Whoever said that holidays are a time to relax, unwind, and switch off from our usual merry-go-round of preoccupations, frustrations, and deadlines is a liar. Well, perhaps liar is too strong a term, but an exception and friend of hypocrisy, at the very least.
For nine months of the year, all we can dream, talk, and salivate over is a summer holiday. We make lavish lists of the books we’ll finally have time to read, the foods we’ll allow ourselves to eat guilt-free, and the hours of poolside sunbathing we’ll revel in. However, holidays are, for many people, more stressful than pleasurable, beginning with weeks of manic preparation and culminating in a seven-day montage of frenetic photo-taking, avid phone-checking, and passive-aggressive irritation caused by having nothing to do. So, as we reach peak holiday season, can we please discuss the angst of lazing on a sunny afternoon?
It begins in March. Window displays and ad campaigns bloom alongside cherry blossoms, telling us to shed clothes, inhibitions, and invariably a few pounds while loading up on body dysmorphic and unrealistic comparisons. Before ever getting on a plane, we have already turned an act of self-care into an exercise in self-loathing, convincing ourselves that only adherence to impossible aesthetic standards make us worthy holiday candidates. It is the cult of “summer ready” and “bikini bodies”, with admittance only granted to those willing to perform a veritable exorcism on long-suffering bodies. What ensues is a blur of sleepless anxiety as we wax, starve, manicure, tone, and polish every inch of ourselves. Thus, what should be a time of anticipation and excitement is instead a vortex of hyperventilation that inevitably ends in tears in a small and horrifically-lit changing room.
We are also tormented by the mantra of “making the most of the summer” – an onerous expectation most of us find impossible to live up to.
The parting platitude to all holiday-goers is generally “take lots of photos”. While these are good-intentioned wishes, for many of us they often manifest as pressure, as holidays become something to be consumed, rather than savoured. Charged with an expectation to come back with so much more than a tan, we find ourselves under pressure to cultivate exotic escapades and envy-inducing anecdotes to regale friends and co-workers on our return. Thus the purpose of a holiday – to switch off, recharge, and take time out – is lost to the desire to catalogue our experience for others to consume rather than for us to enjoy. And so, instead of returning home feeling refreshed, we land with a thump of dissatisfaction.
Where does this incongruous pressure come from? I’m not a psychologist but I think the answer, like most things, lies in an espresso martini.
We treat relaxation the same way we treat fried foods and espresso martinis: as an indulgence to be dieted and doled out as a reward for good behaviour. Relaxing without guilt or inhibition is, in today’s fast-paced world, a luxury and an exception to the rules of curated chaos that govern our lives and often define our importance, success, and ambition. Much as we believe we’re not really succeeding or achieving our potential unless we’re under severe stress, we’ve similarly imbibed the idea that relaxation is akin to laziness and therefore only acceptable if we can prove we’ve earned it.
This toxic pigeon-holing of switching off as a weakness is only exacerbated by an “always-on” culture that even an Out of Office email can’t assuage. We arrive at our destination disoriented, delirious, and suddenly expected to go cold turkey on the routines that root us in our identities and WiFi addictions that have long defined our professional and personal relationships. It is little wonder that this prospect fills us with overwhelming angst.
Disconnecting from the world means losing our place in it and, given the speed at which careers are made and lost and news headlines go viral only to plummet to oblivion, that place is only ever as strong as our last virtual interaction. Switching off and doing nothing are luxuries we feel we cannot afford. And yet, the very fact we feel this way proves that now, more than ever, this is the luxury we need most.
How to give yourself permission to switch off
Own “doing nothing”: Take ownership of your free time and turn it into a conscious decision to be proud of. Instead of feeling passive in your decision to stay in when it seems the whole world is sipping Negronis on a yacht or raucously laughing at a beach barbecue, embrace the privilege of “doing nothing”. It is liberating to be freed from the need to appear busy.
Separate the “I want” from “I should”: When you start to feel overwhelmed by all the things social media tells us we should be doing, wearing, or eating, stop and take a minute to separate these pressures into categories of “I want” and “I should”. This simple exercise will quickly enable you to focus on the experiences that bring you joy and fulfilment while simultaneously ridding you of the dangers of an “I should” mentality.
Just GO: We are experts at talking ourselves out of things we want to do, with summer being particularly bad for this. Heat induces a lethargy that kicks motivation to the curb and indulgence on every level makes us sluggish and cantankerous. Instead of dithering in indecision and inadequacy, JUST GO. Whatever it is you’re contemplating doing, just do it. Wearing a bikini in public? Going to an outdoor yoga class on your own? Freefall into action. I, you will feel better afterwards.
Upcycle instead of impulse buying: Holiday season causes us all to fall into a trough of self-loathing that we believe only a particular kind of retail therapy will solve. We trail through shops searching for the summer confidence, mistaking the weight of shopping bags for fulfilment. This summer, why not fall back in love with some forgotten favourites? Not only is this good for your pocket, the environment, and your mental health, it is an exercise in mindfulness and creativity that brings a new awareness and joy back into our clothing choices.
Recognise your Pathological Critic: Irish author and GP, Dr Harry Barry, believes women are especially vulnerable to holidaying with their vitriolic PC (or pathological critic) an inner voice that chirps away at our sense of worth and has its origins in our upbringing, especially our childhood, adolescence and early adult life.
Develop unconditional self-acceptance: If you can relate to this voice, Barry recommends developing unconditional self-acceptance – where you learn to detach who you are as a human being from your body image. We do this by learning to challenge “on paper” the belief that we as human beings are “imperfect” or “ugly” or “unlovable” as being the ramblings of our emotional mind. There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ human being or body image. For further information, read Self Acceptance by Dr Harry Barry (Orion Spring), €16.99.
Holly Hughes is a writer, avid horoscope reader, optimist, more often cynic, and lover of all things pastry and potato-related. You can find her musings at www.earnestandethereal.com or follow her at @earnest_ethereal for self-indulgence and occasional profundity.