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The Internal Chaos of Chronically Busy People

"I'm too busy." This might be a reflection of underlying issues.

In our on-the-go world, being "busy" is often worn as a badge of honor, but when does "busyness" signal something that goes much deeper?

I understand that a patent's claims of being "so busy" reflects real-life demands but I also listen for what's beneath the behavior, particularly if it is habitual.

There is a big difference between “just plain busy” and what we call “chronic busyness." Here are two scenarios to illustrate the difference.

 Craig RJD/Getty Images Select via Canva
A lot on your plate? Too many balls in the air? Packed calendar? You might be chronically busy.
Source: Photo: Craig RJD/Getty Images Select via Canva

Person A starts a new job tomorrow, is moving next weekend, planning their friend's 40th Birthday Party and now has to bring their car in for a repair across town, making it home in time to meet the movers for an estimate. This person is busy, but it's temporary and does not reflect this person's typical way of living.

Person B is newly divorced with a high-pressure career, traveling often for work but just decided to adopt a rescue dog, agreed to help their brother with a new start-up, signed up for personal training sessions, and is now considering running for the board of their condo association. Person B's example signals something deeper and falls into a chronic pattern; is this a way to avoid other complicated matters going on in their lives.

Psychoanalytically speaking, what is at the heart of this chronic busyness? Defenses like suppression, denial, and omnipotence.

Person B's busyness could be a reflection of underlying issues based on avoidance. They went through a painful divorce and their partner moved to another state with their child. Chronic busyness is a way many people distract themselves from uncomfortable, unpleasant, and painful emotions. The busyness, the action, the constant movement, and the over-commitment actually protect the person from being aware of their emotions. When chronically busy like this, Person B can suppress painful feelings about loss. It's a defense against the pain.

Defenses is the idea that we do things to protect ourselves to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Those defenses keep us functioning and protect us from becoming terribly overwhelmed with anxiety or other painful emotions. Busyness is a reflection of just one of many kinds of behaviors that can encompass defenses that a person can employ to protect against pain.

A major element in chronic busyness is denial

To be chronically busy, you have to deny the practical truth of the clock, the distance, and one's own limitations. Most people are pretty logical, but when they’re in the throes of chronic busyness, logic goes out the window.

Chronic busyness can lead you to schedule yourself in a way where you have no room for yourself. You know you have a doctor’s appointment at 2:00 p.m but you schedule a lunch at 1:00 p.m. on the other side of town.

The problem is, the longer a person continues in this auto-piloted state, it actually increases their suffering because the person, in constant motion, has little time to think about the real pain and to wonder why am I really so busy.

Is a loved one (or are you) chronically busy?

The first step is to acknowledge chronic busyness. Consider questions like:

Do I feel like life is always hectic and chaotic?

Do loved ones get irritated because you're always late?

Do loved ones tell me things like “you’re not present” or “I feel you’re not really engaged”?

Do loved ones say “you always have an excuse for being late”?

Do multiple people (family, friends, co-workers) say the same things about my chronic busyness? Is this a pattern?

What can you do about chronic busyness?

Ask yourself, is there something I am avoiding or not dealing with in my busyness?

Remember, the goal of the chronically busy person isn't to try and run themselves down by always being late or piling on the work. Their goal is to satisfy something underneath, like masking pain, feeling better about themselves, or feeling worthiness and value.

One way to examine if you are engaging in chronic busyness is to take some downtime. True downtime, not five minutes. When taking this time, you can reflect on what types of bad feelings arise. Are they sad? Agitated? Restless?

In the case of chronic busyness, it’s important to slow down and think about what else – beneath the busy behavior – might be going on and to begin to take steps to address and process those things.

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