“If you’re not coping, then anything that gives you respite and is not immoral is a good thing.”

The words of that sentence streamed out of my mouth in the course of a conversation I was having with Aaron in the car yesterday and as I heard them, I realised there was more to them than just the context of that conversation. I repeated them, more slowly, realising as I did how many situations I know of in which people suffer, not because they do not know what would give them respite, but because they refuse to give themselves permission to take it.

Today I want to address a question:

Why on earth do so many of us feel so guilty for giving ourselves the respite we need and what would it take to change that?

In my last blog post I talked about the feeling we have when we think we’re fine but we aren’t sure, and in my next one I plan to talk about some specific ideas for coping with that near-capacity feeling, but in this one I just wanted to pause for a second to talk about the importance of giving ourselves permission to take a little respite.

I think that if you’re like most of the people who read this blog then giving yourself permission to take respite is more of a problem then coming up with ideas for what respite might look like – and without permission, all the ideas in the world won’t help you dial back the demands to bring your capacity thermometer down to a more manageable heat. So here, in the format of answering your potential protests, are some thoughts on why I think you should just go ahead and write yourself a permission slip to take a break!

Respite - hands

Picture by Unsplash user Ismael Nieto

But I really don’t know what would help…

I believe you, I do. If fact it was only a matter of days ago that I said more or less the same thing to a friend offering me help, so I really do understand this rebuttal. But here’s the thing – I actually think that not believing our situation merits respite is one of the biggest obstacles to coming up with ideas for what would help.

Here’s why: sadly, I have been witness to friends and family dealing with desperate situations several times. In desperate situations there is not a lot of space left for judgement. People who are facing tragedy can’t afford to withhold permission from themselves to get help and have very little mental or emotional space for analysing whether others judge them or not. I’m not saying it’s not a struggle to be in a position of having to rely so utterly on others’ support because I know it is. I’m just saying that when someone is simply trying to survive from day-to-day, we don’t begrudge them taking any possible opportunity for respite. And in those situations – when the judgement is alleviated somewhat – we come up with plenty of ideas for respite.

So here’s what I want you to do if you’re not coping but can’t come up with any ideas for how to dial back the demands and give yourself a brief break: imagine, for a minute, that your situation was worse than it is. Imagine that you were in a position that is widely socially validated as a legitimate asking-for-help scenario. Hang your judgement up on a hook temporarily (don’t worry, just for a minute) and then write a list – a secret list, for no one need ever see it – of all the not-immoral things that would make your life easier:

Things that are allowed to go on this list include:

  • things that you know you can’t possibly do
  • things you can’t afford
  • things that would be a relief but that you would never admit to wanting
  • things that would be humiliating to consider
  • forms of support that your situation does not warrant
  • types of respite that you don’t deserve
  • things that people like you don’t do
  • things that you never imagined contemplating

Things that are not allowed to go on this list are:

  • things that are immoral

If you’re not sure whether or not something is immoral (I get it – you’re tired!) ask yourself whether it would be immoral if you were in a desperate situation. If not, it can go on the list. If in doubt, just put it on the list. Don’t worry, it’s just an exercise. I’m not going to suggest you actually do these things!

Now, take another piece of paper and for each of the ideas you’ve written down on the first list, write several ideas on the second list that are similar to the List One idea but that hit various levels of scale. Here are some examples:

respite ideas examples

The point of this exercise is to show you that coming up with ideas for respite is not the problem: judgement is. Even if your List One ideas for respite are wildly unrealistic (and I hope they are!), they have done the job of breaking the ideas-block that your self-judgement built. They have also helped you come up with some less wildly-unrealistic ideas for List Two – these are things that you could actually consider doing.

respite - desperate

Picture by Unsplash user Alexander Lam

But my situation is not desperate…

I know – and for some reason it is far more socially acceptable to ask for help when your situation is desperate. We bandy around the idea that prevention is better than cure, but then we too often judge people who put firm boundaries and strong support in place in the name of preventing their future need for a cure. We really shouldn’t do that. They are courageous and honourable for doing so!

Who invented the idea that respite is only for the desperate, anyway?

Living close to your boiling point is sometimes unavoidable, but to the extent that you can do something about it, it is your God-given responsibility to do so. This is the principle of self-control. Living without a buffer makes it incredibly difficult to live and love well. Giving yourself respite when it is possible prevents poor decision-making and equips you to handle that which is truly unavoidable in ways that are honouring and loving.

Is “I do all my family’s cooking” or “I never say no to my boss” or “I haven’t had a holiday in months” the hill you want to die on? Is that sense of misplaced pride worth the cost – both to you and your loved ones – of living with no buffer, frequent meltdowns and potential future burnout?

