Dear Wayne and Wanda,
I’m in my mid-30s, single, and probably what one would call a workaholic. I usually put in about 60 hours a week, and even though I have vacation time, I hardly ever use it and instead just cash out the hours. It isn’t that I don’t want to take time off — I just get overwhelmed when I think about how to make it happen, because if I step away from work, everything piles up and I just get further behind.
This leaves me with little time for myself, and I find myself often spending time helping out my parents, who are older and retired and are needing more assistance these days. I have two older siblings in the Anchorage area, who are both employed full time and also have kids. When I’ve suggested they help more with mom and dad, I always get a speech about how I don’t understand because I’m not a mom and they simply don’t have time because their kids keep them so busy. They are also constantly inviting me to things for my nieces and nephews like soccer games and birthday parties and they get really mean about it when I can’t attend.
I feel like I’m drowning but it’s all things other people need. I don’t know how to make more time for myself. I’d love to be a mom someday — I’d start with just dating! But I’m either always working, with my parents, my siblings’ kids, or sleeping, and I can’t figure out how to get out of this loop. Can you give me any advice or pointers? Thank you.
First things first: Give yourself a pat on the back, because while your life may feel overrun by others’ demands, what a lot of us wouldn’t give to have a co-worker/sister/daughter like you! You’ve described a pattern of living in a giving, selfless, helpful way, and while it’s understandable that you’re worn out, you’ve also really demonstrated having a charitable spirit.
That said, it’s time to take some of that back and shine a light on your own needs for a while. Because as long as your days are saturated with taking care of others, you simply won’t find the space and energy you need for your own self-care. Start by setting boundaries. For example, rather than be on call for your needy parents, let them know there will be one night a week you are available — maybe even one night every two weeks. And don’t go to every last play date your siblings invite you to; hold out for the really meaningful invites and be clear that you are taking time for yourself and your own important social calendar.
We must set boundaries at work too. If work/life balance wasn’t already a hot topic, COVID blew it up, and more than ever, employees have a voice and leverage in asking for and getting more time to recoup and recharge. Vacation days exist for a reason and we all need a break from the office. If your workload is a hindrance to taking time away, make sure your boss knows that, and outright ask for extra help. You’ll start finding room to live your own life when you begin asking directly for the things you need and drawing hard lines that keep others out of your personal time and space.
Picture for a moment all of those super-important people and responsibilities in your life — the parents and siblings, nephews and nieces, job and co-workers. You dedicate so much of your time and energy to them. They mean so much to you, and require so much from you. Take “you” out of that equation and everything falls apart.
So, if you’re exhausted or on the edge of burnout, unhappy or on the edge of depression, not at your best, not feeling appreciated, or your heart just isn’t in it, you can’t give them what they need. Basically, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of them.
So, while they can all remain high priorities in your highly productive life, you need to make an immediate reranking that places yourself as priority No. 1. Your physical and mental health. Your work/life balance. Your family life/social life balance. Your accounting of time and energy dedicated to others and to yourself.
Things that will help: a vacation recharge. Saying “No” or “Sorry but …” to work and personal requests that you don’t want to or need to do. Giving yourself permission to feel guilt-free when you tell your parents and siblings to fend for themselves every once in a while. Hanging out with friends and dipping your toe into dating.
There’s so much good in your life. But it can be even better, and that starts with putting you first.