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How to Stop Drowning in Busyness

For Lent, I'm Giving Up Busyness and Numbing Behaviors

How to Stop Drowning in Busyness

My muscles tighten as I read the word “busyness”, despite it having been my comfortable state of being for as long as I can remember. 

“How are you?”, they’d ask. 

“Busy, but good!”, I’d say.

This was my compulsive (yet, honest) response for decades, coupled with having bought the lie that my level of worth depended upon how full my schedule was. People needed me. I had meetings to attend, tasks to check off, emails to return, goals to achieve, and others to serve. I could avoid rejection by always staying busy and being needed. Hustling through undergrad (a 1-1.5 hour drive away) while working full-time at a coffee shop plus serving on three research projects… all before tackling a dual MSW/PhD program while working as a graduate assistant, getting engaged, married, and having our daughter… before starting a 5.5 year tenure-track journey, having our son, achieving 2.5x more than what was expected of me, and stepping into an administrative position… these humbling opportunities threaded throughout offered me an onramp to a level of busy that no one could reject.

Of course, this came to a crashing halt in 2017 when I pridefully volunteered to help our church’s 12-step program and realized that I actually needed the steps. Standing before these honest and healing humans, I admitted my accelerator was broken. I had no idea how to exist without being overwhelmed or overstressed, running from one meeting, email, call, or project to another, and always saying yes to every opportunity. I could barely be still with others, let alone myself, and my family worried about my health. 

It wasn’t until those 12-step meetings that I realized: my busyness was a way for me to numb a lot of my pain. Busyness also kept me numb from my other numbing tactics. Food. Sugar. Alcohol. Coffee. Email. Four social media platforms. Work. Saying yes. Perfectionism. To do lists. Shopping. Even pridefully helping others when it’s not mine to do. Layer upon layer, these numbing tactics hid beneath my perpetual state of busy. 

To be clear, busyness served a purpose for a time and, in some cases, was truly worth the extra hard work. But the problem was that when it came time to slow down, I sort of knew what to do but I didn’t know how to do it. And so, I offer grace to myself, believing I did the best I could with what I’ve had over the years: emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally, and with the resources I’ve had access to. In turn, I’m also learning to trust the same is true for others, doing the best they can with what they have.

Fast forward to today, being on a semester-long research leave to focus on writing. In December, I felt a tug to make some hard changes: limit coffee from 2-4 cups to 1 cup per day, remove alcohol completely, start doing yoga after a decade-long break, and surrender to an inner healing that I honestly can’t control or force. My sister has been my accountability partner, also making her own choices to remove numbing tactics, and between the “oh, today is hard…” messages, we excitedly exchange texts on how the healing has been exponential.

As I’ve peeled back my addiction to busy, unhooked from the numbing of caffeine and alcohol, and learned to listen to my body, I’ve become increasingly aware of my other numbing tactics and feel a slowly growing confidence in letting them go: checking social media, shopping, emailing, making lists, and mindlessly choosing comfort foods. At the same time, I’m aggressively protecting space for the healing needed from my decades-long busyness addiction with regular yoga sessions, centering prayer, therapy, spiritual direction, enough to do list items, more play with Cory and our kids, more gratitude for so many basic needs being met (and less purchasing of non-essentials), and wiser food/drink choices.

Why is this so important? 

Because if we are operating at such a level of busyness, completely unaware of the ways we engage in numbing tactics, we will surely miss what Mary Oliver calls the “one wild and precious life” that has been gifted to us. 

Although I have slowed down since January, I want to continue creating space for this exponential healing that letting go of busy (and the subsequent numbing tactics that I’m beginning to recognize) has allowed. This will be a lifelong process for me. However, for this Lenten season, I am letting go of Twitter and daily email, both of which I have used before to stay busy and numb. As I let go of busyness and these numbing tactics during this season of quiet contemplation, I pray I’ll continue to wake up to my one, precious, and sacred life. 

Finally, my prayer is the same for each of us during this season. I pray that we each practice becoming more aware and courageously let go of whatever is keeping us from waking up to the gift of our precious and sacred life.

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Holly K. Oxhandler, PhD, LMSW is the associate dean for research and faculty development at Baylor University’s Garland School of Social Work. She studies the intersection of faith and mental health, cohosts CXMH podcast, and is in the process of writing her first book based on her research. You can learn more by following along at www.hollyoxhandler.com.