Oh dear friend, I know it’s hard to think clearly now. I know you don’t mean badly by your decisions. I know you’re just trying to do your best with what you’ve got. I know it’s hard. I find it hard too. But I do believe it’s worth it!

respite - values

Picture by Unsplash user Imani Clovis.

But that’s not in line with my values…

OK, so this is where things get tricky. There are some respite options which are not immoral, but which nonetheless do not line up with your personal values. In general, I believe strongly in living a life that does line up with one’s values, but the reason I’m not sure this always works is that sometimes our values need to change. Sometimes, for example, we value things like “never asking for help” or “working all hours of the livelong day” or “being the best” and our values, quite simply, are wrong. The tricky thing is that when you’re tired and overwhelmed and not coping is not the best time to begin trying to unravel your values and figuring out which ones are leading you astray.

My personal tactic for this dilemma is to turn to those who I trust and respect and who I know love me and to ask them for their input. There are times in my life when I’ve been pretty wrecked and I have chosen to do something that felt very uncomfortable to me because all the people around me who I respected and trusted and loved me were telling me it was a good decision. I have never regretted a single one of those decisions, but it does depend on 1. a very well-developed radar for who you can trust and 2. surrounding yourself with loving, respectful and trustworthy people when life is good, so that they are there to call on when you can’t see clearly for yourself.

respite - destructive

Picture by Unsplash user Alex Wong

But it might be destructive…

This protest, closely related to the one before, is also tricky. The problem with respite options is that they nearly always have a cost associated with them (and to complicate matters further, that cost is not always paid by us). This is one of the reasons we deny ourselves respite in the first place. They also, obviously have a gain, but how great that gain is depends on how desperate your situation is. Here are a few pointers that might help you evaluate whether a particular respite option is worth it:

  • How risky is it, really? Are you holding yourself to higher standards that you would hold others to? Sure, your kids will miss you if you go away for a long weekend but is it really going to scar them for life? Yeah, you might miss an opportunity if you don’t go to that event, but what are the chances that that opportunity is really make-or-break? Try not to overplay the risks of respite in your own head!
  • You are responsible, first and foremost, for yourself. You don’t have to take into account all of other people’s responsibilities or opinions in order to make your own decision.
  • What are the risks of not taking respite options?
  • Maybe the gains are worth the costs.
  • Even if something does go wrong, is it potentially redeemable?
  • This may help.

It’s true; there are exceptions. There are times when a respite option is too destructive to make it worth it. Again, though no one can tell you what risks you should take, loving, respectful and trustworthy people can help you evaluate well here and can help you find the balance between not using this as an excuse and not making a rash and potentially damaging decision.

Respite - do you need it?

Picture by Unsplash user Elizabeth Lies

I’m not sure I really need it…

Oh, so familiar! I’m just wondering though, how do the people around you feel about it?! 😉

I usually don’t know how much I needed a break until after I’ve had one. As humans, we have an absolutely mind-blowing ability to normalise situations. If you live for long enough under particular pressures, you will start to feel like “this is life” and begin to believe that the way you are under strain is “who I am.” It’s a truly incredible feeling to get a break and suddenly remember what it feels like to not be exhausted, overwhelmed or stressed. Honestly, it’s worth it just for that. Maybe you don’t need it, but if it is not a particularly risky respite option, then what’s the harm? It’s OK to simply want a little respite you know!

Respite - but I can't

Picture by Unsplash user Drew Hays

But I can’t…

Is it really truly impossible, or is it more accurate to say that it is not easy? Describing something that takes courage and humility and strength as impossible does an injustice to those living with truly impossible scenarios. Only you know the truth of your situation, but don’t let long-held false beliefs about what you think you are permitted to give yourself hold you back from all the goodness you could choose here.

respite - give yourself permission

Picture by Unsplash user Milanda Vigerova

Give Yourself Permission

Respite is only temporary. It’s a way of getting through a particularly demanding or stressful situation without letting that stress push you past your breaking point. It’s a way to get enough headspace and mental clarity to be able to make good decisions about your situation. It’s a way to get enough strength to go back into battle and take back the ground that belongs to you. It’s a way to reconnect with yourself, with God and with your loved ones before the strain of your circumstances pushes your relationships to their limits. It’s a way to remember who you are and what you believe in and it’s a way to get back on your feet again.

There is nothing wrong with respite. There is nothing noble about avoiding it. Yes, there are exceptions, but for most situations I think it’s true:

“If you’re not coping, then anything that gives you respite and is not immoral is a good thing.”


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Featured image by Pixabay user Foundry.