You know exactly what you need to do to slow down. You need to meditate. You need to sit on the couch, and catch a breather. You need to say no to additional assignments and commitments. You need to practice yoga, and take a few days off.
But you can’t.
In fact, you ramp up your workload instead. You hustle even harder. You pack your schedule even tighter.
And, when you stop for a bit, if you actually stop for a bit, you wonder, Why? Why can’t I slow down? Why is resting so hard for me?
For starters, slowing down is getting harder and harder in our culture, because our society worships busyness. It has become a medal of honor.
Rest and relaxation are seen as treats and rewards, which only come after we’ve worked hard enough, said Panthea Saidipour, LCSW, a Manhattan psychotherapist who works with professionals in their 20s and 30s who want to gain a deeper understanding of themselves.
For many of us, keeping busy is a source of pride, “a kind of ‘I can do it all’ mentality,” said Katrina Taylor, LMFT, a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas, who specializes in helping men and women address childhood and traumatic experiences that may be holding them back from living a full and meaningful life.
Keeping busy can stem from the desire to be seen by others as competent, capable and even perfect—and slowing down may spark feelings of inadequacy and shame, Taylor said.
Slowing down may spark other unpleasant emotions, such as boredom, loneliness and guilt, Taylor said. Ramping up our activities and tasks is simply another way to avoid sitting with those uncomfortable feelings, she said.
Your inability to slow down may have deeper roots: Maybe you were the organized, competent one in your family in charge of many of the chores and tasks. Maybe you’re the oldest and acted as a caretaker (and still do). “To slow down may threaten both [your] sense of self as strong and capable and bring up fear that important people in [your] life will no longer respond with validation,” Taylor said.
Similarly, you might’ve witnessed your parents or caregivers valuing themselves only after they accomplished something, Saidipour said. Or you might’ve seen a parent slow down because of painful reasons, like depression, she said. “These serve as powerful models for us…”
You also might equate slowing down “with being left behind in the dust, and staying busy could be a way of trying to keep up with everyone else, or even leave others behind in their dust,” Saidipour said.
For people who’ve experienced difficult childhoods, such as abuse or neglect, “staying busy can be [an unconscious] way of frantically trying to maintain a sense of being real and alive.” Because, at the core, you experience a profound dread or emptiness. “All of the external doing and busyness could be a way of trying to build some external structure to counteract the internal emptiness, but it never quite seems to fill the void.” (This is when therapy is especially powerful.)
If you’d like to examine why you can’t slow down, Taylor and Saidipour shared these suggestions for delving deeper.
Slow down. “The best way to figure out what purpose a given behavior serves for us is to stop doing it and see what happens,” Taylor said. She understands that this is easier said than done, but it is invaluable.
She suggested pausing for periods of time during the day to do absolutely nothing—and observing what happens. Try to sit with whatever feeling comes up, instead of turning to your phone or some other device or task to distract yourself.
Do you feel bored, lonely, anxious, disappointed, sad or guilty? Do you feel something completely different? Does this feeling feel familiar? Do you feel a tug to escape the feeling right now? Why?
Explore your busyness. Think about the “role busyness serves in your life,” Taylor said. “Is it a habitual repetition of a role you played as a child? If so, how do you want to relate to that pattern?”
Saidipour suggested exploring: when and how your busyness started; how it’s been helpful for you; how it’s been an obstacle; and whether you associate it with anyone in your life.
Explore slowing down. Saidipour suggested asking yourself these questions about slowing down: “What’s been happening in your life leading up to [the] times [that you’ve slowed down]? Did you choose to slow down or did you have no choice at all? (Sometimes our bodies and minds get so exhausted that we’re forced to slow down.) Either way, what did it feel like for you?”
Consider others. Think about the important people in your life, and how your busyness affects them, Taylor said. Ask them directly about how they “experience your difficulty with slowing down.”
For instance, Taylor consistently sees busy people struggling with intimacy. “They keep busy and avoid slowing down so they don’t have to get close to others.” (This is helpful to explore in therapy.)
Slowing down looks different for every person. So it’s important to find what works well for you. The key is that slowing down connects you to yourself “in a way that feels embodied and enlivening,” and helps you become aware of your thoughts, feelings and actions, said Saidipour.
For some people, slowing down is practicing yoga. For some, it’s connecting to a creative process, such as baking, writing or painting. For others, though it might seem counterintuitive, it’s running or hiking, which “frees up space so that the mind can wander and become contemplative.”
The reasons why you can’t slow down “are as multifaceted and unique as you are,” Saidipour said. You story is no doubt nuanced and complex. Which is why it’s essential to examine the narratives you use to live your life, who wrote these stories for you, and how you keep writing yourself “into the same role over and over again,” Saidipour said.
“Coming to know and understand the stories we’ve been carrying inside can help us become the authors of our lives going forward.”