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Pulling Back? Withdrawing? 5 Possible Reasons Why

One is healthy; four are not.

Source: mavo/Shutterstock

I’ve noticed myself pulling back in the past few months. By that I mean I’ve had opportunities for new projects that in that past I would have jumped on, but now pass over. I’ve cut back on some volunteer work — not totally dropping out, but donating fewer hours. I’m not emotionally withdrawing from others, sitting on the couch all day and mulling, but I am being pickier about how I use my time, finding myself in a reflective mood.

But this withdrawal business can be tricky. My first reaction is to tie this to my age, getting older, a natural pulling back from all that activity and pressure to constantly do that seemed to consume me for so many years in order to help my family and promote my career. But looking back, I also remember there were times, even in the midst of this running-ragged life, when I had gone through periods of pulling back and pulling in, sometimes mulling, sometimes just slowing down for a while, sometimes making big decisions.

All withdrawal is not the same. Here are the several possible sources that come to mind:

1. Depression

This is probably what we most associate with withdrawal. Spending 12 hours in bed on a Saturday sleeping or binge watching. You get invited to a party or dinner, and you automatically turn it down, because you just don't feel like it, and you can't really cope with it. You feel tired, dragging, and your thoughts are at least gray, if not black — a why-bother, it-doesn’t-matter, I-don’t feel-like-it attitude. And if you tend to be self-critical, a hefty dose added on of I’m-a-loser, I-can’t-do-it, I-don’t-deserve-it.

Depression’s close cousin is grief, where the undertow is the same, but is a response to loss. You ruminate about what led to the loss and what you miss; you are trying to make sense of what happened. If you push yourself to get out and be around others, you generally feel better.

2. Avoidance

I see a lot of couples in therapy who may or may not be on the verge of divorce, but who complain about feeling like roommates for months and often years, constantly withdrawn physically and emotionally from each other, connecting only around parenting, and essentially living parallel lives — and they say that they rarely if ever argue. That’s the clue to what’s really going on: They are using distance to avoid conflict, which they learned in childhood is something frightening. As they sweep more and more issues under the rug, the distance between them not only becomes increasingly wider, but becomes their standard way of operating.

It's not just couples: You can withdraw to avoid in less intimate relationships. You may hole up in your office at work to avoid running into your critical boss or a work colleague that irritates you. You withdraw so you don’t have to deal.

3. Anger

Here you are fed up and basically checked-out. The employee who felt she got shafted in the agency reorg, and is now withdrawn and coasting until she can find a way out. The partner who understandably pulls back after finding out that the other had an affair, and is fuming inside and holing up in the bedroom or working late every night.

4. Burnout

What seems like withdrawal can also be collapse. It’s not the draggy feeling that comes with depression, but a deep-in-your-bones physical and emotional exhaustion. You see this in sons and daughters caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, or parents doing day-after-day care for a disabled child. You see this in firefighters or rescue workers or emergency staff in non-stop, days-long, frontline work situations. But you also see this in high-demand jobs, like lawyers, or among people working two jobs.

5. Reflection and Re-centering

Research on adult development tells us we tend to have 7 to 8 years of stability and then 2 to 3 years of instability and transition over the course of our lives. This is what makes for that 30-year or midlife crisis, where the content may shift from relationship issues to work — but the questioning, the dissatisfaction, the Is-this-all-there-is, or Do-I-want-to-keep-doing-this-for-the-next-20-years, come up.

It is here that a different kind of withdrawal and pulling back comes into play. It may be combined with the others — the roommate marriage really isn’t working, the closed-off anger really needs to be solved with decisive action. There may be low-level depression that comes from feeling a bit trapped.

But here the withdrawal at its best is productive and creative. You mull in a good way — not the anxious, head-running-100-miles-an-hour way of anxiety, but thinking about the bigger picture, the purpose of your life. You go inward so that your outward life can better reflect who you are.

So, where are you?

If depression is what's taking over, it’s time for a bit of pushing yourself out the door, quieting those self-critical voices, probably checking into some therapy and/or medication to help break the cycle.

If it’s about avoidance, it’s time to stop and step up. Acknowledge the elephant in the room, even though your little-kid brain is worrying about blowback. You can pick the where and when, but pick a time and place and the means to say what needs to be said. Get support from others if you need it to move forward.

If it’s about anger, acknowledge it. Let it out appropriately, rather than sitting on top of it. Use it to let others know what you need, to let you know what you need, and rather than pouting, solve the problem.

If it's burnout, you deserve and need that break to recharge — respite care for you from the parent or child, time off from the job. Yes, this is easier said than done. But if this is happening all too frequently and taking too much out of you, maybe it's time to rethink and develop a Plan B?

And if it is a time of reflection and re-centering, go for those long walks, brainstorm about your ideal future, think about the big picture, the bucket-lists, your life goals.

We withdraw from our everyday lives because our lives are trying to teach us something. Maybe it's time to listen?

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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