Patricia was so sad. “I just sit in the chair and cry,” she told me. “I don’t get my work done and I can’t get past it.”

“It” could be anything. For some people, it’s a bad fight; for others, a blunder they made that they regret so much it gets in the way of moving on. For still other people, what keeps them stuck are the harsh words their spouse threw at them or the secret they found on his computer. For others, “it” is a fight or the lack of words at all; stony silence where there once was laughter.

The logical next step is to tell a person to start some self-nurturing activities: go to the gym, read a book, take a walk in the park.

“Oh, I do that,” Patricia assured me. “I’m just wondering whether I haven’t turned it into escapism,” she said, adding that she could end up taking an all-afternoon walk in the park or getting so engrossed in a book that she doesn’t do the dishes.

It’s Escapism If You Answer These Questions the Wrong Way

What an excellent question she posed: Just where does self care end and escapism begin?

And how do you tell which one you’re engaged in? The answer can be found by asking the following three questions:

1. What proportion of your time do you spend in goal-oriented activities versus the self-nurturing (or escapist) activity?

2. Do you often feel a compulsion (or a strong pull) toward the escapist activity?

3. How do you feel when you have completed the escapist or self care activity?

We all need to nurture and refresh our souls. This is particularly true if we have tough jobs, challenging children, or stress in our marriages. Self care activities need to be built into our lives on a regular basis. However, the function they serve will quickly tell us if they are just escapism instead.

What Is “Productive” Work?

Just as we need to nurture ourselves, we need to be engaged in productive work. Being productive gives us a feeling of purpose and meaning. I know retirees who argue to the contrary with me: They enjoy reading, golfing, relaxing with friends, and claim that they do nothing productive at all because they spent decades working and they’re entitled to goof off. I will argue that when they prepare for grandchildren’s visits, they are doing something productive. When they visit with friends and give those friends a sense of being important because they are listening, that is also productive. The definition of being productive depends on how old you are and what stage of life you’re in. For a busy mother of very young children, just getting food on the table may be all that is humanly possible.

Now we are prepared to answer the three questions above.

Answering The Questions on Escapism

1. We should have a nice balance between productive and self-nurturing activities. Ideally, our work should give us enough satisfaction that to some degree it is also self-nurturing. Mine certainly is for me.

2. If there is a sense of wanting to rush into the escapist activity before even tackling work or household responsibilities, then that is a clue that something is seriously wrong. Life itself should give pleasure and if it doesn’t, some self-examination is in order.

3. When the activity is over, there should be a feeling of being refueled and ready to face the challenges that make us sometimes need that break. There should be a positive outlook and energy and a willingness to leave behind the activity for the real world. If, instead, there is a dread of engaging in the real world or a sense of sadness in being cut off from the escapist activity, then you are not nurturing yourself with it at all.

Recently, I have been updating my new website and wandering into the brand new world (for me) of social media. While all of that is interesting, it is not a source of joy to me the way talking to clients in therapy is. By the end of the day Thursday, I was ready for a break. I did not want to look at my computer. I busied myself in the kitchen preparing my favorite spinach soufflé, broiled salmon, and some other delectables. Friday night, I visited at our dinner table with my husband and had a nice chat. Saturday afternoon, I met with friends and took a brisk walk in the winter weather. By Sunday, I was ready to get back on board with my work, and here I am writing about it!

What does your activity do for you? Do you enjoy engaging with life when you’re done?

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