I used to work in an office on the fourth floor of a large, seven-floor building. The cafeteria was on the first floor, and a few of my bosses were on the fifth floor. I had to meet with people on all floors and in opposite corners on a regular basis, including in the basement of the building. Unless I was going from the ground floor to seven, I always took the stairs…in heels and a skirt suit.
People would say they heard me coming, because I always walked fast and had a particularly noticeable step (that my friends of course made fun of). All those years of marching band made my heels come down first, which creates a certain clickety-clack when you’re hurrying to a meeting to tell something important to someone even more important.
I got up every weekday morning and went to the gym or for a run at 5:30 a.m. Unless, of course, I had to be at work by then for a special meeting. I worked crazy hours, and sometimes even stayed late on Friday nights when I didn’t have to so I could pack in a few hours of uninterrupted work. You might think I had no social life, but I somehow managed to squeeze in happy hours, dinners with friends, hikes, and even dating. I was rarely asleep before 12 a.m.
After a few years, I noticed that when I met a big deadline, which often came up suddenly and carried with it a lot of pressure to get things right, I was fried the next day. We’re talking like a donut fried, with nothing but fluff on the inside. I would sit and stare at my inbox, not sure where or how to start. More coffee didn’t help. More protein and sugar only slightly did until I crashed again. I should have seen it starting then.
Sometimes on the weekend I would sleep until 3 p.m. I can even remember some week nights when I came home “early,” fell into a slumber on the couch at 6:30 p.m., and slept through the night.
I was very mission driven, and had no problem sacrificing for my work, which, at the time was my purpose in life. I had self-discipline, perseverance, and enthusiasm, or what we call in yoga Tapas. Tapas means to burn. By persevering, you burn away impurities. Just like sweating releases toxins from your body, persevering mentally helps you let go of the comfort that might be keeping you stuck.
Think about when a project is due. You might have to muster some serious self-discipline to finish it on time. While your friends are out at happy hour, you’re stuck at your desk. Instead of sleeping, you stay up late to work. There’s a certain amount of suffering as you forego the comfort of binge watching a new show on Netflix or doing pretty much anything else in order to finish your project.
Yet, when you complete it, all kinds of good things could come of it. Each time you do it, it gets easier. You feel satisfied with your accomplishment. Your confidence in your abilities grows. Someone asked for that project for a reason, and by providing it, you’re helping them. You’ve done something that you can cite when you’re lobbying for that promotion.
Although Tapas, self-discipline or perseverance, is a powerful tool for self-development, productivity, and achievement, problems can arise when you fail to temper it with other yoga principles and self-care.
That was exactly what I was doing back in my previous skirt-suit-wearing life. Instead of resting when I needed to, I gave in to FOMO and did whatever it took to do everything. Instead of saying no so that I would have time for myself (which this introvert desperately needs), I said yes and showed up for pretty much everyone but myself. Instead of leaving myself enough time to get from one place to another, I always rushed. Instead of choosing only healthy relationships, I put up with some really toxic ones.
I accomplished some exciting things in that job, yet there was a cost. Sometimes I persevered when I should have run far away. Though my perseverance often supported my professional purpose at the time, pushing myself in other areas of my life didn’t. In fact, I probably would have been even more effective in my job had I taken better care of myself.
This kind of self-discipline, without following other key yoga practices, such as self-study (Svadhyaya), moderation (Brahmacharya), and self-reliance (Aparigraha), over time, created a consistent leakage of my energy that left me depleted and with some health concerns.
Without self-study or Svadhyaya, it’s tough to even know that there’s a leak in the dam of your energy reserves. Without moderation or Brahmacharya, you’ll be trying to plug a leak in the dam with your finger. It’s only a matter of time before other leaks spring up, or before you can’t hold your finger there any longer and the walls break from the pressure that has built. Without self-reliance or Aparigraha, you’ll always be trying to make a bigger, better dam to compete with someone else’s, not realizing that your dam is enough.
Even now, after many years of consistent yoga practice, I still sometimes have that tendency to push past my self-care and work really hard in dedication to my purpose in life. Even while I was writing this blog, I brought my computer to bed, thinking, “Oh, I’ll just work on it until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.” The difference is that now I catch myself in the act a little sooner. I listen and respond when my body is telling me I’m pushing. Instead of working, I left the computer on the floor with the lid down, wrote out my daily gratitude and goals in my journal, and meditated myself to sleep. I now know that little bit of extra production is not worth the snowball of fatigue, slower cognitive abilities, crankiness, and other potential negative consequences.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying don’t practice Tapas. I’m not saying don’t persevere or use self-discipline. I’m not saying just give up after one pushup. I’m not saying turn in a crappy project so you can go home and binge Jack Ryan (though, it’s definitely worth the watch).
Most of the time moderating self-discipline with other yogic principles helps you sustain your energy over the long haul.
Be the proverbial tortoise, not the hare. Unless you’re in danger…and Jack Ryan isn’t there to help.
How can you tell if you’re taking Tapas too far? Here are 10 signs that you’re allowing self-discipline to override your self-care.
You’re always tired.
You’re always rushing.
You have trouble saying no.
Even when you say no, you struggle to uphold that boundary.
You’re always helping others and putting everyone else’s needs before your own.
You’re starting to have unexpected health problems, especially vague ones the doctors have trouble diagnosing.
You feel resentful but might not even be sure why.
You give your all and feel like people don’t appreciate what you’re doing for them.
You’re feeling stuck despite working really hard.
There’s a critical voice in your head that says you still haven’t done enough or that you’re still not good enough.
It might show up differently for you. The key is to be mindful, look inside and explore your own balance of self-discipline and self-care.
Speak Your Truth
Do you have a tendency to overdo self-discipline? What does over-riding your self-care look like for you? What’s your biggest problem when it comes to balancing productivity with self-care? Let me know in the comments!
In wellness, joy, and inspiration,
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