A few weeks ago I had a very long work day. Started at about 8 a.m. Drove to Milford DE and did 3 hours worth of teaching (workshops on managing stress and integrating spirituality into the therapeutic process). Drove to New Castle and taught a 5 hour class (Classification of Psychopathology). Got home at 11 p.m.; just your basic 15 hour work day.
The next day was better, only about 10 hours long, but capped with a drive to have dinner with my mom, my sister and her husband, and my nephew and his wife. We had an excellent dinner and a lot of table camaraderie, but the reality of my mother’s deteriorating mind as she slips slowly into dementia is always upsetting. I teach about this disease, and I understand it fully, but that doesn’t temper the emotional impact of hearing your mom say “and who are you?”
I got home that night just in time for the results show of “Dancing With The Stars.” It was about all I could handle. I was calm emotionally, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out who was most likely to be voted off the show! I know, it’s such a trivial thing, but it felt like my mind was encased in glue. I had a true case of “brain freeze,” and not the kind you get from eating your ice cream too fast!
That night I had great difficulty sleeping despite my exhaustion. The next morning, after making a pretty simple but careless error that resulted in a broken vase, I had a meltdown. A few hours later, pondering what happened, I remembered a psychological construct that I used to study closely, but that had fallen out of my awareness. I realized that I had just experienced “ego depletion.”
Ego depletion occurs following any effort to self-regulate; that is, any effort to curb an intention, a desire, or even a thought you don’t particularly care for. Humans are constantly experiencing emotions and thoughts and desires that make us feel like we must act RIGHT NOW. Some we follow, but when we don’t it’s because we’ve done something psychologists call “self regulation.” Self regulation is one of the most human of actions; it’s simply the effort we put into preventing that RIGHT NOW action. Every time we close the refrigerator door WITHOUT noshing on that leftover mac & cheese we’ve self regulated. Every time we go back and reposition the drapery hooks that turned out to be an inch too low (oy vey, what a project that was last Saturday!), we’ve self regulated. The hardest circumstances are when we have conflicting motivations: cake tastes great (pleasure motivation) but my waistline has expanded lately (self appraisal motivation). Self regulating in these circumstances is depleting; actually, it’s ego depleting. And once we’re ego depleted we’re less capable of the next act of self regulation.
Self regulation is a fancy name for what we call “willpower,” and exercising willpower takes energy. It turns out that willpower, the ability to self regulate, can be understood metaphorically as a muscle. Use it too much and it gets tired. With fatigue comes languor, a lethargy that says “I don’t think I can make one more decision.” In a word, we feel lost, as if we can’t make one more decision. We’re out of gas, there’s no more RIGHT NOW in us.
Has this ever happened to you? I’m certain it has. We’ve all worked impossibly long days. We’ve all had to make too many hard decisions, worried endlessly about someone we love, felt overwhelmed by a torrent of bad luck in our lives. There’s a lot we can do in the area of ego replenishment (next post!), but it’s helpful to recognize and name “ego depletion” when it happens. Naming what’s happening is helpful. Naming it doesn’t fix it, but naming it gives me a handle on what is going on in my body/mind, and now I can begin to consider solutions. And knowing that it’s a phenomenon that occurs naturally, and is not an indication of some defect in me, helps me to better abide the fatigue. In my next post I’ll talk a bit about how our body/mind recovers naturally, and how we can help it along. But in the meantime, keep a (metaphorical) eye on your self, notice when you’ve become ego depleted, and give yourself a break. That simple act of self compassion, of not thinking less of yourself because you’re weak (and we are ALL weak at times), is a great beginning to ego replenishment.
PS I know that the Buddhists in the crowd use the word “ego” to denote the illusion of a self that doesn’t exist. I’m using the word a bit differently here, the way psychologists refer to the energy within that unifies our conscious awareness. I know, I know, sounds like a lot of jargon. But trust me, I’m not feeding into any illusions!