Everyone has their limits. The thing with me is that my limits are often difficult for others to see. This means that responsibility for keeping myself safe falls squarely on my shoulders.
I have pretty good self-awareness in most areas. (Well, at least the areas that I care about. I also have abysmally poor self-awareness in other areas that I don’t have energy for – e.g. fashion.) I’m pretty good at noticing how I feel and identifying a cause, or multiple causes, and predicting what will happen. On the whole, I can recognise danger early and I know how to protect myself. This means that most of the time I can avoid a meltdown well before it happens.
But sometimes there is a perfect storm and there is little I can do. I had one of these moments not so long ago. I consider it a close call. I can’t remember the last time I was pushed so close to my limit. I wasn’t just on the edge. I had been bumped over and was hanging onto the cliff face by my fingertips.
The scene was a conference centre in country Victoria. Earlier that morning I was picked up from my house at 7am. Carpooling with two people I’d never met we drove one and a half hours north to a kangaroo filled site where we were to spend the week living with and getting to know our new classmates. I had enrolled in a year-long course and this was day one.
9am and I was already tired. For a myriad of personal and professional reasons I was coming off the back of a highly emotional week, a non-stop rollercoaster of stress and fatigue. In order to help us really ‘arrive’ we were each invited to ‘check in’ with the group. In front of 25 strangers I shared that I felt like I was running at about 40%. I knew it would be a big week here with everyone. I hoped I had the stamina to survive.
Do you know how small children are so much more irritable (and prone to tears) when they are tired? Well I don’t think it changes all that much as adults. Maybe we don’t burst into tears as often, but fatigue makes everything harder.
One of our first tasks was to form groups of three. This sounds simple enough. The catch is that these triads would be our working groups for the rest of the year. Forming these groups had been the one thing I was anxious about coming into the week. The decision in this moment is binding for the next 12 months and will shape my entire experience of the course!
This is where things really started to escalate quickly. I was already dealing with anxiety and fatigue, now add to that time pressure and a large amount of background noise. I had assumed that, since this was such an important task, we would be given a significant amount of time to do it. I was wrong. We were given what felt like no time to consider what we were looking for in our working group, and then all thrown in together to chat to different people and consider who we wanted to work with. Not only was there lots of noise from 25 people’s conversations, but there were also instructions being shouted over the top, and an ear-piercing tambourine shaking every minute or so followed by the request to ‘move on’.
I could feel myself falling further and further behind. I didn’t have enough time to process the situation. I had no idea what I wanted. I had no idea what I should be talking to people about. There were over 20 of us, and I barely got a chance to speak to half before we were asked to start making a decision. The noise hurt my head. I couldn’t think straight. I had no idea what I was doing, and as soon as I managed to start I was interrupted and told to stop again. This was perhaps the most important decision of the year and the fear of missing out was growing rapidly. Still, I was consciously aware of most of these factors. I knew I needed a break. I couldn’t take much more of this.
For maybe 2 or 3 minutes I pushed myself to keep going. I started telling people honestly how difficult it was with the noise and the stress and the rush. Others were feeling it too, though not to the same extent. We started empathising about that instead of doing our task, which again helped me slip even further behind. I could see my reserves diminishing… 30%, 20%, 10%. Finally I’d reached my acceptable limit. I went over to the facilitators and told them that I needed to step outside for 5 minutes. It was only then that things reached crisis point.
They told me no. Now I was starting to panic. I was already at my limit. I’d already pushed myself much further than I should have. Now, I’m being asked to push myself even further? They had no idea how close I was to breaking point. I did well not to burst into tears on the spot.
“I’m worried if you leave now then you’ll miss out”, they said. This was precisely my fear. My anxiety tripled in a split second. Suddenly it was all up to me. I was down to my last 5% and now I was alone, no-one could help me, I had to take care of myself. Everything hurt. Staying hurt, leaving hurt. What could I do?
Digging very deep into the reserves I had left I put my foot down and decided to take a ‘quick’ break anyway. I sat down on the other side of the room and tried to block out the noise. I took a few deep breaths and started to write out what was important to me in a group. The pen didn’t work. I picked up another… also empty. My paper was now torn from frantically trying to get these pens to work. Time was ticking away. I had nothing left…
Fortunately, after that, things didn’t get worse. I was lucky enough to be with a really caring group. It was very obvious that I was not ok. Someone found me a pen and got me some more paper. A few minutes later when I came back to the group, I was gently asked questions. I was given time and space to try and formulate a response. I was still hovering barely above 0%. I had no energy to care and no resources to think, or to make decisions, but I could still be there. It might sound funny, but when I get to that level, I don’t have enough energy to be anxious anymore. I become like a blob. All thoughts and desires stop, as if my brain has gone into hibernation. Kind of like a laptop that is running low on battery, if you don’t plug it in, it goes to sleep.
There is nothing quite so scary as when others are pushing me towards a limit that they do not see. It’s like heading full speed toward a brick wall, knowing that the driver cannot see it. I understand that others cannot see my limits. The moral of the story is that when I say ‘enough’, I really mean it.