Overwork as coping mechanism

This week I am starting my slow progression into a holiday. I was meant to be off all week, but lingering administrative stuff at MMU and some important Proto-type planning have crept in. Coincidentally, Brian is away this week running a conference in Birmingham, which has meant that I’ve been on my own entirely. I’ve noticed that without him here, I am even less well-disciplined at stopping work for the day – I look up from my computer and discover that it is suddenly 9pm, for instance. Or, I watch television while also finishing a proposal and drinking a glass of wine. I’m in some kind of hybrid working-not-working transition week that I hope ends in me actually stopping work in two days time when I board a plane for the states.

I have often been accused of overworking and some work colleagues get irritated with how quickly I respond to emails or get tasks done. It isn’t that I’m actually efficient, though (well I am a bit): mostly I am a workaholic as a coping mechanism. I use it to cope with the feelings of inadequacy  that many people who work in the arts feel (I’m avoiding calling myself an artist here) and for coping with a growing awareness that I’m getting older and that the unrealistic goals I’ve set for myself are possibly never going to be achieved. I overwork, possibly, as a way of avoiding some potentially unpleasant feelings and emotions. I don’t think I’m at all unique in this strategy.

There is a poem that my sister introduced me to when I was younger that I refer to all the time that has a great ending. It is by Mark Strand and the poem ends, ‘we all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole’. Many people read the poem (Keeping Things Whole) as being about the interrelated nature of all things living. Indeed in many ways it is a perfect expression of the butterfly effect, of the way that everything you do has an impact on something else. I have am reminded of this poem (one of the few I have memorized) in my more reflective moments, when I am contemplating the thing that might be called ‘my life’. The notion that you need to keep moving in order to keep things whole is, for me, a perfect expression of how my overworking has been a way of keeping me from falling to pieces – I keep busy, I keep working to keep myself whole. It’s a terrible strategy in the long-term and I’m starting to find ways to slow down, but change is never easy.

Despite my reluctance (instinctual reluctance, not willful reluctance) to stop working, I am gradually slowing down this week. I’ve spent at least part of each of the past two days doing something that is not work related. Tomorrow, my challenge will be to push myself over the work-wall so that I spend more time not working than working. Then on Thursday, I’m off the cliff entirely – I’ll be turning off email for two weeks and hoping for the best. Luckily, Brian will be with me and I’ll have my other coping mechanism (cooking good food) to fall back on while visiting family. It shouldn’t be this difficult to turn off but for some of us that’s just the way it is…


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