There was a time when I got 5-6 hrs of sleep per night and I felt it was enough even if my eyes needed more make-up every morning. After 9 hours in the office, 2 hours of driving to up and down to work, 3 hours of family dinner, 1 hour of evening sports and the 2 extra hours of writing for my book, I could sleep like a rock. My Fitbit would show a good pattern of light sleep versus deep sleep(REM), so I believed my Fitbit.
I was getting a lot done through the day. I secretly I felt like a superwoman who just doesn’t need a lot of sleep. As long as I squeezed a nice relaxing holiday or a long weekend every 2-3 months I could survive. I took extra sleep in between sprints of heavy delivery. Do you recognize this?
After 4-5 years of this sleep regime, I would see small cracks in the superwoman image of myself. I would get angry and frustrated about the silliest things my two small kids would do and got more resentful towards my family. Grief was something I couldn’t handle well so when father passed away, my mental fitness took its toll. I lost the ability to focus, became restless and made silly mistakes. If you think you can handle 5-6 hours of sleep years in the row, I would invite you to reflect on who you were before sleeping 5-6 hours a night and and how did your personality change.
When the first COVID lock-down hit a year ago, I thought that I was finally given the chance to take it easy and sleep more. Kids didn’t have to go to school, I didn’t have to drive to work and since I became self-employed I could chose my working hours. Sleeping more was easier said than done. I would stay in bed longer but that didn’t mean that I would sleep better. Even with daily physical exercise, my brain wasn’t tired enough to get into deep sleep at night. Instead, a new phenomenon started – I would spend most of my screen time after I put the kids to bed, after 8.30 pm. Being on my mobile until mid-night, didn’t help either.
The worst thing was that I would lie awake at night analysing the day and thinking about all the ‘should’ and ‘must’ activities. A judging inner voice would tell me how much of a procrastinator I am and how everyone else is much more disciplined and focused. I would wrestle with that inner voice until 5.00 am and when I finally manage to sleep it was time to wake up again. Do you recognize this, as well?
About a month into the lock-down and I was already feeling tired and lacking quality sleep. The wheels of my brain were used to spinning really fast when doing a corporate job so when I stopped, they kept spinning equally fast but during the time I was supposed to sleep. After several months of stress, I made some structural changes:
- I left my mobile downstairs to charge and tried not to touch it after 22.00. I didn’t always succeed at it, but at least I had to justify going downstairs for it
- I started a daily habit of writing one A4 of random thoughts and feelings as soon as I woke up. I would write by hand in a special notebook I left next to my bed. Instead of picking up my mobile in the morning I would pick up the pen. This 1 A4 paper was put away in a drawer and I never looked at it again, it was just a way of parking my negativity.
- I stopped fighting my inner critic voice, instead I said to myself – that’s why the morning A4 page is there for and if I write down my judgements, I can criticise myself even better so… best to sleep first. It didn’t work at first but I kept to it. I would say to myself : ‘I would deal with it first thing in the morning, I will write it down’. The more disciplined I got with my 1 page morning writing, the easier it got to silence my inner judge, the hyper-achiever and the victim in me. It took about a week of staying the course.
A year later, I am noticing that I can sleep again like a rock, with a good chunk of deep-sleep. After 3 months of writing morning pages I noticed that their content changed from venting feelings into scribbling new ideas, insights and plans for my business. I kept writing for a bit more, but after a while I replaced it with the practice of daily mindfulness 3 times a day for 3-5 minutes. I am still religious about not taking my mobile in my bedroom overnight, it gives me the sense that I won over technology, that I have the power to stop when I need to.
We all have an inner critic and in some cultures, such as the British and the Dutch one, value people who are being tough on themselves.It is seen as a virtue and it receives societal approval.
We would rather appreciate someone who is making self-deprecating cynical jokes than with someone sharing an achievement. That’s why stand-up comedy is so popular. We were raised to believe that Humility is a virtue, narcissism is a sin, and it is. What we haven’t been told is the mental damage an inner critic left loose would do to our self-esteem and identity. Since autumn 2020, most of my coaching clients benefited from joining a mental fitness training that tackles their inner judge as a way to bring balance, peace and focus into their life and their sleep. What helped my sleep in the beginning of the pandemic can help their sleep as well.
Our sleep is critical for our brain recovery and overall happiness. Let’s give it the recognition it needs.
Maya Angelou once said:
‘If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me’