We may know when we’re running on fumes: we can feel ourselves slowing down, grasping for resources, doing everything in our power to keep moving forward. We may be absolutely aware that we’re approaching a devastating burnout, a complete crash. And even if the answer feels obvious, even if we know in our bones that we’re too exhausted and overstretched to really give something our all, it can feel impossible to actually take what we need. It can feel like rest is something we cannot possibly excuse, do not really have time for, have not yet earned.
And yet: this aspect of personhood is essential. I’m not talking about taking a break in order to sustain productivity, about the deep breath we take before diving back into something intense — I’m talking instead about truly setting aside time and space and resources for personal recovery, profound relaxation, deep and true rest.
Lest you think that I’m some evolved being who is excellent at honoring my own needs, trust that I am all too familiar with this concept of running the self ragged, denying this requirement. As an idiopathic insomniac, I’m used to having to push beyond my comfort levels, used to running on empty most of the time, used to forcing myself to meet deadlines and not cancel every single social obligation simply because I haven’t slept well for 36 years. Yet there are times when rest simply cannot be avoided, when our bodies force us to stop moving and recover, when our cup is well and truly empty. And getting to that point of complete shutdown can be brutal, especially if it comes at a time when we feel that we absolutely cannot stop.
Ideally, we don’t push ourselves to the point of burnout or breakdown. Ideally, we recognize the early warning signs, or even build rest into our routine so that we rarely get to the point of desperation. (If you’re chronically ill or disabled, you are likely intimately acquainted with this cycle.) But this kind of ongoing rest requires deep intentionality, an awareness of self, an interrogation of what we actually need when our bodies and hearts and minds demand recovery. And sometimes, it can feel absolutely impossible to do this without support.
Let’s talk through it. How does one rest well? What does it look like? What does it require? And how can we turn it into something truly restful, rather than another obligation on our massive to-do list?
Acknowledge and understand why you need rest
Have you been pushing yourself hard creatively, spiritually, physically, socially? Has work been intensely busy, pressure building with family, partner feeling neglected? Has it felt like you haven’t had enough hours in the day, or like you haven’t had enough energy to complete your responsibilities while also taking time for joy, pleasure, and relaxation? Sometimes the first step to taking rest is admitting that we need it.
And allow me to give you a gift: you do not need to earn rest. Remember Audre Lorde’s words: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” You can rest whenever the fuck you want, and I promise that it’s okay! But without acknowledging that you need or want this rest, the next steps might feel like too much to tackle, which is why this first piece is so critical.
Spend some time thinking about what it feels like in your body when you need rest. What are the physical signs? How do you see that need for rest manifesting in your communication, your creativity, your desire to connect with yourself and with other people? Is it important to you to hide that need from other people, or do you let others see your exhaustion? Grab a journal or use the voice notes app on your phone to write or talk through these signs.
If you’re into tarot, you can use this tarot spread to help explore a need for rest, and to understand where any stress or tension may be living within you. And if not, journal about these prompts, thinking about what may come up when you give yourself space to mentally wander and question.
Consider what rest means to you, and what you need from rest
Rest, like self-care, is not a one-size-fits-all concept. It doesn’t just have to mean taking a nap or turning off your phone or going on vacation. If you always think about rest as slowing down, but in actuality your body or mind just need a release in a different way, rest might not feel comfortable simply because you’re not getting the kind of recovery that you actually crave.
When do you feel energized, rejuvenated, inspired, excited, enthusiastic, joyful, filled with momentum? And when do you feel relaxed, comfortable, soothed, peaceful, calm, pampered, able to release stress? Which feeling do you want to capture, are you craving and longing for? And what activities or lack of activities help to facilitate that feeling?
Rest can be a nap or a bubble bath or a vacation, but it can also be a night of dancing, a new class, rewatching a favorite show, a long walk or a hard run, reading a good book, wandering through your city or town or neighborhood, cooking a beloved meal, enjoying a game, spending time with friends, playing with pets, exploring a museum, volunteering, gardening, writing, painting, reading, drawing, fucking, screaming, singing, or anything else you want. Truly and literally: rest is about what will actually refresh and reset you, what will help you feel more like yourself, what will rejuvenate and inspire and heal you. Work that you enjoy is still work — this is not about dressing up productivity to feel good, but instead about giving yourself a chance to unwind. Release the concept of what you think rest should be, or what it is for other people, and take some time to brainstorm what actually feels restful to you.
Consider too any advance planning that these methods of rest require. A trip or adventure may feel more demanding simply because there’s a financial cost, a need to organize and structure, research to be done or choices to be made. Other things may be easier to do spontaneously. Make a list of things that truly feel like rest to you, and if you can, note how you feel when those activities are completed, the effect that they had on you.
