, that sense of responsibility can devolve into over-functioning – a state where Sensitive Strivers prioritize their professional duties ahead of their own personal needs.
When this happens it creates a vicious cycle wherein guilt sabotages your time off.
Take my client Sophia, for instance.
Sophia worked at a company that provided essential software to employees informed during COVID. She was a rising star on her team and her direct manager was grooming her for a fast-track from people manager to senior director.
Sophia confessed to me that she felt as if she was on a hamster wheel. Every project was like a ticking time bomb that required her careful oversight. She felt as if she couldn’t step away, yet was emotionally drained and mentally depleted.
Sophia tried taking breaks during the day and attempted to stop work at a reasonable hour. But each time she did, she was haunted by guilt and self-criticism. She beat herself up for not doing enough. She’d spend her downtime feeling anxious and distracted.
Perhaps you can relate to Sophia’s story. I’m hearing from many Sensitive Strivers who are working harder than ever before despite working from home. Their days are book solid with meetings from morning through evening, with no pause for lunch or even a bathroom break.
One reader even told me she feels like an addict – all she does is get up, work, go to sleep, and do it all over again.
Why Sensitive Strivers Struggle to Take Time Off
Sensitive Strivers have off-the-charts empathy, which can make it hard to say no and set boundaries. As a result, you may too readily accommodate every request that comes your way and find it hard to push back or speak when you should. Poor boundaries can also blur the lines between work and personal time. You may struggle to “turn off” at the end of the day and allow work to bleed into your time, as well as your mind, even when you’re off the clock.
Desire to prove your value
Imposter syndrome plagues many Sensitive Strivers. Insecurity and a lack of confidence can lead to overcompensation. That is, you may work more in order to feel good about yourself. You may try to provide value by accomplishing more, which can be antithetical to giving yourself a break when you need it. You’re not proving your dedication by always being on––you’re undermining your performance.
Perfectionism isn’t really about being detail-oriented. Fundamentally, it’s about overemphasizing your weaknesses and underestimating your strengths. Sensitive Strivers who struggle with perfectionism are self-critical and obsess over their shortcomings (no matter how irrational). They hold themselves to unrealistically high, exacting standards. They feel a compulsion to follow through on every task, even when it’s not important.
7 Ways to Emotionally Detach from Work and Relax Without Guilt
Take heart, because not all is lost. Changing your relationship with downtime is first and foremost an inner job. It involves shifting your mindset to let go of guilt and value long-term sustainability instead.
1 – View relaxation as investment
I know, I know, you’re probably rolling your eyes, but hear me out. Your brain is like a muscle and it’s not designed to go at full speed constantly. Just like the rest of your body, your brain needs time to recoup so it can grow stronger.
High-achievers often dismiss this idea because it sounds lazy and passive. Here’s a quick tip to counter that: switch out “rest” for “recovery”. Rather than telling yourself you need to rest, reframe it as recovery. Recovery is a more active, purposeful process, which will remind you that your downtime is both meaningful and necessary.
2 – Think about your team
As an empathetic Sensitive Striver, it’s important to realize that taking breaks isn’t just about you.
Whether you realize it or not, the people around you observe your actions. If you respond to emails at all hours, they’ll feel compelled to do the same. If you don’t take a vacation, they won’t either.
Especially if you’re a leader, people look to you as a role model and will follow your behavior. You set the expectations and norms for your team, so take a moment to consider how you may be complicit in creating or perpetuating an “always-on” culture at your company.
Explicitly talk to your team about burnout and the importance of mental and emotional health. Not only is this good management, but it will also force you (in a positive way!) to practice what you preach because you’ll want to act in integrity.
And if you’re not a leader, consider that you do your team a disservice if you continue to relentlessly push yourself. They probably can’t afford to lose you or have you burn out, so invest in rest as much for them as for yourself.
3 – Take it slow
Being overachievers, a lot of my clients try to “win” at rest. Meaning, they go from nothing to everything:
- Working eight days a week for months to taking two weeks off for vacation
- Not even breaking for lunch to attempting to block off an entire afternoon for self-care.
Ironically, when you rush into relaxation, it can be a shock to your sensitive nervous system. You’ve gone from being totally amped up to screeching on the breaks. Your body experiences this as a withdrawal. Your brain has come to rely on stress chemicals to get things done, so when the “drug” disappears, you feel all sorts of uncomfortable emotions – anxiety, fatigue, panic.
Focus on taking it slow. Ease yourself into taking breaks. For example, block off your calendar so you give yourself 15 minutes to decompress after each meeting. Or perhaps try taking off every Friday for one month.
4 – Separate your feelings from your identity
Be patient with the discomfort that arises as you begin to take small breaks, because it will.
Expect to feel some guilt, and recognize that it is simply an old, outdated reaction that you’re rewiring. These are fleeting emotions –– like waves that will crest or clouds passing in the sky –– but not necessarily things you need to take action on.
Additionally, be mindful not to fall into the trap of emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning happens when you believe that your emotional reactions prove something is true. Put simply, emotional reasoning is believing “I feel guilty for resting, therefore resting is bad.” Or worse, “I feel guilty when I take a break, therefore I am lazy / not productive enough.” Work on challenging and reframing those thoughts.
5 – Ditch the scarcity mindset
Sensitive Strivers often feel guilty about disconnecting from work because they obsess about all the tasks that aren’t done, where they’re falling short, and everything left to accomplish ahead. But focusing on what you lack sends you into a state of stress where it’s nearly impossible to relax.
It’s crucial, then, that you learn to celebrate your achievements. You may not feel like throwing yourself a parade, but you can at least appreciate how far you’ve come and focus on what you have accomplished versus all that’s left to do.
Sophia, the client I introduced you to earlier, tried this and realized she was needlessly beating herself up. In fact, in the last few months she had turned a dysfunctional team around, presented at a conference, and saved the company million with a key product launch. Recognizing what was going well gave Sophia relief and allowed her to enjoy her time off.
6 – Create friction
Make it harder to go back to work during your off-hours. For instance, many of my clients have success with:
- Logging out of all work programs at the end of the day
- Shutting down their computer and putting it in a different room
- Deleting email apps from their phone
7 – Set expectations and have contingencies
Many roles require you to be on call for emergencies or to put out proverbial fires. If this is true for you, then establish clear working hours and escalation plans with your team that outlines how to reach you and under what circumstances.
For example, you might say, “Going forward, I’ll be unavailable after 7 PM. If you need me after that time, please send me an email. If it’s urgent (which is defined by XYZ) then please text me.”
If you have a manager that emails you at all hours, maintain your boundaries by acknowledging the message, but punting the work to an appropriate time. (i.e. “Thanks for your message. I spend Saturdays with my family, but will address this first thing Monday.”