The Hamster Wheel of Summer

Summer is often a time of year people make plans and goals about specifically not having plans and goals. Bedtimes thrown out the window, diets relaxed to enjoy new vacation foods, more chances of ducking out of the office early to beat the weekend traffic to beach houses.

The hamster wheel of many families shuts down with the enviable summer months for children, teens, and college students; meanwhile, the working population looks on with envy and forced adaptation.

It can seem the schedule of kids, and young adults is no schedule from mid-June to mid-August. For working adults there is a different schedule.

The summer can be broken up into three distinct segments:

– pre-vacation to prepare for absence and impact of absent vacationing colleagues

– actual vacation

– post-vacation to repair from absence and impact of absent vacationing colleagues.

Throw in a college friend trip, a couple of required family events, and working adults are on a repeat and rinse cycle for the entirety of summer.

With the required social media photos to document their time off #blessed, #summervaction, #OOO.

OOO, but not Really

I vividly recall crafting my first OOO way back when during my post-doc year. That was pre- 2007, when email did not completely rule the working world. I really don’t know how many people received it because I didn’t regularly receive that many emails.

Fast forward to 2020, and I eventually stopped bothering with the OOO. It did not seem to matter how much pre-vacation work I did, I could not get my emails, my work, or even my thoughts off of work for much more than a 60-minute yoga class.

My time was not just digitally dominated by work email. Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, even the CNN app also served as bedfellows for emotional distraction.

All the ways we receive information at my fingertips just one app over from the ever-present Outlook Work Email app. All great ways to distract from feelings you may not want to feel.

Much has been written about the interconnected, over-communicated, digitized world and how it’s ruining the relational fabric of our lives. What I realized in the past two years, however, was that the greater fault lay with me and my inability to tolerate emotional discomfort.

Sure, I had unavoidable work demands and lots and lots of things to read online about how to parent, remodel a house, and bake sourdough bread.

But really, I was using all those apps as a way to combat sitting with uncomfortable feelings that I just didn’t want to feel or even acknowledge.

I was only able to turn off my need for distraction in yoga because it was so physically hard. Typically involving an arm balance and handstand section that if I thought about much else I would literally fall on my face.

And then I fell on my face

We all have professional reckoning moments that pull us down a path that changes our future. Mine came after a lot of heartache and choices that had profoundly disrupted my personal life.

The last vacation I took before my career shifted, I didn’t even consider an OOO. I did more than check work email. I dreamed about work, I saw work, I tasted work. I had imaginary conversations in my head with people at work. I worked, just in different time zones.

And let’s be honest, it was my choice to do all that work.

I turned to any distraction I could find on that vacation, including work, because I wouldn’t acknowledge what I was feeling. What I had been feeling for a long, long time. I could not bring myself to tell the people in my personal life that it may be time for a change. I had not even admitted these feelings to myself yet.

So, I did whatever it took to distance myself from the scary feeling that this type of work was not right for me. And that included working.

It is heartbreaking on vacation when your kids express your chronic and persistent vocational distress before you do. That’s the night I fell on my face.

During our cherries and pits part of day (cringeworthy I know), my son said “mom, your pit is always the same, we can skip that part for you”.

I was legitimately surprised and shocked.

He already had identified what had become my persistent emotional distress and chronic unhappiness. I was ready to argue he was wrong. He knew he wasn’t.

Boom, face plant.

The Sweet Spot of Disconnection

This past year, I enjoyed my first vacation completely uninterrupted by professional work. No urgent emails or calls. No texts about meetings I was strongly encouraged to attend that were scheduled over previously approved PTO.

All of my clients were alerted of my planned absence a month before my vacation started. My practice is intentionally small, so I can be mindful of my client’s scheduling needs, but also to allow me personal flexibility.

It was a strange feeling to know I was not going to be intruded upon. That time with my family really was not going to be interrupted and I could truly embrace the experience of travel and disconnection from my day-to-day world.

It was also strange to go on vacation and not have to hide what I was feeling or distract myself from my own personal uncomfortable feelings.

Midway through the trip, I finally relaxed and realized the outside world was going to remain at bay. I had eradicated the ghosts of supervisors’ past. By not being on wifi and, consequently, social media, I was not triggered by all things social media. The time difference meant the news updates did not occur during waking hours.

In sum, I prevented external intrusions, disconnected, and let myself connect with my feelings. My feelings weren’t as scary this time. I love my new job. I love running my own business. I truly love what I am now doing.

These feelings didn’t require distraction or digital numbing. We didn’t skip over any of my pits and my cherries were substantially higher.

The Post Vacation Re-Entry

The vacation was amazing. Good food was eaten, frame-worthy photos taken, and our suitcases returned heavier than they left, laden with presents. I also did what a lot of us do after experiencing another culture for 14 days.

I attempted to make the coffee at home the way I enjoyed it on vacation. I declared we would walk after dinner and not just plop in front of the television or be on our phones. I eschewed all-purpose flour and said we would only make our own pasta. I kept my phone down more than up.

The result? We have had zero pasta since our return. I continue drinking crappy homemade cappuccinos. The dog is exhausted from all the walking and ready for us to go on vacation again. We have no bread in the house because of the all-purpose flour rule, and now I crave toast.

What also occurred? A remaining sense of control I had over external intrusions to my private life. And the feelings of authenticity with myself and my family that have remained.

The Summer Lull

This sense of control over what external factors I allow to influence my private life and thoughts has been my journey this year. In part, my shift in career was about creating personal control and autonomy in my life.

My former supervisors and workplaces didn’t demand my total attention the way I assumed they did. Instead, my total attention on work served a function to distract from what I found to be uncomfortable.

I ask my clients a lot what are you trying to distract from. It’s something I continue to spend significant time thinking about. Why, I personally needed to scroll, tap, like, or comment instead of reflect, sit, listen and most importantly, feel.

I have achieved in these early weeks of August the little summer lull that I have previously envied in my children. I have read a lot of books, walked the dog, drank my crappy cappuccinos, but also slept better and felt more present and emotionally authentic.

Better yet, I even felt bored and I welcomed that state instead of turning to yet another digital distraction.

And it turns out, bored as an adult is not so scary.

The Dog Days Are Coming

August, for some, is the month that can destroy the summer lull and throw us back into a head-spinning amount of required scheduling coordination, school form completion, and fall shopping. The fall and back-to-school schedule can be brutal and punishing.

There is little time for boredom, but there are lots and lots of feelings.

While I know there won’t be a lot of lull moments on the upcoming horizon, I also know I can and need to intentionally create them. The noun definition of lull is “quiet or moments of inactivity.” In the midst of what will feel like the dog days of late August, it’s on me to create and step into intentional inactivity if I want to keep my post-vacation zen a little while longer.

In creating my own tiny lull, I am hoping my sense of control over how and when I allow the external world to intrude on my private thoughts, time with my family, and time with myself will remain.

I am hoping to remain bored. So bored that I can let myself feel all the things and not run away from those that are scary, intimidating, or chaotic. So bored that I won’t feel the need to turn to a digital distraction because I don’t like what I am feeling. So bored that I am happy with all the cherries and all the pits. So bored, in fact, I haven’t fallen on my face all summer.

Need help creating your own sense of lull?

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About the Author: Dr. Heather Sheets
Hi, I’m Dr. Heather Sheets, a psychologist with a passion to change the lives of women and men struggling with life transitions, relational issues, depression, and/or anxiety. I’ve spent 15 years as a licensed clinical psychologist with a unique mixture of psychotherapy experience and leadership and executive training in both public and private practice. Learn more about me and my services.  Arlington, Virginia , 22207 Visit my Website

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