I have been exhausted today, morning to noon to night. Wrung out from the first eye full of sunlight. Yet I survived the day, and now I can bask in my chair and reflect on the quirks of my own exhaustion.
At lunch, a classmate of mine locked eyes with me from across the quad. I looked away. I looked back. She was still looking. I waved. She waved. Crap – we were still 20 meters apart, and I had already exhausted my social greetings quota. Now what?
An hour later in class, she asked me if I was upset about something. I was not, really. I was just tired and distracted.
This example is to illustrate the manner in which I break down: the first thing to go is the social oil.
I’m not a horrible introvert (anymore). I am capable of holding polite and pleasant conversation in the world of flesh and blood. Yet for me, social behaviors are very much learned behaviors. They are skills I developed through a conscious decision to avoid being the incommunicado nerd. So when my reserves are depleted and the day isn’t yet half over, these are the first things to fall.
We break down in the reverse order of how we grew up. Even when I am exhausted, I still take pleasure from reading and researching topics. I can make myself run two miles, though I won’t enjoy it. But ask me to speak in front of a crowd or pleasantly give a tour around town?
You’d get less jibberish out of a squirrel being chased by a cat.
For everyone, this order of break down is a little bit different. You have the socialites who can slouch on the couch and keep you laughing for hours – but dear god, don’t ask them to get up. You have the blue collar workers who won’t stop till the job is done, but don’t ask them to remember a philosophy discussion at 5PM.
We reveal more with our exhaustion than we realize. Why?
Willpower, restraint, and self control are finite resources. As our resources dwindle, we allocate them in the best way we can. That means expensive, learned behaviors (like casual public socializing, for me) become too costly. Old habits we swore to have done away bubble up as willpower erodes. Our tempers are shorter; we want to have less ambiguity and more familiarity; we seek nostalgia and escape; those cookies look so impossible to resist. Our minds reject the wide, ambiguous world for pleasures and rewards that are known and reliable.
If you can recognize the signs of depletion, you can perform triage based on your own self awareness. I know that my social skills slowly slide backwards into the sulky grumble of a thirteen year old with a crush, so I’m not going to put myself out for a rocking party tonight. No, I’m going to kick back, eat M&Ms, and read a book.
(In social psychology, this is known as ego depletion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ego_depletion. The more you know!)