What is checking out?
The way I define it, checking out is a mindless activity chosen as part of a (usually) unconscious decision to temporarily escape reality, often to avoid boredom or other uncomfortable emotions.
You probably have your own favorite methods; my preferred ways of checking out are the internet (especially Facebook and Pinterest), reading, and napping. Some people lose themselves in watching TV or gaming or eating.
Some places/times I’ve chosen to check out: in the bathroom, in line, while eating, while waiting for anything, at the end of a long day, when I'm procrastinating (more about that in a bit).
What's wrong with it?
I’m going to voice a fairly unpopular opinion in the self-development line of things and say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with checking out from time to time.
Everyone, from the Dalai Lama to Eckhart Tolle to (probably) Oprah, will tell you that awareness heals and checking out ultimately leads to unconsciousness and existential suffering.
They’re right. If you seek true enlightenment, you won’t find it on a screen somewhere. But life is hard, we don’t always have the full capacity to deal with it, and I actually don’t think there’s anything bad about taking a break from the world for awhile.
I’m a worrier by nature, and sometimes I get stuck in a loop thinking about things I have no control over. When that happens, a few hours of aimless internet browsing or fiction reading does a lot to help me rest and recharge. It helps me break the cycle.
I think distractions can be a blessing - laying around with the flu would be infinitely more tedious and awful if I didn't allow myself to read or watch movies while I was sick. And it’s been well-documented since Archimedes’ time that switching mental gears is often the key to creative breakthroughs.
However, there are some situations when it becomes a problem.
The Habit and the Hideout
For me, checking out becomes harmful in two circumstances:
- When it becomes a default state instead of a temporary coping mechanism (habit).
- When I’m using it to indefinitely put off dealing with a larger problem (hideout).
I'll speak to the habit response first, because it's a little simpler. Thanks to my endlessly adaptable brain, I quickly become used to a baseline state of mental stimulation. When I drift from one distraction to another, bringing a little screen with me from the breakfast table to the bathroom to the bedroom, it can be difficult to get excited about the quotidian nature of everyday life. There are so many moments when nothing much is happening!
I agree with Eckhart Tolle’s observation that ceaseless mental activity can become an addiction. I know I need to re-calibrate my brain when I get restless doing something simple like watching a sunset or cuddling with my husband.
Usually, the fix is pretty simple: finding myself in this situation means that my normal awareness practices have fallen by the wayside, and it doesn't take very long to get back into a state of presence.
The hideout response is more complex because it tends to be more emotionally charged.
It’s a problem some of my clients struggle with, and I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of it as well.
Some of the most uncomfortable days of my life were the ones I spent newly unemployed, with too much time on my hands and too much time in my head. I would alternate between “active” distractions (compulsive housework and exercise) and “passive” ones (reading, internetting, etc).
I didn’t want to feel the discomfort of not knowing what to do with my time and worrying that I wasn’t doing enough with it.
At the same time, I had trouble moving forward because of my own fears, uncertainties, and feelings of unworthiness. They needed to be examined (or at least accepted) before I could come to peace with my situation.
In this case, the protective measures of checking out are actually keeping us from creating happier lives for ourselves.
How do I check back in?
If you’re reading this far, I assume that at least a couple of these points resonate with you and you’d like to try being a little more present in your life (or you at least see the value of being present in your life, even if it kind of sucks right now).
For someone who spends as much time checked out (or in my head) as I do, I’ve actually made a lifelong study of awareness and mindfulness. There are a lot of resources out there, but these are the six practices that I use most often in my daily life.
1. Being conscious.
This is the biggest one. Just noticing that I’ve spent an hour clicking around on the internet or have visited the fridge three times in the last 30 minutes is a victory.
I can’t shift my patterns until I become aware of them. Once I’ve noticed, I like to ask myself, “What am I avoiding?” Then I can give myself love around the resistance and use some of the other tools in my toolbox to work with it.
2. Moments of stillness.
I try to spend at least 10 minutes a day meditating. It doesn’t always happen. I’ve experimented with a lot of different kinds of meditation over the years, from following my breath to walking meditation. Different kinds work for me at different times. Making space for myself means I don't have to spend the day running away from my experiences.
3. Keeping a journal.
I just write down what I’m noticing and what I’m feeling at the moment. Occasionally, I'll ask myself questions about what I've written so I can go deeper.
Sometimes just seeing my thoughts and feelings out on paper gives me enough distance to bring some awareness to the situation and shift the mood.
4. Getting back into my body.
The body is always in the present - I can't be in my body and checked out at the same time.
To get back in my body, I might use some of the techniques I've written about before, like some stretching or trauma release exercises or go for a walk. Bringing my attention to all my senses simultaneously (taking in everything I can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, perceive) is a great way to reconnect to the world around me.
If I notice I’m wanting to check out, it’s often a sign of depletion or over-stimulation. Instead of fighting it, I allow it to be there.
I get curious about what I need. I dial way back on effort and “trying” and just let myself do something restful, like laying on the couch and staring at the ceiling, or crying, or reading something comforting.
There’s a lot of power in permission and giving into the feeling, and a lot of times it will move on its own.
6. Getting support.
when I’m experiencing (or trying not to experience) a really hard, painful emotion, I don’t go there by myself.
I ask my husband to hold me while I cry, or I call a coach buddy, or I post on one of the online communities where I know I’ll find empathy and kindness.
Extreme pain can feel extremely isolating, and my monsters often tell me that it’s my job to figure it out on my own. That’s bullshit. There is no virtue or responsibility in suffering by yourself.
This is just the beginning.
Being present for yourself is a lifelong practice - hopefully one that leads to greater self-care and self-understanding (as well as more compassion for others around you).
If you've ever experienced receiving the full attention of someone you deeply love and admire, you know how it might feel to give that present to yourself.
That being said, this isn't something to get perfect at overnight. Being present for yourself 30 seconds whenever you think about it (and being nice to yourself when you forget or it feels too hard) is going to be much more rewarding and sustainable than turning it into yet another self-improvement tool to beat yourself up with.
These are simple, but when they become part of a daily practice they add up to something pretty cool. Ultimately realizing that you don’t have to fear or avoid your own experiences is an extremely liberating and powerful feeling.
Okay, that's enough self-awareness for me today. If you need me, I'll be curled up on the couch with a book, escaping my reality for a little while.
Image credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
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