Relax About Relaxing

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In today’s world, we are all bombarded with the message that it’s important to de-stress. You know that you should take time out to relax, rejuvenate–get some “me time.” But if you are anything like me, this knowledge is coupled with a crippling sense of guilt for actually doing what you know is good for you!

I recently found myself confessing to my sister that all I did on a recent Sunday was sit on the couch and read. Well–that and a few errands, laundry, prepping some meals for the week, and preparing for work on Monday (by working on Sunday) and calling a friend who needed some support.

Despite having some of the best minds in the world assuring us that self-care is not the same as self-indulgence, it can still be really hard to allow ourselves time to relax and renew.

Turns out–if relaxing feels like indulgence, you may not be getting the benefits of relaxing–even if you do relaxing activities! A recent study out of Rutgers found that to some degree–you must believe that leisure activities are not a waste of time to reap the full benefits.

This is especially true of “pure leisure” experiences, like hanging out with friends, watching a funny TV show, or reading a book for fun. Those of us who have relaxation guilt tend more towards leisure activities that the study calls “goal oriented” –like exercise or meditation. Because we feel these activities have value beyond just relaxing, we can enjoy them without feeling guilty.

But leisure time is valuable whether you are engaged in a productive activity or not. The study indicated that people who don’t enjoy purely pleasure-driven activities can be more depressed, anxious and stressed–even when they are participating in leisure activities!

Adjusting our beliefs to accept that leisure time is not the same as procrastination might help those of us who jump up every 15 minutes to “do” something while trying to relax. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but this study has really helped me be gentler with myself and less guilt-ridden about “wasting time”. I know that work is valuable. And I’m learning to trust that using “me time” for goal-oriented activities is not the same as truly allowing myself to enjoy relaxation.

Although the study does not discuss the following, I have found it helpful when working on a change in attitude/perspective. Before I engage in an activity that I am feeling resistant about, I spend just a moment allowing myself to feel what it will feel like when I have finished the activity. Since I know that I truly do love reading fiction, before I sit down to relax and read I let myself remember how awesome I felt last time I finished a really good book. That mental rehearsal for feeling good helps diminish my fear of wasting time before it gets time to take hold.