I was bummed out and burned out. After a prolonged period of job stress, I was relieved to have something to look forward to: a few hours to explore the American Southwest on the day before an academic conference. I arrived in mid-afternoon, rented a cheap subcompact, and took off.
Once outside the city limits, I could feel myself start to relax. And it wasn’t long until I started to find that rhythm of the open road—a feeling so potent in the Southwest, with its wide-open vistas and its exotic rock formations beckoning on the horizon. With the radio blaring classic rock, I felt a sense of freedom that I hadn’t felt in such a long time. I don’t know how long. Too long.
The only problem was that I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go the conference. I didn’t want to meet new people, carry on conversations, and overload my brain with information. All that I wanted to do was to keep driving. I wanted to keep going, farther off into the desert, putting mile after mile between me and everyone else. And this desire was so intense. It didn’t feel like something I merely wanted; it felt like something I needed. It seemed so urgent, pressing…desperate. I had to get away.
I did eventually make it back to the hotel that night, and I went to the conference as planned. But looking back, I wanted to understand what was going on inside me that gave rise to this powerful urge to get away. Was this desire a life-giving impulse or a dangerous one? What was my mind (or my soul, or my subconscious, or God) trying to tell me through this cry for escape?
Taking a closer look at my situation, I can see that I was running from at least 3 things:
People.I needed a break from people. As an introvert, I need a lot of time by myself and tend to feel drained quickly by social interactions--especially with strangers. Tired and out of sorts, I didn’t feel ready to spend several days in conversation-heavy contact with others. A part of me felt guilty for not wanting to be around these people. But it was nothing personal; I hadn’t even met them yet. I just wanted some time by myself. To prepare myself for this intense social interaction, I first needed to recharge my batteries with some solitude. (For a highly readable and informative book on introversion, see Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)
Tasks and “shoulds.” I took my trip during a busy time at work, when I was feeling overwhelmed and fatigued. My life felt like one big to-do list. And this really is a problem, because at some level, self-control is a limited resource. If we face constant demands to stay on task, whether through work, dieting, or responding to the needs of others, we become depleted and find it difficult to engage in more self-control. Having depleted myself through overwork, I felt like I just couldn’t cope any more. To be at my best, I really did need some time to relax. (For an overview of research on self-control and depletion, see Roy Baumeister & John Tierney’s bestseller, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.)
Negative thoughts. Before my trip to the Southwest, I was in a dark frame of mind, one clouded by worry, irritation, and self-pity. My scenic drive did help: Between the dramatic landscape and the pounding rock music, I was swept up in the moment, carried away from my worries—but only for a few hours. Although the drive was refreshing, in the long run I wouldn’t have been able to escape my brooding thoughts through a change of scenery or location.
Do I regret that I didn’t drive off into the sunset that night, making the maverick choice to blow off the conference entirely? Well...I guess not. But my wishy-washy response is an accurate reflection of my mixed feelings. The conference was the main reason for the trip, and I had made a commitment to attend. But I definitely wasn’t at my best. My yearning for freedom and space had only been partly met. It was like the tip of the iceberg. Those few hours of solo driving, though precious, weren’t enough to refuel me inside.
Looking back, I'm very glad that I took the time to go for that scenic drive. And I'm glad that I was alone, too. The memory of that solo drive is one that I treasure.
But I could have used another free day before the meeting. I would have benefited from more time to collect my thoughts, take a break from my to-do list, and enjoy the beautiful setting.
I also could have used better self-care before that trip, along with more opportunity to process my thoughts and feelings. Had I done so, I might not have been feeling so fragile when I arrived.
Self-care often seems like an extravagance. It can seem indulgent, perhaps even selfish. But I’m gradually learning just how important it is. Ultimately, what I want is a life that is centered in love. But if I’m going to be able to really love others—to value them, to listen, to respond to their needs effectively—I need to attend to my own needs as well.