I used to be so sure I was lazy. What else could explain my love of staying at home doing nothing? Other people always seemed to be doing stuff. Socialising, working, exercising, travelling, making things, exploring places, shopping, enjoying themselves. Doing instagrammable stuff even before Instagram was even a thing.
Those generic find-out-what-kind-of-person-you-are questionnaires ask questions like: “Which of the following describes your ideal day off? A: shopping in the city with your friends, B: sipping cocktails on the beach with a hot date, C: an adventure day with your workmates.” None of those have ever appealed to me. I’ve just wanted an option D: lying on the sofa with a favourite book, a fluffy blanket and a frothy coffee.
l was in my 40s by the time I was able to appreciate that being an option D person was perfectly valid. It didn’t reflect badly on me in the slightest. I needed option D in order to recharge my batteries and reset my equilibrium. Without it I got fatigued more easily, communication was harder, I wasn’t so effective at my job and I was less creative.
I felt deep shame when a work colleague told me how lovely it must be for me to go home and have a little sleep in the afternoon and I snapped back, “It must be lovely not to need to.” But it was true, having ‘a little sleep’ was not a luxury, it was a necessity.
In my coaching practice I make use of the Chinese Five Element health philosophy, particularly when it comes to living seasonally. Winter, governed by the element of Water, describes a time of hibernation, stillness, turning the focus inwards and deep restoration. I talk to my clients about recharging, reflecting, reconnecting and replenishing at this time of year, in order to be prepared for spring’s upcoming Wood energy which is about growth and purpose.
But harnessing the elements isn’t just about the seasons, it’s about balance. And I have to work ridiculously hard at balance. A wobble to the right causes shutdown or meltdown; a stagger to the left risks complete burnout. I don’t have to seek out Wood’s purpose, Fire’s connection, Earth’s nurture and Metal’s clearing because they are integral parts of life within my household; they are built into the fabric of my family’s daily existence. But if I don’t actively carve out time to be inactive, I fall apart.
Modern wellbeing advice encourages us to take time out for ourselves, but many of us were bought up to believe that doing nothing was a character defect. Going out with friends was seen as important as doing our homework and doing chores. Being active was vastly preferable to lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling. Even now, work culture celebrates those who travel, party or make home improvements over the weekend, while, “I did absolutely nothing, it was glorious” is met with nervous laughter and embarrassment as if you’ve guiltily confessed to two days of illicit debauchery.
I chatted with a psychologist who told me that choosing to spend time alone was often seen as a red flag in counselling. She was really interested when I told her that for many (not all) autistics, spending time alone is vital for our wellbeing. It’s our chance to switch off from a chaotic world and settle our thoughts, rather like a scheduled computer defrag.
Spending time alone doing nothing looks different to different people and changes over time. When I was young and single, recharging my batteries meant a day in my PJs, snoozing and eating cheap, sugary chocolate. These days I’ll need to do the washing up, vacuum, do a load of laundry and plan the evening meal before I retire to my cave, but my chocolate of choice has double the cocoa content. I don’t know what option D will look like when my daughters grow up and home (I suspect I will skip the housework and eat even more expensive chocolate!)
Sometimes spending time doing nothing is planned and maybe a bit glamourous, with clean PJs and comfort food within reach. Sometimes it’s a day spent crying for hours and wishing for the energy to at least have a shower. Sometimes it’s a few snatched hours in between social camouflaging as if your life depended on it (because sometimes it does.) But spending the day alone, and doing absolutely nothing is not a guilty pleasure, or laziness, or a moral failing. It is a relevant and necessary survival strategy for many of us and should be honoured as such.