One of the challenges, when we’ve experienced a painful situation that forced us to slow down, step back or stop engaging, is that the time away can cause us to believe that it’s time (or ‘safe’) to go back. So, for instance, we burn out at work and have to be signed off from work for weeks or even months. Or, after ignoring our health, it stops us in our tracks, leaving us bedridden or with low bandwidth. Or, yes, we go through a breakup, maybe even go No Contact. And then we wonder if it’s time.

  • I need to get back to work. I’ve been off long enough, surely?
  • This illness knocked me for six, but I need to get back to [doing all of the things I do for others]. It feels weird having to depend on others. And I need to get back to [filling my day with way more than my bandwidth can cope with].

While time and distance do offer the opportunity for objectivity and perspective, they can also make our inner critic busy. This is especially so when we’re somebody who orients our lives around others.

When we’re not used to having to prioritise our needs and wellbeing, it feels bloody weird. We feel ashamed, guilty and anxious about the ‘inconvenience’ others are experiencing because we can’t people-please and over-give. We can’t hold ourselves to the lofty, back-breaking perfectionist standards.

There’s this sense that burnout is a sign of weakness, not a wake-up call about living our lives in an unworkable way. And so we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We don’t know who we are or what the hell ‘self-care’ means.

When it’s that we’ve finally stepped back from a painful interaction because we can’t take any more, we feel like a ‘bad’ person. We wonder if we were being ‘mean’. Hell, we actually might criticise and shame ourselves for our lack of ‘resilience’ in the face of boundary-busting hell. We imagine we’re supposed to be better than this–‘this’ being, well, a human with needs and limits.

And so we wonder if it’s time for us to go back to work. Surely we’ve rested enough, eh? We don’t want to be taking liberties now, do we? Buck up, cop on, we tell ourselves. There’s a fear that people think badly of us for not being back at work burning ourselves out.

Who are we when we don’t solely exist for others?, we wonder. We feel redundant, at a loss, agitated. We don’t like how much this time and space brings us closer to our thoughts, feelings and forgotten needs.

Maybe it’s time to go back to work, to start talking to our ex again, to start doing all the things. And, of course, we will have to work again or start increasing our activities or putting ourselves out there.

But how do we know if it is time?

If the same voice that encouraged us to work way beyond our bandwidth, to stay in an unhealthy or unfulfilling relationship, to say yes with little thought or care for our needs, is the same one telling us to ‘go back’ or do what others want or expect, we need to halt. We need to take more time and space than we’re comfortable with so that we finally tune into ourselves. So that we can know the difference between our inner critic and our inner voice.

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