Honoring Our Exhaustion

Post by Leah Cedar Tompkins for the Kindness in Business series.

Honoring Our Exhaustion

I never read The Secret. When friends and relatives were singing its praises, I barely listened. I’ve gathered that the takeaway was think good thoughtsbecause we give power to the hopes, fears, desires, and misery that we focus our attention on.

To be honest, it sounded a little hokey to me — but I’m a half-glass-full gal anyway, and have never been one to focus on the negative. I am, however, coming out of the other side of a difficult — and scary — time in my business, and what I learned in that time was much along the same lines. Fearful, defeatist thinking almost ruined my business.

I started my business (a tiny web design/development studio) three and a half years ago, on July 16th, 2009. I was 25. I’d been working as a designer at an agency for just shy of two years. It was a good job — my first industry job, and the first job where I didn’t have to answer the phones. (That’s how I measured success after many years of office work.) The only problem was that I was bored. This was partially due to having spent much of the past two years designing red and blue websites for heating and cooling supply companies, and partially due to a personal lack of will to sit at a desk when the beach was a half hour’s drive away.

Quitting that job was pretty unceremonious. More unceremonious than it should have been, given that I had a huge dog, an unemployed live-in boyfriend, an overpriced seacoast apartment, and a mountain of student loan debt — paired with a teeny tiny savings account. (It would have lasted me two weeks if I hadn’t been lucky enough to find my own clients pretty immediately.) I was either really stupid or really brave — but it doesn’t matter now.

A year ago, I convinced my now-husband to leave his job as a data analyst to come work for my studio. Things were really, really good. The years leading up to that point surely came with their own struggles, but by then, I was pretty sure I’d figured out the important stuff and that 2012 was going to be the best year ever.

For the most part it was, until a few things combined to create a perfect storm of circumstances that made it feel like the bottom had dropped out. The late summer and early autumn came with two huge, back-to-back projects that required 16-hour days consistently for about six weeks on end. When the second one finally ended, I cried from relief. As I was packing for my wedding and honeymoon, which happened two days later.

Planning my (fortunately very low key) wedding in three months while working over 100 hours a week definitely took a toll on me. We returned from our wedding/honeymoon in late October, and it was like a switch had flipped somewhere. I had fallen out of love with my business.

I loved the people I was working with at that time, happily, but it was like I’d totally lost the will to actually run my business. Sales calls became excruciating, when they were previously one of my favorite parts of the day. Some days I couldn’t sit at my desk for more than an hour at a time, and some days I couldn’t bring myself to work at all.

In November, things were slow, and they got slower. In a year that had been fortuitously filled with more five-figure months than not, we were suddenly living off savings while nothing happened. I couldn’t understand.

I talked to my friends. I talked to my bookkeeper. I talked to other designers and developers. All said the same — the ebb and flow is natural.

But this felt different.

Early December was much of the same — a see-saw between reassuring myself that work would pick up again, and dreading that it actually might. The more sparse work became, the more I resented my business — the more I resented my business, the more sparse work became. I started looking at job listings. Maybe it was time to give up and abandon this dream.

Then, one day in December, while I was going through that hour’s well-rehearsed negative self-talk, something within me realized: my business wasn’t a dream. I didn’t dream it into fruition, and I didn’t dream the money into my bank accounts. Dreams didn’t pay my bills, sustain my household, or fund my husband’s budding writing career. I did those things.

And I was tired.

The reason my business wasn’t serving me anymore was because I wasn’t showing up in the same way. And I wasn’t showing up in the same way because I was exhausted.

Once I realized that, I almost literally felt the clouds clear.

My business wasn’t failing. It was giving me a break. I was taking a break.

I spent the rest of the month traveling and spending time with my family, while working on my own rebrand in the background of all of these activities that nurtured me, that helped me recuperate from the months and years prior. I took long walks with my dog. I slept late and watched a lot of bad television. I believed that I would turn things around, and I wanted to be ready. I told myself I had the holiday season. The new year would mean showing up in a new way — with new energy. I got ready.

On January 2nd, when I announced my rebrand to my list, I got so many responses that I could hardly keep up. I turned down people who weren’t a good fit for this freshly energized version of myself. My calendar filled quickly and I felt so grateful.

That time off was so necessary. Looking back, I wish I’d recognized that need in myself much earlier, and that I’d planned ahead to give myself some gentle time off without having to suffer through the fearful bits.

Now, though, I see the situation so clearly, and learning this lesson the hard way has changed me.

We need to rest. We need to cultivate practices of self-care. We need to insist on time off. We need to understand our human limits and respect our exhaustion.

We need to think good thoughts.


Leah Cedar Tompkins is a designer, developer, and brand strategist currently living between Detroit, Michigan and the seacoast of New Hampshire. She shares her home and heart with her new husband, R.T., and half a dozen furry creatures of the canine, feline, and rodent varieties. She fills her free time with hoopdance, photography, yoga, mixed media art, and mountain biking. A former unschooler, she remains a passionate advocate for shunning the status quo. You can visit her online atleahcreates.com. She would also love for you to follow her ontwitter.


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