Honor Your Limits and Forgive Yourself For It

I’m convinced I started this year on fire. I’ve had two weeks of glorious, non-stop productivity, wherein I’ve met my writing goals every day, without fail. Part of me is convinced it can’t last. The rest of me hopes there’s some way it can.

When I woke up this morning, the room started spinning before I even managed to get out of bed. I was convinced that all I could manage if I got up would be to stumble into the bathroom and puke my guts out. Mondays are rough days for me; I have a lot on my weekly schedule and missing one of those tasks can seriously throw off my week. The first half of every Monday is always dedicated to cleaning the house, and it’s hard to predict if something is going to need extra attention. I mitigate this by getting up earlier than I normally would to give myself extra time to get the work done.

So I cringed at the idea of spending that extra half hour in bed while I waited for the spinning to stop. But I did it anyway.

I’ve spent a lot of my life struggling with negative body image. A great many things in our society seem designed to make women feel bad about themselves, but my hatred of my body has always stemmed from one specific problem; once a month I just can’t handle as much as I usually do. Yes, I’m talking about terrible menstrual cramps. And no, I’m no longer embarrassed to be open about it.

Since high school, I have struggled to find a balance between taking care of myself when I feel like I need to and meeting the demands of the world around me. No one wants to spend two days curled in bed wishing their back would stop hurting so that they could do x thing that needs their attention or participate in x fun thing everyone else is doing. It was a real problem when I still worked in an office full-time because I felt a horrendous level of guilt if I needed to call in sick to work. Despite my bosses saying they didn’t want us coming in if we felt unwell, I sensed the judgment from most of the management when I needed that one day off work every month. But what good am I to anyone if I have to drug myself half to oblivion just to sit at my desk and seem like I’m a functional human being?

I’m incredibly fortunate that I no longer work a regular 9-5 office job. Thanks to the support of my loving (and totally amazing) husband, writing is my full-time gig, and has been for awhile. I had the luxury of choosing to spend that extra half an hour in bed while I waited for my head and my stomach to get on the same page. So I did.

And it made a huge difference. Sure, I could have dragged myself out of bed, sucked deep breaths and grabbed a glass of water to get me through that initial spike of morning so that I could stay on schedule. But I’ve done that before and I have a feeling I would have spent the entire day miserable if I had.

Writers put an incredible amount of pressure on themselves, especially those who work full or part-time in addition to writing. I think it goes without saying that anyone who works for themselves pushes above and beyond normal expectations. We believe that having absolute control over our day means we should have unprecedented productivity at all times. We always think we should be able to accomplish more in a day than we really can (and it’s only by meticulous tracking of my daily schedule that I’ve learned this simply isn’t true). Not every day is the same. We can’t control the world around us. We can’t control when we’re going to wake up feeling like death warmed over. And since any task, but especially a creative task, requires energy, we simply can’t produce on a high level if we don’t feel well. I think writers are notoriously bad at accepting that.

Last year I started trying to honor my limits better. When I felt like I couldn’t manage a normal day’s worth of work, I tried to cut it in half. I’m not convinced I always picked the right half to focus on, but I tried not to push myself beyond what I thought I could handle. I got mixed results. Sometimes I felt worse, perhaps because I should have spent the day resting and didn’t fully honor my limits. Sometimes I felt better, usually when I threw my schedule out the window and just listened to my body.

It turned out the difficult thing wasn’t honoring my limits, it was forgiving myself for needing to take that time in the first place. It was the difference between telling myself you could be accomplishing so much right now while I was trying to rest and telling myself it’s okay, everything will still get done in time. There’s nothing wrong with being human now and then.

So much of what we feel is tied to what we think. And too often we fail to make the connection.

I’m still struggling to strike a balance. Today it was easy to take an extra half hour to honor my limits and still achieve all of my goals. Tomorrow my capability might be a lot more limited. If it is, I’ll try to remind myself that it’s okay to need breaks, that it’s okay if I need a little extra rest sometimes, that not every day is going to be super productive. The world just doesn’t work like that. It will be hard not to compare what I do tomorrow to what I did today, or to what I did last week on the same day. It will be hard not to look at the energy and accomplishments of others and criticize myself for doing less. But I will try my hardest not to do those things.

We should all be a little more forgiving to ourselves. If you need a break, take it. In the vast scheme of things, that extra hour, or extra day, isn’t going to make that big of a difference. And if you can come back to something feeling recharged, it’s a lot easier to regain your momentum than if you’re lingering on a sense of unnecessary guilt.

4 Responses to “Honor Your Limits and Forgive Yourself For It”

  1. Kate Krake Says:

    This should be required reading for most authors. I know for me, there’s a fine line between riding the momentum of high velocity productivity (and loving it!) and remembering and even noticing when to back off, rest and regenerate.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Megan Cutler Says:

      I wish someone had sat me down and given me a lecture on this a few years back! I can be terribly unforgiving to myself. I have the same problem; I’m still learning to recognize the signs of burnout. I try to pull back before I crash but sometimes the appeal of that momentum overrides my good sense!

  2. Amy Henry Says:

    Megan, I’ve explored this same topic from different angles over the past year and a half. I think it’s important for writers to keep in mind the points you make. To continually evaluate their expectations and measure them against reality and happiness. Publishing is not what it was 20 years ago. Writers have to take on an enormous load if they want to get their books into print and reach an audience. Thanks for reminding us we need to accept our own humanity. That richness, after all, is the well from which our creativity springs.

    • Megan Cutler Says:

      I know I kind of said the same thing in the 10 Minute Novelists group, but I thought I should add it here as well; You’re absolutely right. There are a lot of demands on us, and we have to rise to those challenges to be successful. But every time I run myself ragged I remind myself that I can’t do anything if I can’t even get myself out of bed in the morning. I think we forget how much difference a few extra minutes can make; to enjoy a cup of tea, to catch our breath, to do something we enjoy. It won’t break us, but the constant lack might.


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