Why Am I So Exhausted?

Why am I so exhausted? I figured that if I'm asking myself this question every day, chances are you are too.

The actual answer – if this were a biology class – is obvious. Fatigue is a signal from the body to the brain. It says, this organism is expending more energy than it’s generating. The tank is empty.

Everything around us is in an uproar. If the state of the world right now were a plot in a novel, we'd say it was ridiculous, unrealistic, crazy. No way all of that would happen at once. We wouldn't read the book.

So yeah, we're all exhausted. What’s the answer? Again it is simple: do less, rest more. And yet we can't, we won't, we don't. Why not?

Why does the question evoke shame? Does it, for you? It sure does for me. Gut level.

My dog, Ruby, has Addison’s disease, which means her adrenal glands don’t function properly. She doesn’t produce enough cortisol and aldosterone to keep her alive. It was diagnosed a few years ago when she suddenly stopped eating and didn’t want to move. Her body did not have what it needed to keep her going, so she began to shut down. We manage it now, with medications that replace the hormones, but it is a tricky balance, to get the dosing just right. So we have to watch her and adjust the meds as needed. We know that she needs more when she starts to slow down.

When she doesn’t have enough energy, she quite simply stops moving.

Unfortunately we have this annoying prefrontal cortex that talks us out of responding to such simple biological calculations. Our thoughts, beliefs, stories, and emotions trigger behaviors that override the messages we get from our bodies. We keep going even though our fuel gauge is low-to-empty. We have endless strategies, tools, and technologies that help us override symptoms and continue to over-function. Over time, we burn out. We even know this is going to happen, but often we don’t stop before it does. Go until you crash. Sound familiar?

[Please excuse me for a minute while I go to refill my coffee cup and find some ibuprofen].

Let’s go back to the question I began with, why am I so tired? I am not asking about biology. Like I said, that’s easy. So what am really I asking?

I’m asking “what is wrong with me?” Why am I tired when I shouldn’t be? I shouldn’t be this tired. I should be full of energy like so-and-so (fill in the blank with who you compare yourself to). What am I doing wrong?

The fatigue bothers me because I want to get stuff done. Is my sense of worthiness so tied to my accomplishments -- to what I DO -- that I am not willing to accept fatigue (or pain) as what they are? They are simple signals to stop. But I don’t want to stop. Or am I afraid of what will happen if I do?

Let’s pause here a moment and dig deep into our stories about what we need to do. If you sat down and wrote, as a numbered list, every single thing you do in a day, it would blow you away that you manage all that. (It's a good exercise - I recommend it). On top of that, if you are an average American, you probably don’t sleep enough. And you may not eat enough. Because we "should all over" ourselves around sleep and food, too. So, not enough energy, too much to do. And yet fatigue baffles and frustrates us.

If you saw my “I DO” list and I saw yours, we’d say to each other, "wow – that’s a lot! How do you manage all that? You should give yourself a break." And yet with ourselves, we only focus on the other list. The things that didn’t get done. The “I’m not” list. The “I didn’t” list.

That’s kind of brutal, isn’t it? I wouldn’t do that to you. I wouldn't taunt you with all the “potential” that you have that’s being “wasted” while you watch TV or take a nap, would I? Would I wag a finger at you for waking up groggy because you had a second glass of wine last night? Scold you for not having a vegetable in each night’s family dinner? Shame you for gaining weight? For not doing yoga every day? In the midst of a pandemic/recession/racial reckoning/constitutional crisis? Would I shame you for wanting comfort when the freaking world is falling apart around us?

If I did, you’d unfriend me. And rightly so.

So why do I do it to myself? The answer lies deep in those visceral fears. Those fears are real, but they are not true. In any moment we can choose to be driven by the fears or we can choose to shine a light on them and dismiss them.

The best clue that we are acting from fear (and shame, it's loyal partner-in-crime) is the word "should." Start paying attention to your inner voice. How often does it say should? Don't get me wrong, there's a place for "should." I should eat. I should rest. I should be nice to others. I'm talking about the achievement shoulds, the perfectionist shoulds, the endless "TO DO" list shoulds. The shoulds that come from fear that we are not good enough, not doing enough.

I hereby declare, for now and always, that you are good enough. Period. I am good enough. If I die tomorrow, my life will have been enough.

And, hearing that doesn't quite take care of it. Cognitive reframing is valuable. It's an essential practice. But it's not sufficient. It needs to come with self-compassion, which is a FEELING, not a KNOWING. I can tell myself "I am good enough," and believe it for a moment, but it doesn't change how I FEEL. The fear and shame still lurk.

I have to take it one step further, like this: "I am good enough BUT I spend a large part of my life telling myself, in one way or another, that I am not. I'm self-critical. I push myself pretty hard. Even when I’m tired. Even when I’m in pain.

“Wow, that sounds really HARD, all that criticism and judgment. It must be really painful and terribly exhausting to live with that day in and day out. I am so, so sorry, Dana, that you have had to live that way all this time! I am sending you love and care. I hope you can find some relief from all that pressure." Hand on your heart is optional, but recommended.

Try it – with my words or your own – and see if your body relaxes. Mine does. Sometimes I get very, very sad.

With seeing truly (that we are doing a lot and life is pretty crappy right now) and self-compassion (I am so sorry you are suffering like this) we can finally let ourselves off the hook. We can rest when we’re tired, relax when we’re stressed, replete when we are depleted. And the world will not come crashing down around us. At least not any more than it already is.

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(c) Dana L. Barron, PhD, 2020