Our culture tells women we should have infinite energy. Energy to do all the things, all the time. Energy to have a successful and fulfilling career, while also staying perpetually young, thin and within the tiny margins of the “ideal” beauty image. Energy to still be doing the majority of household chores. Energy to take care of the kids (and pets and possibly other family members) while doing the vast majority of emotional labor at home and at work.
Women have been conditioned to perform as if we have energy to spare (even when we’re exhausted) for the benefit of those around us. Regardless of how we feel, our programming tells us that we should put on a show of boundless energy. But we all know, deep down, that the expectations are impossible and therein lies the tension.
Forget what you see on Instagram: none of us are actually meeting all the expectations, all of the time. In fact, the shiniest, most perfect looking woman in your feed is probably the most exhausted person you know. Too many of us are ashamed to admit when we’re tired, when we want to say “No,” when we don’t have the energy to do all the things that we actually want to do, much less all the things we’re expected to do.
Cultural lore tells us the only way to create success is to “work hard and play hard” or manifest what we want through sheer grit. In actuality, many of us are working to exhaustion, playing almost never and still feeling that we’re trying to catch up on the basics – forget pursuing our wildest dreams. This is not exactly a recipe for success or happiness.
The fact is: our bodies, minds and spirits have a finite amount of energy in any given day. No amount of tugging on our worn-out bootstraps is going to change that. Despite what my inner critic screams at me (like a drill sergeant on amphetamines) about how it’s just that I’m lazy, or I don’t use my time wisely enough; I know in my gut that I can’t physically do everything that I’m tempted to attempt or feel pressured to say “Yes” to.
As I was pondering this issue (after yet another bout of hysterical crying out of sheer exhaustion) I started to think about energy as a resource. I started questioning where my energy comes from and where it goes. I’d recently done some research and reading about the relationship between people and money. Some of the principles that I’d learned there started popping into my head because they felt related.
When it comes to money, most of us have some idea of how we “should” think about it. Whether we’re considering applying to grad school or shopping for an IRA, we’re taught to think about return on investment (ROI). We want to think about how much money we’re investing versus how much (if anything) we’re going to get back. Sometimes we choose to spend money on things just because we enjoy them, even if they don’t yield a financial return.
What if we looked at our energy the same way and thought about the return we get on the energy we put into something? Why don’t we consider our ROE (return on energy)? This isn’t quite as straightforward as investing in a 401k, but it can be done. We can look at the pieces that make up our lives – tasks, practices, events and even relationships – and begin to calculate how they affect our energy. Once we start to really understand where our energy comes from and where it is spent, we get to choose how much ROE we want.
PHYSICAL NEEDS: This one seems so obvious and yet most of the women I know (myself included) often find it challenging to prioritize our basic physical needs. We can get so caught up in trying to be superwomen that we forget to eat and sleep. In order to maximize our ROE, we have to cover the basics: food, water, exercise, sleep. A women’s body is a complex and magical thing – listen to it closely. Some days it might tell you to take a walk, or a nap, or have some chocolate – whenever you can, just go with it.
I would also add both pleasure and play to the list of physical necessities. Both are so often left out of our lives as we struggle to cram everything in. Taking time to be creative, have fun and experience physical pleasure is absolutely crucial to wellbeing and, by extension, energy.
TIME: Take a look at your calendar from last week. When did you feel the most energized? What were you doing at that time? What were you doing immediately before that? Now think about the times when you felt the most drained of energy. What were you doing? Who were you with? Were you dreading something that was coming up later that day or week?
Now look at what you have coming up for the next week. Think about going to that meeting, attending that party, seeing this friend or doing that task. How do you feel when you think about each thing? Are you looking forward to it? Dreading it? Will you feel energized or drained when you’re finished with it?
EMOTIONAL, SOCIAL and SPIRITUAL ENERGY: Our energy fluctuates significantly with our emotions. Stuffing down emotions rather than giving ourselves time and space to process them burns tons of energy. Anticipating difficult situations can help you build in space to process. Practicing self-compassion can help you be more flexible when dealing with unexpected situations.
Interactions with other people have an enormous effect on our energy. Dealing with “difficult” people or navigating relationships that lack boundaries can zap our energy almost more quickly than anything else. On the other hand, our relationships can also be the thing that feeds our souls and gives us energy to spare. Consciously choosing who we spend time with, along with how much time and when, gives us more control over our energy level.
Self-awareness about how we’re affected by others is important. Knowing whether you are an introvert or an extrovert can help you plan how to recharge. Understanding that if you’re a highly empathic person, you may need to create conscious boundaries around your interactions and develop a self-care routine that allows you to discharge emotions that aren’t your own.
Spirituality can also profoundly affect our energy. For most people, engaging in a positive spiritual practice – whether it’s participating in a formal religion, meditating or just interacting with nature – is something that gives us energy.
ADJUST AS YOU GO
This energy calibration isn’t a one and done, you’ll have to tweak it as you figure out what works for you. By looking at these factors over time, you’ll start to notice patterns in your energy level. You can use this to see where you might make changes to adapt to your natural energy levels and maximize your ROE.
In the meantime, we can keep pushing back on unreasonable cultural expectations. Openly working on saying “No,” setting boundaries and protecting your own energy can inspire other women to do the same. We’re all in this together!