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How many times have you heard variations on this conversation?

Person A: How’s it going?
Person B: I’m insanely busy. You know, the usual.
Person A: Yeah, me too. I’m scheduling into 2015 already.
Person B: I get it. Haven’t taken a real vacation in over a year.
Person A: Well, gotta count our blessings for being busy, right?
Person B: Amen.

It seems to me that we wear busyness like a badge of honor.
@LissaRankin (Click to Tweet!)

I’m busy; therefore, I’m important and valuable; therefore, I’m worthy. And if I’m not busy, forget it. I don’t matter.

Recently, I hired Anne Davin to help me run my business, and because she’s much kinder to my schedule than I am, I find myself with a lot more free time than I’ve had in decades. Anne reins me in so I don’t bulldoze full steam ahead into exciting new projects that, while thrilling and fulfilling, will invariably wind up over-committing and depleting me and overworking and depleting my staff. So lately, I have a lot of days on my calendar labeled “Succulent Space Day,” which basically means I’m free to do…whatever.

Because it looks to the outside world like I achieve a lot, people assume I’m insanely busy. But the reality is that, because I have such a great support team, both in my professional life and my personal life, I have a lot of down time, and this down time leaves me admittedly uncomfortable. In September, my whole month was blocked for a PBS station tour that got postponed until December (check listings for my public television special). So when that tour got postponed, I had loads of free time on my calendar. So what did I do? I filled up the time by writing a 124,000-word book that I started and finished in seven weeks.

I guess you could say I’m more than a little uncomfortable with down time.

The Addiction of Busyness

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes about numbing behaviors that we use as armor against vulnerability. And lest you think numbing doesn’t apply to you because you’re not hooked on cocaine or alcohol, she clarifies by saying, “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having twelve-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

Oy. Busted.

While we shame people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, somehow, as a culture, we’ve normalized—even praised—busyness addiction. But are we really doing ourselves any favors by staying so busy?

Because I suddenly have more down time than I’ve ever had in my adult life, I find myself faced with the time to reflect upon my life. And facing my life isn’t always so pretty.

Facing the Truth

When I get off the hamster wheel of busyness and achievement, I’m forced to notice what comes up for me when I’m not busy. After I work through the realization that I could be working on my next book or I could be writing the sales page for the program I’ll be launching with Rachel Naomi Remen in January or I could be doing [fill the “there’s always more” blank], I realize that none of those things must get done today. What is left in the silence are the things I don’t necessarily want to look at.

Like my flailing marriage.

Or the fact that I feel shame around how I’m missing out on some of Siena’s sweetest childhood moments because my job requires travel.

Or how uncomfortable I am with feelings of boredom.

Or how afraid I am of being ordinary.

Or how I tend to feel unworthy and unlovable unless I’m overachieving.

Or the fact that my mother isn’t getting any younger and I don’t get to see her very often, and I wonder if I’m unconsciously pulling away from her because I’m terrified of losing her one day and am practicing what Brené would call “dress-rehearsing disaster.”

Or how uncomfortable I am with realizing that, although a lot of people online care what I have to say, I’m not very good at cultivating and sustaining lasting relationships with real people who really know me and love me.

Or how restless I feel when I’m not making myself feel more worthy by doing something to help others.

Or how lonely I often feel, even when I’m surrounded by a crowd of people.

Oy. Yet again. I’ve been using my busyness to numb the feelings of vulnerability that accompany the unsettling truths about my life. Busted, yet again.

Making Peace with Inaction

My friend and mentor Martha Beck spends about four hours every day meditating lately. I can barely make it through twenty minutes of meditation without checking my watch and counting the minutes until it’s over, so I can’t even begin to relate to four hours of total inaction. Who would I be if I wasn’t busy accomplishing stuff? Who would I be if I was okay with doing nothing for hours on end? And even scarier, what truths would I have to face that I can effectively avoid facing when I’m crazy busy?

I have experienced moments that touch the kind of peace Martha often experiences these days, those moments when you really understand what the Bible meant when it describes the peace that passeth all understanding. It’s compelling, that kind of peace. It draws you in, makes you crave more, and jolts you awake so that you don’t want to miss out on life by filling yourself with crazy busyness.

But then, like a greased watermelon, you lose it. And the pain of its loss tempts you to fill up your schedule again so you’re not faced with the longing of what you have touched but can’t sustain.

What’s the Solution?

So what’s the cure for busyness addiction? Brené prescribes the care and feeding of our spirits. It’s not that passionate action is always wrong, just like a sacred morsel of chocolate isn’t always a numbing behavior. Sometimes these behaviors soothe us. More often, they’re a way to hide. How can you tell the difference? When we consider what motivates our numbing behaviors, Brené invites us to ask the following questions: “Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions ultimately diminishing my spirit? Are my choices leading my Wholeheartedness, or do they leave me feeling empty and searching?”

She concludes with this:

“Spirituality emerged as a fundamental guidepost in Wholeheartedness. Not religiosity but the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to one another by a force greater than ourselves—a force grounded in love and compassion. For some of us, that’s God, for others, it’s nature, art, or even human soulfulness. I believe that owning our worthiness is the act of acknowledging that we are sacred. Perhaps embracing vulnerability and overcoming numbing is ultimately about the care and feeding of our spirits.”

There she goes again. Oy.

Are You Numbing Yourself with Busyness?

Be honest with yourself. What might you be hiding behind your to-do list? How might you care for and feed your spirit more so you’re not so inclined to fill the void with busyness?

Trying to find peace with slowing down,

Lissa Rankin


Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and also created two online communities—HealHealthCareNow.com and OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.

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*Image courtesy of Captain Chickenpants.