Reflect on how much rest you can reasonably accommodate, and consider if that is enough to facilitate the recovery that you require
One of the biggest barriers to rest that I’ve found, from both personal experience and broader observation, is the feeling that we simply do not have the time or capacity to rest properly. Deadlines are looming, pressure is building, and we cannot possibly step back from productivity long enough to get the kind of rest that we really need. We are so afraid to fail, to let anyone down, that we would rather suffer than stop.
trauma conditions us to think everything is a hurry. we have to make that shift now or everything will crumble. we have to react to conflict immediately or they’ll hate us. must react v. respond!
healing is realizing there is nothing worth rushing out of your peace for.
— kendra (@kendramorous) September 25, 2022
But capitalism thrives on this kind of faux urgency, this sense that everything is dire, that we cannot stop moving or everything will fall apart. And while there are absolutely things that cannot be ignored (bills do not simply evaporate, rent cannot be ignored, we live in a society), there are often self-imposed limits or targets that we’re clinging to, a particular standard we’re holding ourselves to, that could be eased a bit.
As you think about rest, as you consider what rest really looks like for you, take a critical look at the sense of pressure that you feel internally, and the outwardly-imposed deadlines that you are being held to. Where can you create some space for yourself? What can be pushed back or extended? Where might you ask for grace, or extend grace to yourself? There will always be things that cannot be postponed, but for those things that hold a bit more flexibility, this is the time to carve out space for yourself.
In this same vein, think about how much time you really need to feel rested. A two-week vacation without internet access might sound incredibly decadent to some and like a complete nightmare to others. One person’s heavenly weekend bike trip might be another person’s at-home spa day. How much time do you want? And how does that stack up against how much time you can make for yourself?
Commit to the rest, whatever that looks like for you
Rest won’t just happen without some effort. Now that you know what you want, what you need, and what you can reasonably accomplish, commit to the process, and consider what it will take to protect that rest. What boundaries or structures might you need to ensure that this rest actually happens? What measures can you put into place to help you get the rest that you know you need?
This may include asking a partner, roommate, family member, or friend to help encourage and support you, to hold you accountable, to cheer you on. It might look like blocking off days on your calendar or setting up a vacation responder on your email that lets people know that you won’t get back to them right away. It could mean setting up apps like Freedom on your phone to block work communications or social media apps or certain websites, particularly if it’s easy for you to get swept up in content creation or people-pleasing.
This might also mean planning ahead, delegating or turning work over to others, asking for support on completing certain tasks, or saying no to something in order to protect the time that you need. Depending on what kind of rest you’re taking, these steps may look different, but the point here is to set yourself up for success by creating (and upholding) boundaries to protect your rest, and to ensure that you can take it without guilt, pressure, or anxiety.
Actually fucking rest
Even after taking all of the steps above, this still might feel really uncomfortable. And honestly, that’s okay! But you still need to do it anyway.
Be present. Remind yourself that you have taken steps to protect this time and space, to facilitate rest, to ensure that you have the room to do whatever it is you need and want to do. Luxuriate in this sensation. Listen to your body, your mind, your heart. If the restful thing that you planned doesn’t feel restful in the moment, give yourself permission to explore some of the other possibilities for rest that you listed earlier, to explore other methods of relaxation or expression or recovery that still feel good.
Whether it’s hard for you to rest at this point or not, it may be useful to grab your journal or voice recording app again and note what it feels like in your body to rest, where your mind goes, what opens up and what shuts down, where you’re struggling and where you’re actually relaxing. Write or speak without judgment, simply making a record of this process.
As your rest comes to a close, reflect on the process
Compare your current feelings and physical responses to the journal entries that you made at the beginning, to the ways that you felt before the rest was taken. How do you feel? How did it work? Do you feel relaxed, fulfilled, satisfied? Do you wish you had more time or space? What will you do differently next time?
If you’re a tarot reader, grab your cards again and try this spread out as a part of your reflection practice. If you aren’t, you can use these questions as journal prompts.
Remember that this is a learning process, and that taking such devoted time to yourself — your emotions, your needs, your fears, your desires — may not come naturally. The point is not to do this perfectly the first time, but it is to try, to give yourself space, to experiment. What feels good, and what still needs work? What did you enjoy, and where did you feel uncomfortable? Which boundaries held, and which fell apart?
Resting, and incorporating regular periods of rest into your routine, can be a sacred ritual. Allow it to take up the space that it requires, rather than shoving it to the bottom of your to-do list. I promise, you can do it — and I promise too that the effort it takes to prioritize rest will be worth it.
Practical Magic is a new column that curates how-to articles for living your best queer life, edited by Meg Jones Wall.