Two dwarf hamsters were in my hand.
depression,  meaning of life,  parenting

Letting Myself Off the Hamster Wheel

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As a homeschooling mom, one of my goals it to ensure that my kids don’t think their worth comes from how many projects they do or how much schoolwork. It doesn’t come from how many books they read or how many friends they have. Recently, I’ve been realizing that goal has to apply to myself as well.

One of the easiest things for me to do is to slide into believing my worth comes from what others think of me. No, that isn’t quite true. I slide into believing that my worth comes from what I assume others think of me. I start thinking my value comes from how much I give them and how much I do.

This feeling has been exacerbated by teaching short courses online. Every course is a time when I taken up to ten new people into my life and dedicate some of my time and attention to them. I want to succeed in teaching them. I want them to like my course. I want to give them good value for their money. I worry. Any drop-outs can feel like personal failure and even when the families mention time commitments or health problems as the excuse I can wonder whether they are just trying to be nice. Depression loves that type of insecurity and encourages me to take everything personally.

So I try to fight the fear of failing by working really, really hard. I devote hours and hours to reading and studying. These are not self-limiting tasks. There’s no clear point for saying “ok, I’ve done enough.” So I keep going.

The same is true for parenting. I want to be a good parent. I want to give me kids everything I can. I hear about the importance of talking with one’s kids, reading with them, giving time to them. With three kids there is rarely a time when parenting is self-limiting. There’s rarely times when I can know that I’ve done enough.

So my life becomes a rat-race of trying to do enough. Give enough. Keep enough going. It is silly, of course and I can’t keep it going.

Over the last few months I’ve been learning to recognize that I need to redefine where my sense of self and worth come from. I need to let myself feel happiness and let myself feel ok. Things are enough.

It isn’t easy for me to stop pushing myself. It isn’t easy for me to accept that I have worth outside of what I do.

Why “Take time for oneself” is rather useless advice.

Now as a parent and as someone who struggles at time with depression I’ve had a great many people in my life tell me I need to “take some time for myself.” The time for myself is supposed to somehow be healing. In some ways this is good advice. It is also, in many ways, useless.

When I’m stuck on the hamster wheel that is trying to prove myself to myself, I get a sense of value from running in the hamster wheel. I get a sense of success from how fast I can make the hamster wheel go or how much I can carry with me. Telling me to take time to myself is like pulling the rug out from under me. I think “what do I want to do?” and the answer is “I want to succeed at everything I have set before me….”. I want to keep racing ahead in the hopeless race to prove myself. I want the drug that is temporarily meeting my own expectations, even if I know that drug is killing me.

Yet over time I’ve learned I do need time out. I do need time for myself. I have to believe first that there is a self that counts, but when it does I have to give that self time.

Re-reading really easy fiction, watching television or playing some computer games gives me a chance to do something that I can’t really measure my value from. They let me step temporarily off the hamster-wheel of trying to get things done. They can affirm I have worth or value even when I’m “being lazy” but it is a temporary, stubborn affirmation, like eating second helpings of chocolate even when one knows that one is already too full.  They can be a way of declaring to myself that every minute of my time isn’t owed to others, but they can’t fill me with the joy or pride.

Even while I’m trying to convince myself that my value doesn’t come from what I do, I still want to take pride and pleasure in what I accomplish, in who I am and what choices I’ve made.

Spending time on my hobbies helps. I set up a loom recently and some sprang. (Sprang is thread-twisting, similar but different from fingerweaving, which I also need to get back to sometime.) I’ve been playing piano. These are things that are not done for anyone else’s benefit, and remind me of things I like about myself.

The problem is any of those hobbies can become a new measure of success. I can start pushing myself on any of those and judging my worth by how much I do on them.

What works for me.

There are a combination of things that help remind me that my value doesn’t come from what I do.

Keep several hobbies and rotate through them. I don’t get too attached to any. I put it down knowing I’ll pick it up again later. I can work at keeping them lighthearted that way.

Notice the times when I am relaxing and give myself a pat on the back for that. I let myself feel pleased and successful at the simple act of feeling happy. Happiness is good. This might sound silly but if you have depression, anxiety or a tendency to value yourself only for what you can do, it is important to reward yourself mentally for happy thoughts.

Stay away from the people who would degrade the things I am proud of doing. If I want to build an alternative framework for understanding my value – if I want to stop thinking of myself as worthwhile even when I’m not helping others or getting stuff done – I need to stay away from those who would make me feel insignificant or bad.

Recognizing I can’t be everything to everyone. In the context of teaching online classes this means recognizing that my classes will not be a good fit for everyone and that I can’t expect them to be that. It also means accepting that certain friendships aren’t a good fit and certain activities aren’t worth my time and energy.

Make sure I get enough sleep. Nothing distorts my thinking about things like not getting enough sleep.


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