Years ago, while working as a psychologist on a busy psychiatric hospital ward, I was jolted into reality by one of my schizophrenic patients. I can picture him as clear as day, casually leaning against the wall in the hallway, watching me run from therapy appointment to staff meeting and back again. Wearing a wry grin on his face, he said to me, "Are you a member of the rat race or the human race?"
Sometimes my patients just hit the nail on the head! His question woke me up to an awareness of my overly busy pace. Like so many people in the modern age, I had gotten swept up in a kind of manic pressure to take care of everything, to be all things to all people, to make sure I got it all right.
I wasn't so much a human "being" as I was a human "doing."
Because we are so busy, we don't often stop to think why we are so busy. Underneath the wish to check off all the items on our to-do list, what are we really looking for? From a psychoanalytic perspective, we might wonder if we are looking for a sense of being important, or competent, or needed. Deeper still, I think, is our wish to feel that we matter. We chase one accomplishment after another, trying to convince ourselves that we are good, capable, helpful people.
By and large, we feel a pressure to prove our worth, over and over again, because we really don't feel very worthy inside.
We human beings tend to have a distorted picture of what it means to be good, capable, and valuable. We think it means that we must be perfect. Awareness of our limitations, our flaws, and even our own need leads us to feel ashamed and guilty. And we do not want to be in contact with such painful feelings.
But, ironically, the avoidance of the reality of our limitations puts us into immediate contact with the reality of our limitations. The overly busy person never feels like she can get it all done. The hyper-driven person is never satisfied. Our pursuit of perfection frustrates us with the awareness that we can never get it just right. As I often say to my patients, we cannot escape the fact that we are all incomplete.
It takes a lot of psychological work to make peace with this reality. But that is where a real sense of our own goodness can be found. If we can slow down and get in touch with our inner thoughts and deepest feelings about ourselves—even the painful ones—we can develop a more realistic view of our whole selves. We are all a mix of good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, love and hate. If we are out of touch with ourselves, we are out of touch with it all—including the good stuff. If we are more in touch with our true selves, at least we have something to work with.
Busyness depletes us. Mindfulness fills us up. And balance is one of the keys to mental health.