Picture your life. When everything is going fairly well. How much space between your skin and its boundaries? Are you booked to the hilt? What happens when the unexpected stressors hit? A sick child, a death in the family, a redundancy, a relationship break-down? Do you have the wriggle room to absorb some of the shock and stay afloat? Or does the thought of these boulders coming at you make your chest constrict, because you know that if anything else is piled on top of you now, you will go under?
Every life has limits. If you exceed yours you’ll accrue an energy debt resulting in burn out, ill health, and a depletion of who you are. The length of time before reaching this breaking point may differ for each of us, but we all have one. Whatever your existence looks like (work, study, parenting, caring for others, and any other commitments and roles you may inhabit) you must arrange the furniture of your life to make it fit the house you’ve been given. Making wriggle room is like carefully curating the contents of that house. Throwing out or letting go of the non-essentials to create a spare room to move into when things get tough.
I had always filled my life to within a millimetre of its limits. White space in my diary was there to be written on, scheduled. This worked for me for a good couple of decades. Pressure was my friend. It equalled results. On the few occasions when I was pushed briefly past my boundaries I managed to bounce back with barely an indent on my skin.
But that’s not the case anymore. In the last five years I have learnt the tough way. For me, leaving wriggle room is not a luxury. It’s a heavily informed choice. I am fine without it… until life throws an unexpected stressor my way. If it is small, I usually recover. But if it is weightier, and demands sleep, emotional energy, and a chunk of time it is a very different story.
When that happens, I can’t just suck it up and get on with it. Believe me I’ve tried. But without wriggle room my sucking straw has a hole in the side, and there is no room to get on with it because I’m jammed up against the unyielding brick wall of my limit. I get sick. My Bipolar Disorder flares, and for me that usually means lengthy hospitalisation.
It doesn’t matter how highly functioning I was before this happens, because when it does I am useless to everyone. I can’t work. I can’t support a friend. I can’t even put my children to bed. So, when I cringe at the discomfort of saying no to something I previously would have agreed to without thinking, I consider the risk of not being able to put my children to bed for months. I think about this when the word ‘Should’ enters my internal vocabulary a little too frequently… And then the thought of all the moments I won’t be part of the next time I get sick, is like ice water over my head. It flushes away the discomfort of ‘No’ and ‘Should’.
Part of the challenge of making wriggle room is translating the messages the outside world fires at us into our own language. You will be told to say ‘No’ more, say ‘Yes’ more, ‘lean in’, lean out’, ‘push yourself’, ‘be gentle with yourself’. It all means very little unless you figure out how it applies to your life and where you are at. Sometimes it is important to say yes, lean in and push yourself in one area of your life, but if you choose to retain your wriggle room you will have to say no, lean out, and be gentle with yourself in another area.
It’s taken years for me to recognise that wriggle room is one of my buffers between periods of mental health and mental ill health. None of us have much control over what life throws at us. You can’t plan for the nature or timing of challenging life events. However, you can leave room for a softer space to fall when they come out of nowhere. You can give yourself a chance of bruising instead of breaking.
And when all is running well, your wriggle room is bonus time. Time to sleep in a bit, stare into space, maybe bake a chocolate cake, and feel grateful for and proud of the extra breathing space you’ve created.