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Rest is a right, not a reward.

By Erica Bobish, MSW

Many of us go through the day focusing on our to-dos and tasks we need to complete. At the end of the day, we then will measure our productivity and decide if what we did was enough that day. Sometimes, we’ll bring our work home, answer emails outside of work hours, and blur the lines of our work/life balance. Since most of us are measuring our value based on our work or our productivity, we’ll tell ourselves “I can take a break after I finish [x, y, z]” or “I haven’t done enough to earn a break”. By framing rest as something that needs to be earned, we’ve made it a special treat: something that isn’t freely accessible to us.

When we view rest as a reward, or something that we need to earn, we teach ourselves that we are not inherently deserving of rest. I used to be someone who constantly justified self-care within the context of the saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. This phrase really resonated with me, and reminded me that I can’t help others and be a good therapist/partner/friend/advocate if I wasn’t taking care of myself. Although this is exactly true, I was telling myself that rest was just a way for me to be able to give to others. In a professional training regarding self-care, I mentioned this phrase and a colleague responded by saying, “yes… but you can also take care of yourself and rest simply because you need it and you deserve it.” This is such a simple, logical concept, but in that moment I felt fully taken aback. That was the moment I realized that my version of rest was an act that I had been doing for others instead of myself.

Although we live in a world of ever present deadlines and never-ending to-do lists, we have to recognize that rest is integral to our wellbeing, as much as any other need we have. Think about it: when you’re hungry, you eat. When you need to use the restroom, you go. When you’re thirsty, you get something to drink. So why do we feel the need to just push through when we’re feeling tired, both physically and mentally?

Here’s your fun etymology fact for the day (stay with me here): the word “priorities” (plural) didn’t appear until the 1900s. The word “priority”, which is derived from the Latin word “prioritas” and interpreted to mean “the first in rank, order, or dignity”, was seen as early as the 1400s in the English language. So somewhere around the turn of the century, we decided that priority, the first in rank, could be pluralized to mean a series of high ranking tasks or goals. This isn’t just interesting from a linguistic perspective, it’s also a fascinating representation of our culture. We decided that there isn’t just one thing for us to focus on and hold as important, but rather we need to be doing more.

When you hear the word “self-care”, it may just feel like a buzzword, or something that we use to justify spa days, impulse shopping, and more or less frivolous decisions. A trip to a spa can be an act of self-care, but it isn’t the only way to care for yourself. Getting 8 hours of sleep is a great start, but rest also isn’t exclusive to the night. It’s something that happens throughout the day by making the time and committing to our own wellness. Some activities that can also be ways to relax and take a break can be:

  • Setting aside time during the day to read or journal
  • Downloading an app with guided meditations and taking 3-5 minutes to just breathe and sit with your thoughts
  • Creating boundaries with work hours, and not opening your email or doing work outside of those times
  • Taking a full lunch break where you eat a meal and disconnect
  • Napping when you are tired!! (sometimes we need a little pick me up, and there is no shame in that)
  • Allowing yourself time to be creative: draw, color, paint, write
  • Making time for activities you’ve been wanting to do: maybe you’ve been dying to see the Cezanne exhibit at the Art Institute or go to a Sox game before the end of the season. Make the time, finalize plans, and disconnect while you’re there!

In addition to making time for breaks, we have to consider how we use those times of rest. When you step away from your computer, are you opening your phone to scroll through social media? Are you going outside for a walk? Are you taking a break from work to clean your apartment? We should consider how to cultivate intentional rest: rest that allows us to recharge and refresh. Everyone’s version of this is different, and maybe sometimes taking a 10 minute break to get on Instagram or TikTok is something that allows you to disconnect from the task at hand, which is great! However, if you are using this as your strategy for rest and you find yourself getting wrapped up in feeling overwhelmed or frustrated by what you’re seeing on your timeline, it is likely not something that is considered restful for you.

Rest is not earned, rest is a fundamental part of being human. We need rest the same way we need air, and if we withhold it from ourselves, we’ll see the impacts as ripple effects in our life. Work might become more difficult to complete, friends might feel more distant. We are at risk for burnout, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and ultimately, not valuing ourselves the way we need to. Next time you catch yourself needing a break, ask yourself, what do I need to do to feel rested in this moment? And although you can’t pour from an empty cup, remember that you are deserving of a full cup, no matter what.

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