Running on Empty

Date: 15-04-2024

by Peter Webb

M.Appl.Sci. (Coaching Psych.), B.Econ Hons (Org. Psych.), B.Naturopathy

“I have to get it done”, said James. “I owe it to my family, my clients, and my debts!” James, aged 39, was telling me how frustrating it was trying to run a landscaping business and take care of his family while recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome. “I can only manage two, maybe three hours of physical exertion a day. After that, I’m running on empty”. James was facing a dilemma. If he devoted his energy to his clients, he had nothing left for his family. If he used what little energy he had to spend time with his family, he would be too tired to work.

You might assume that energy in the body is like a battery. There’s only so much charge available before the body runs down and you must recharge. James knew he was running on flat batteries most of the time because of his chronic fatigue syndrome. But energy isn’t quite that simple. In my experience working with patients with fatigue I’ve come to understand there is a subtle distinction between physical energy and psychological energy.

According to Professor Carol Ryff, Hillsdale Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we draw psychological energy from these 6 factors of psychological well-being:

1. Self-Acceptance: Having a positive attitude toward yourself, acknowledging, and accepting both your good and bad qualities; and feeling generally positive about your past life.

2. Personal Growth: Having a feeling of continued development, seeing yourself as growing and developing; open to new experiences; realizing your potential; and changing in ways that reflect greater self-knowledge and effectiveness.

3. Purpose in Life: Having goals in life and a sense of directedness; a strong sense that there is meaning to your present and past life; hold beliefs that give life purpose; and have aims and objectives for living.

4. Positive Relations with Others: Having warm, satisfying, trusting relationships with others; being capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; and understanding the give and take of human relationships.

5. Environmental Mastery: Having a sense of mastery and competence in managing your environment; making ethical use of surrounding opportunities; and can choose and create contexts suitable to your personal needs and values.

6. Autonomy: Being self-determining and independent, able to resist social pressures to think and act in certain ways; you regulate behaviour from within; and evaluate yourself by personal standards.

James noticed that when he spent time with his two boys, he felt energised. And when he stopped beating himself up about not being a good enough provider, he gained some energy for self-acceptance and self-compassion. Letting go of his underlying assumption to “always be fixing things” which he learned from his father, James was able to buy back a little energy to devote to his own purpose in life and to allow himself to be nurtured by his family.

It’s true there are physical limits to how much you can get your body to perform, particularly if you’re suffering from long-term fatigue. But you can extend the range of your batteries by focusing on one or more of the components of psychological energy, just like James. To extend the metaphor, you really have a hybrid power train made up of physical and psychological energy. When you feel like you’re running on empty, switch to your psychological electric engine!

Written by Peter Webb – Integrative Psychologist
Peter Webb is an Integrative Psychologist consulting at NIIM. He draws on a range of successful therapeutic approaches including cognitive behaviour therapy, schema therapy, mindfulness, and neuropsychotherapy. Find out more about how Peter can help you and/or make an appointment to see him HERE.