How to Take an Emotional Vacation

It just might save your life

Strain is a wonderful thing. When we work hard toward what we believe, we earn something that’s far more valuable than money: meaning.

But besides meaning, too much strain for too long with too little rest can lead to injury. In athletics, injury is usually visible — you feel pain and your coach or doctor tells you to ice it, stretch it, and take some time off. Outside of athletics–in the rest of life–injury is more often emotional than it is physical. And emotional injury isn’t so visible.

Emotional injury can happen in one traumatic instance or it can happen over time from the grinding of ungreased gears. In either case, there’s not a lot out there to prevent and treat emotional injury (unless of course you count the antidepressants being popped by one in four American adults). And living in a culture that equates rest to “playing hard,” binge drinking, and the four-hour daily dose of TV doesn’t help us get any closer to the solitude and reflection required for long-term happiness.

So, left to our own devices, we end up with quarter-life and mid-life crises, burnout after burnout, jadedness, divorce, depression, and numbness. Or alternatively, we let our emotions control us and then get swept up in a life of narrative exaggeration, a self-constructed delusional drama that distracts us from our dreams.

In either case, we can each probably use an emotional vacation at some point.

I try to take mini emotional vacations on the weekends: writing, practicing aikido, napping, washing dishes and folding clothes in silence, reading in the bathtub, watching things that make me smile (puppy and wildlife videos), hard workouts and long walks, more writing (mostly by hand in a journal).

But at times, work has gotten the best of me and I’ve gone too long without coming to the surface for a breath, and things start to get blurry. My priorities get shuffled and my sense of self begins to melt at the edges. I start to feel anxious, overwhelmed, and confused. I start resorting to brute force and willpower to get through situations rather than finding the most harmonious and natural options. I start delaying decisions because I feel out of touch with my intuition. I stop calling loved ones as often, I begin feeling constantly underprepared for meetings, and emails start slipping through the cracks,.

A few years ago, I hit an emotional wall. I’d pushed it too far. Coughing blood, spiritually confused, broke and distrustful, angry at myself and frustrated with the circumstances I’d fallen into, I looked at myself in the mirror and decided I needed to take my foot off the gas pedal for a little while. So I wrote, did yoga, saw chiropractors, wrote more, read about conflict and the universe and love and purpose, and took up the martial art of aikido. Several months later, I was stronger than ever before. The recovery came because I gave myself space to rebuild.

Each of us has experienced some degree of emotional injury, some circumstances more mild and some more severe (I’d say mine were relatively mild). But except for a few outliers, we humans are mostly programmed the same way, with the same hormones and emotional biology. So, while each person’s absolute set of experiences is unique, the types of feelings we feel follow the same range. Some people’s emotional scars are deeper and more layered than others’, but we’re each fighting our own battle and we each have our own story.

Wherever you are in your own personal battle, it eventually might make sense to take an emotional vacation. I like to take them a couple of times per year, usually right after particularly intense phases of work. Whether it’s just a couple days off or a longer retreat, emotional vacations can help you recharge, rejuvenate, and evolve.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past and what I’ll probably do on my next one:

1) Find a place of quiet and solitude, close to nature, with no internet access in the sleeping quarters.

2) Invite a group of select friends to a facilitated emotional vulnerability experience, so that I have reference points for the range of what other people feel and experience, and so that I can feel comfortable speaking openly about my own emotional issues. This balances the solitude of item #1 with solidarity and community.

3) Meet with an emotional coach. My friend Laura Coe can help. She’s world-class at this, and her book, Emotional Obesity, comes out in 2015. She even coined the term “Emotional Vacation” that inspired this blog post. ☺

4) Go to an immersive “move forward and get an edge on life” experience of the sort Anthony Robbins offers. A lot of folks think this stuff is hokey, but for the right person at the right time, it can be transformative.

5) Read a few books that get me in touch with my soul, spirit, goals, values, and priorities. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Power of Full Engagement, Strengthsfinder 2.0, Myers Briggs, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Ikigai, Choose Yourself, The Alchemist, The Four Agreements, As a Man Thinketh, The Art of Peace, The Celestine Prophecy, and Linchpin have each (among others) been helpful for me in this regard. Here are some that have changed my life.

6) Buy a really nice notebook and a really nice pen to a) take notes on the books above and b) make lists. Sometimes taking inventory of your personal assets helps you come back to center and rediscover your self-worth. I’d make lists including but not limited to:

  • all the networks I can count on. These are the communities and associations that I’ve been a part of who recognize me and whom I could call upon if I needed help. If you’ve helped them in the past, they can function as “favor banks” of people who will either say “yes” to requests for help, or who will offer constructive feedback.
  • all the people who I’d go to war for. There are a few folks in my life who’ve been so good to me and whom I feel so close to that I’d back them up and risk my reputation to help them succeed in their missions. Listing these people helps me get out of my own head and into a place of love, gratitude, and purpose.
  • all the people who’d go to war for me. This is the “inner circle” who believes in my mission, my work, my values, my leadership, even when I don’t. Sometimes when I’m in an emotional rut, I can barely think of anyone here because I project my own self-doubt onto my assumptions about how others perceive me. But the reality is that there are usually a lot more people who are willing to go to war for you than you think.
  • all the people who admire me, envy me, and are jealous of me. There are many more people on this list than most of us are willing to admit. We underestimate the number of admirers we have because we habitually deflate and self-deprecate to keep our ego under control. And we underestimate the numbers of jealous haters and enviers because we’re often afraid to admit to ourselves how many “frienemies” or borderline enemies we actually have. These are the people who compare their “behind the scenes” to your “highlight reel” and secretly resent you because you show them how much they resent themselves. Those pictures of you with your boyfriend? Yep, they made someone curse under their breath. That status update about you graduating with honors from your your masters program? Someone is “liking” it while quietly wishing for your demise. Often, that someone may be very close to you. The list of people who admire and take inspiration from you, as well as envy and seethe with jealousy at your every success, is much longer than you think. Try listing them. The result might scare you into sitting up a little straighter and feeling a little more confident.
  • all the experiences I’ve had and what I gained from them. All the things–big and little–that I’ve done. Everything from visiting Chinese factories to pledging a fraternity to playing video games as a kid. Once I have the list, then I note what I gained from each one: the lessons, the skills, the friends, the memories. I usually don’t think the past is worth dwelling on, but on occasion it can be a valuable source of learning and momentum for the present and the future.
  • all the weaknesses I’ve overcome. At one point in time, I was far more judgmental, angry, self-loathing, self-absorbed, presumptuous, pretentious, superficial, self-destructive, unaware, naive to a fault, delusional, and insecure than I am today. Listing specific instances of all the traits I’ve deliberately or accidentally improved over time can help me pull it together and rally the self-esteem to push through hard situations.
  • all the little things that make me smile. Warm socks, right out of the dryer; fresh coffee; puppies, puppies, and more puppies; the feeling of crossing the finish line at the Tough Mudder; and hugging loved ones.

7) Exercise, whatever that means for you. Running, Crossfit, yoga, martial arts, cycling, dancing, whatever gets your blood pumping and makes you feel alive. Balance it out with long silent walks in nature.

8) Eat well, whatever that means for you. For me, it’s a lot of veggies, naturally-raised meats, and smoothies, combined with not-a-lot of dairy, grains, and sweets.

9) Sleep well, whatever that means for you. I try not to look at electronic screens within an hour of bedtime, and I try to wake up without an alarm clock because I find alarms to be jarring and unnecessarily stressful. This requires an earlier bedtime. It’s worth it.

10) Breathe and smile.

Title Photo Credit: flickr