It’s the most wonderful time of the year! I mean, I assume it is for someone. Most people I know actually get pretty stressed out about the holidays—contrary to the “peace, love, and good cheer” hype—but when you work in a field that makes December one of your busiest months, it can sometimes feel like everyone else is getting ready for a party while you’re chained to your desk. (Pity party, table of one, please.)
December is always a hard month for me, work-wise. I work longer hours than usual, at just the time when I would rather be with my family. This particular December, I am really struggling. Due to multiple work hiatuses this year, this is really my kick-it-into-gear last chance to get some solid income in before the year’s end. We’re not traveling this year, which is both a relief (because the only thing worse than working through the holidays is working through the holidays while traveling) and a disappointment. My daughter is coming home for her first visit since moving in with her father, and that is wonderful, but I don’t want to feel like I have to work-work-work while she’s here.
Basically I am out of sorts in every possible way. But I’m going to take a page from my son’s playbook to try to get myself back into the right frame of mind.
Now, if you don’t know my son, and you met him somewhere, you might not even realize he has autism. A lot of the time, maybe most of the time, he appears to be like any other kid. But this is because a lot of things don’t come easily to him, and he’s worked incredibly hard in a lot of areas that come easily to most of us—communicating with others, regulating his emotions, and setting realistic goals, for example.
My son is a great example to me all the time, but this week when I looked around at my current funk, I realized that I need to shift my thought process. And a lot of the lessons I’ve worked on with him are ones I need to be taking to heart, right now. Physician, heal thyself! Or something.
You can’t control how you feel, but you can control how you act. I have a very bad habit of either getting overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to do or—worse!—falling into the trap of looking around at others and feeling jealous and/or inadequate about my own work, and then… not getting my work done. Vicious cycle, much? So I’m doing what I’ve taught my kiddo to do: Take note of the feelings, vent them in appropriate ways, and then get on with it. When I find myself sinking in, a little bit, in December, I set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes. During that time I do something that makes me happy instead of working. (Confession: this month I spend a fair amount of those breaks shopping online for donation toys and stocking stuffers; buying things for others always cheers me up!) When the timer dings, it’s back to work. Usually I feel better, but even if I don’t, too bad. It’s up to me how to act.
Sometimes you have to take a break. It took years to teach my son the skill of recognizing his own internal temperature and being able to say, “I need to take a break from this.” For him, it applies to all sorts of things—arguing (ha), mostly, but also to situations with a high degree of sensory stimuli (loud noise, flashing lights, lots of people, etc.). I am prone to the trap of “I have to get this done, I can’t take a break” which leads to either shoddy work or a lot of wasted time where I’m not really working but I’m not exactly reducing my stress level, either. There’s always time for a break. Breaks allow for recalibration. Can I push back from my desk for a week? Not right now, no. But I can always get up and stretch, play with the dog, go sit outside for a few minutes, whatever. I’m better for it, but I often forget that.
Perfection is a losing goal. Perfectionism is a pretty standard feature of Asperger’s, and my son is often foiled by his conviction that he must. be. perfect. I still remember how I had to talk him off the ledge earlier this semester when he got a 94 on a science quiz. (A 94! The horror!!) He was convinced the world was ending. Of course it’s easy to chuckle about that and talk to him about how nobody’s perfect, but then what do I turn around and do? Look at something I’ve written that isn’t 100% up to my usual standards and wallow in wondering if I’m just not cut out for this life anymore. Setting aside the crazy year we’ve had, the amount of upheaval we’ve slogged through, and the fact that I’m still recovering from a broken hand, I know logically that I’m being unduly harsh on myself, but emotionally I still expect perfection, somehow. It’s not about lowering standards, it’s about being okay with being human. I’ve told my son, “Stop being so mean to my kid! I love him and he’s allowed to be human!” Well hey, I’m allowed to be human, too.
The bottom line for me, right now, is that I feel frustrated and unhappy with a lot of the work I’m producing. What I realized in part thanks to my son is that the very best way to get myself out of that negative thought/action loop was to cut myself some slack and set smaller, easily-met goals. “My career is stagnating” can take a person down in one wounded-ego swoop; “I have had a challenging year and I’m still working and recovering” is a kinder starting point… and ultimately, it’s a better business strategy, too.