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Are you having a break or a breakdown?

So often in my life I have felt like I’m failing when I’ve actually been taking a break. After college I had various odd jobs and every night I read books. I read a book a night for a while. I used to ignore that part of my story — glossing over it and skipping from college graduation to professional beach volleyball. But the late-afternoon reading that slipped into late-night reading was my break.

I was exhausted from navigating the social life of school. I was dying to read books I chose myself. Maybe most importantly, I needed time to process my nightmare childhood. Because when you are living a nightmare you can’t process. You are just surviving.

The next time I took a break was when I got fired from a high-paying writing job. The break wasn’t then. It was before then. I was sending my editor articles I had already published and telling him they were new. He found out and I felt terrible. I loved the job and I loved the editor. For years I hated myself for being so dishonest.

But I needed a break. I had a child who was failure to thrive, and I had no help from family and I was the sole breadwinner in New York City. It was too much. The pressure was killing me and the only way I knew how to get a break was to lie.

I have more resources now. So I took a break from writing and I cashed out my stock in my last company. People said to me, “Are you sure you want to do that? The company is very close to exiting. You should hold onto the stock.” People told me this was a financially unsound decision.

I didn’t want to tell them how much I want a break. No one thought it was okay. Every single person told me spending that money was not worth it. But I’ve just been through a relocation, a divorce, and a job loss.

Of sorts. It’s been hard to see.  I didn’t believe it was a relocation since I left all my stuff and the kids’ stuff at the farm. I didn’t believe I was getting a divorce since I wasn’t really married. And I didn’t believe it was a career change because I knew I’d always write my blog. It’s very hard to see our own reality until we step back from it and take a break.

Like my other breaks, I told myself I was an irresponsible failure. But unlike the last breaks, it didn’t take me ten years to see the value in the break.

In hindsight, after every major life change I have had to take a break to recalibrate. The life narrative before my generation was that people who worked started working after college and never stopped until they retired — usually from the same company where they started — at age 65. No one took breaks at life changes because there weren’t any. Women graduated from college and had kids. Men went to work.

I tried to searched to find the history of the idea of taking a break and when it became common in one’s career. The third search result is why men need to recharge between orgasms. Of course. But I found most articles about taking a break are about productivity (or lack thereof). And that people think of a break as sitting with the kids watching SpongeBob.

A fresh addition to the discussion of breaks is Dave Crenshaw’s book The Power of Having Fun: How Meaningful Breaks Help You Get More Done. He writes about different types of breaks – in terms of daily, monthly, and yearly. I emailed Dave to tell him I’d be writing about his book. “It’s a great fit on my blog,” I told him. As if I am a person who writes regularly on a blog.

I told him I’d write about it and a month later, I had not written anything. He is a guy who understands a break, so he took it in stride. But people who aren’t reliable are not taking a break. They are doing something else.

He didn’t say this. But the crux of his book is that we need to plan breaks. So that they are not breakdowns. Planned breaks recharge us.

But back to that article about orgasms. Women don’t need a break in between orgasms. But they do go through periods of life when they don’t want to have sex. That’s a good model for me when I think of taking a break to recharge.

My breaks may be long, but I bounce back.  And maybe the great thing about being 50 is that I can see the patterns of being me, and this time I could trust that I’d bounce back. Also, I could see that the other times I had taken a break were important and not irresponsible or indulgent, so I took a leap of faith that this one was meaningful as well.

I cashed out all that stock so I didn’t have to work as hard to support my family during a tumultuous time in my life. When people ask me why I don’t have a pile of money after my company exits, I will say I sold too early. People will feel sorry for me.

But I don’t feel sorry. I feel resilient. Because when you don’t plan a break, you don’t know when the break will end. And that’s scary. I think that’s the real difference between a break and a breakdown.

Most of the articles I found on taking a break were about love and relationships. Women recover from breakups better than men do because women get really sad after a breakup and men just move on. But going on that emotional rollercoaster is an important step toward moving to the next stage. And men are more likely to never get over the breakup. They never move on.

The same is true of life changes. I have found that can’t really get through that change without the emotional rollercoaster. Mourning for your past life. Fearing change. Denying that you’ll have to do something new.

The Harvard Business Review tells executives they need to take a break from solving business problems, and The New York Times published a piece about decision fatigue associated with the duress of everyday life. But I didn’t see many people writing about taking a break and looking like you are destroying your life. Even though I’m pretty sure that that’s what it actually looks like.

So I’m recommending that. Or at least, I’m telling you that I’ve done it three times in my life and it has been essential to remaking myself. But remaking yourself is hard. It’s not a scheduled, two-week break. It’s months or years of being lost and squandering way too much time and energy trying to recover from the disappointment of having to restart.

And the people with the most successful careers are able to face emotional terror and likely financial destruction in order to make a change. Which is to say that a vibrant, fulfilling life is one full of planned breaks but also unplanned breakdowns.

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About Anas Alaoui

Anas Alaoui

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