How to Take an Emotional Vacation

Strain is a wonderful thing. When we work hard toward what we believe, we earn something that’s far more valuable than money: meaning.

But besides meaning, too much strain for too long with too little rest can lead to injury. In athletics, injury is usually visible - you feel pain and your coach or doctor tells you to ice it, stretch it, and take some time off. Outside of athletics–in the rest of life–injury is more often emotional than it is physical. And emotional injury isn’t so visible.

Emotional injury can happen in one traumatic instance or it can happen over time from the grinding of ungreased gears. In either case, there’s not a lot out there to prevent and treat emotional injury (unless of course you count the antidepressants being popped by one in four American adults). And living in a culture that equates rest to “playing hard,” binge drinking, and the four-hour daily dose of TV doesn’t help us get any closer to the solitude and reflection required for long-term happiness.

So, left to our own devices, we end up with quarter-life and mid-life crises, burnout after burnout, jadedness, divorce, depression, and numbness. Or alternatively, we let our emotions control us and then get swept up in a life of narrative exaggeration, a self-constructed delusional drama that distracts us from our dreams.

In either case, we can each probably use an emotional vacation at some point.

I try to take mini emotional vacations on the weekends: writing, practicing aikido, napping, washing dishes and folding clothes in silence, reading in the bathtub, watching things that make me smile (puppy and wildlife videos), hard workouts and long walks, more writing (mostly by hand in a journal).

But at times, work has gotten the best of me and I’ve gone too long without coming to the surface for a breath, and things start to get blurry. My priorities get shuffled and my sense of self begins to melt at the edges. I start to feel anxious, overwhelmed, and confused. I start resorting to brute force and willpower to get through situations rather than finding the most harmonious and natural options. I start delaying decisions because I feel out of touch with my intuition. I stop calling loved ones as often, I begin feeling constantly underprepared for meetings, and emails start slipping through the cracks,.

A few years ago, I hit an emotional wall. I’d pushed it too far. Coughing blood, spiritually confused, broke and distrustful, angry at myself and frustrated with the circumstances I’d fallen into, I looked at myself in the mirror and decided I needed to take my foot off the gas pedal for a little while. So I wrote, did yoga, saw chiropractors, wrote more, read about conflict and the universe and love and purpose, and took up the martial art of aikido. Several months later, I was stronger than ever before. The recovery came because I gave myself space to rebuild.

Each of us has experienced some degree of emotional injury, some circumstances more mild and some more severe (I’d say mine were relatively mild). But except for a few outliers, we humans are mostly programmed the same way, with the same hormones and emotional biology. So, while each person’s absolute set of experiences is unique, the types of feelings we feel follow the same range. Some people’s emotional scars are deeper and more layered than others’, but we’re each fighting our own battle and we each have our own story.

Wherever you are in your own personal battle, it eventually might make sense to take an emotional vacation. I like to take them a couple of times per year, usually right after particularly intense phases of work. Whether it’s just a couple days off or a longer retreat, emotional vacations can help you recharge, rejuvenate, and evolve.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past and what I’ll probably do on my next one:

1) Find a place of quiet and solitude, close to nature, with no internet access in the sleeping quarters.

2) Invite a group of select friends to a facilitated emotional vulnerability experience, so that I have reference points for the range of what other people feel and experience, and so that I can feel comfortable speaking openly about my own emotional issues. This balances the solitude of item #1 with solidarity and community.

3) Meet with an emotional coach. My friend Laura Coe can help. She’s world-class at this, and her book, Emotional Obesity, comes out in 2015. She even coined the term “Emotional Vacation” that inspired this blog post. :)

4) Go to an immersive “move forward and get an edge on life” experience of the sort Anthony Robbins offers. A lot of folks think this stuff is hokey, but for the right person at the right time, it can be transformative.

5) Read a few books that get me in touch with my soul, spirit, goals, values, and priorities. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Power of Full Engagement, Strengthsfinder 2.0, Myers Briggs, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Ikigai, Choose Yourself, The Alchemist, The Four Agreements, As a Man Thinketh, The Art of Peace, The Celestine Prophecy, and Linchpin have each (among others) been helpful for me in this regard. Here are some that have changed my life.

6) Buy a really nice notebook and a really nice pen to a) take notes on the books above and b) make lists. Sometimes taking inventory of your personal assets helps you come back to center and rediscover your self-worth. I’d make lists including but not limited to:

7) Exercise, whatever that means for you. Running, Crossfit, yoga, martial arts, cycling, dancing, whatever gets your blood pumping and makes you feel alive. Balance it out with long silent walks in nature.

8) Eat well, whatever that means for you. For me, it’s a lot of veggies, naturally-raised meats, and smoothies, combined with not-a-lot of dairy, grains, and sweets.

9) Sleep well, whatever that means for you. I try not to look at electronic screens within an hour of bedtime, and I try to wake up without an alarm clock because I find alarms to be jarring and unnecessarily stressful. This requires an earlier bedtime. It’s worth it.

10) Breathe and smile.


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