Refilling the Empty Cup

Recently I have begun thinking that I’ve lumped together several different needs and cravings into this larger mental category of “needing to rest”—or, more typically, “feeling overwhelmed.” Feeling overwhelmed and depleted is perhaps the worst time to develop a plan of self-care, given that the experiences labeled thus often leave me wanting to go for immediate cravings or numbing activities. Expressions such as “work/life balance” or other “balancing” type phrases address this from the end of reducing tendencies of overworking, but I have lacked a rich vocabulary for what I need in the times when I’m not working. At times, I have dutifully made “to-do” lists of self-care activities intended to make me “better” and make life fulfilling, which in some ways is effective, in other ways leaves me further in automaton mode, simply doing the next task and feeling this concern that I’m not so much living my life as performing life tasks.

All of which is my personal expression of a pattern of avoiding my experience in the moment. I experience things that I label “tired,” “cranky,” “overwhelmed,” or clusters of emotions that I group together as “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Over time I’ve developed go-to habits to soothe or avoid these experiences, sometimes in ways that feel healthy and supportive, other times in ways that feel even more draining, disheartening, or numbing. Coming home from a long day and sitting in front of the TV for hours—not really watching anything I care to watch, just whatever’s on—feels like one example of numbing activity. Other times I might come home and snack on a bunch of high-calorie, low-nutritional foods.

The Ace of Cups from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot deck.

When I hear people say things like, “I need a drink,” or “I need to get laid,” I suspect they’re coming from a similar place of avoidance or numbing. It’s the “I need” that gets my attention, the way we describe activities that are pleasurable as though they are basic needs like food, water, or sleep. When I was drinking a lot of coffee, I would get to the midday energy crash and find my thoughts fixated on “I need more coffee,” when drinking more coffee ended up leaving me feel even more tired and depleted. One day, someone told me to try drinking water when I thought I needed coffee. I started to experiment with this and was somewhat shocked. Not only did drinking water leave me feeling more energized than the coffee, but I could almost feel my body relaxing and saying “thank you.” Now I wonder what other habits I’ve developed as poor substitutes for what, at a deeper level, I truly need. When I come home and want to snack on junk food, I might really just need to take a nap. A need to “get laid” could mask a deeper need to connect emotionally to someone. It’s not that people are “bad” for wanting or needing these things, it’s that doing anything to avoid feeling something means we neither enjoy what we’re doing nor get our deeper needs met.

All of this has come to bear when I think about my relationship to rest. When I feel depleted and overwhelmed, I become fixated on this need to “rest” and become fairly passive. Sometimes I feel like I’m either in “work” or “rest” mode. But I’m coming to see, “rest” isn’t really rest. “Rest” might be letting myself be passively entertained by TV, zoning out with a video game, or checking social media repeatedly, none of which actually allow my mind and body to relax and be—and if I do either too late in the day, the light and stimulus interferes with my ability to sleep. I’m starting to think that “rest” might be too big of a bucket into which I’ve placed a number of needs—a need for genuine rest; a need for play or fun; or a need for inspiration. The new project is learning to discern between these three and other needs.

What are your needs?