Vacation despite crisis? What it takes for the longed-for vacation feeling
I need a vacation! On vacation, the demands and questions of everyday life should fade into the background. Especially in times of crisis this is not so easy. Some people find it generally difficult to leave their everyday life and especially their work behind them. What does it take for a “real” vacation feeling? The own demands and needs provide information. The article is about the ability to repress and to play. These are especially important when vacation is limited or takes place at home…
Vacation during a period of crisis – is that possible?
“Vacation despite Corona”: these words can be found in numerous headlines in newspapers and magazines of the past summer weeks. The word “despite” indicates that vacation seems to contradict crisis. Most of the articles refer to whether and how it is possible to go on vacation in the current time, especially to other countries. The change of location is an important aspect of what we perceive as vacation: getting out, seeing and experiencing something different, relaxing. But the geographical distance to everyday life is not always crucial for how we actually feel. This is why we are interested in how vacation actually works internally: what does it take to really feel like a vacation?
The feeling of being on vacation
Vacation means a break from everyday life, freedom from obligations: the permission to do what I want to do, what I might be missing in everyday life. In this juxtaposition, vacation stands for lack of duty, exuberance, self-determination, while daily working life is associated with duties, restrictions, and a sense of responsibility. In everyday work life, something seems to be switched on that we are allowed to switch off during vacation – if it succeeds. From a psychoanalytical point of view, the instance that seems to be dominant in everyday working life and less necessary during vacation is called the superego. The superego generally regulates our experience and our behavior as a moral authority: what is permissible, socially compatible, morally justifiable, accepted and acknowledged by myself and others, under what circumstances am I a “good person”? It contains the internalized norms and ideal images that have been conveyed to us explicitly and implicitly, among other things, through the upbringing of our parents and society. Thus, the superego also plays a role in our working behavior. It contains our ideas and goals, what kind of employee or employer we want to be or think we have to be, which values are important. These ideas can spur us on, but also put us under pressure. For example, a rigid superego, which includes very strict and inflexible ideas, can on the one hand increase a high work ethic and values such as reliability and diligence, but on the other hand contribute to the risk of burnout and long-term job dissatisfaction.
Vacation from the superego
While the superego plays a central role in everyday life, another mechanism seems to be in the foreground during vacation: We are allowed to relax, all work-related duties can temporarily be put on the back burner, like a break from “real life”. To get into such a state, a certain ability to repress is required. The psychoanalytical coping mechanism “repression” is usually perceived as mainly negative: it describes the unconscious process when people repress difficult experiences and feelings in order not to feel unpleasant feelings such as fear, anger, guilt or shame. If this happens too often and too extensively, it can lead to psychological symptoms and difficulties in relationships. But repression is not pathological per se. On the contrary: We all repress important and less important feelings several times a day. For example, we almost permanently repress the fact that all people around us and we ourselves will die at an unpredictable moment in life. We have to (temporarily) repress again and again, because the fears and questions associated with it would disturb our ability to live. In order to enter into a relaxed or compensatory vacation mode – we can now conclude – we must be able to temporarily repress the work demands that are placed on us (whether from the outside or from our own superego). On vacation, we need, to put it somewhat casually, a loosened superego. For example, we must not be tormented by the tax return waiting for us on the desk. On vacation, we should be able to put the demands of being a reliable manager, a hard-working employee, a competent account manager, a successful son or the mother who has to finance her family into the background.
Make way for feeling on vacation!
If we remain in the psychoanalytical mindset, vacation leaves more room for another instance that influences our experience and behavior: the id. As id, Freud conceived of all our inner drive impulses, the lustful and needs. In everyday working life, the id is often quickly regulated by the instance of the super-ego: “I can’t drink a coffee to go every day, otherwise I’ll soon be broke; if I sleep in, I’ll be late for work – the others will think I’m lazy! If I don’t climb up to the top of the management ladder soon, I (or are my parents?) will be dissatisfied with me”. On vacation, a lot of times we allow ourselves to do things that we would rather not do in our work-filled everyday lives. In this “legitimate state of exception” it seems easier to make exceptions, to feel own needs and to follow them. On vacation, most people look for what they miss in everyday life: Relaxation, getting to know new things, variety. We decide rather according to the pleasure principle than in everyday life (depending if it is financially or socially possible for us).
Vacation as a carte blanche?
From what was stated one could think as if on vacation we could and should do as we please. I want to eat an ice cream right now, so I ignore the queue and just line up at the front. The ability to temporarily leave work behind us and to relax the demands of our superego is not to be equated with not having morals, ignorance and egoism. The superego is an important instance that makes our social coexistence possible in the first place. Central to an inner vacation feeling, however, is the ability to temporarily distance oneself from a performance principle. This applies the performance principle of everyday working life, but vacation can become a performance, too: if you absolutely have to climb the highest mountain or have to see all the sights, your vacation will quickly be difficult to enjoy.
If relaxation does not succeed
What happens if we do not succeed in relaxing our demands and to temporarily repress (as an unconscious process)? The unfinished tax return will appear in your head in the morning; at the lake, the feeling of guilt might torment you towards your covering colleagues; and in the evening, the fear sits in your neck that an order could slip through if your cell phone is switched off. Will the others notice that I am not needed? Or what will happen when I come back: the stack of papers on my desk? Relaxation impossible. If I can’t get away from these difficult feelings of everyday work life, it is often due to open and unresolved conflicts. These conflicts do not have to be interpersonal ones, they can also be more or less conscious within a person. For example, a generally long-smouldering guilty conscience towards a colleague will not quickly be eliminated completely; the shame about an assignment that should actually have been completed before the vacation will cause headaches; and a general dissatisfaction with one’s own career may even become more noticeable than in a busy everyday mode.
The best way to vacation?
The change of scenery (“get out, see something different”) often helps to avoid having the everyday demands right under your nose: the diary, the desk, the monthly ticket for the train, the annoying colleague are rather out of sight – and thus out of mind. The actual effect of physical distance, however, is that it is easier for an inner distance to develop, which is necessary for the vacation feeling. This becomes especially challenging when the vacation takes place at home – whether self-chosen or, for example, due to external restrictions such as a pandemic. How to create this inner distance? It is helpful to become aware what might be inner conflicts in everyday life that are difficult to eliminate. Feelings like fear, guilt, shame can indicate that something is wrong. These can be concrete things, such as completing tasks that have been left undone, but also questioning general ideas and demands, such as the inner conviction “I must always be available, otherwise I am not a good employee”. If you feel good with your own work performance in everyday life, it is also easier to allow yourself some time off.
Also, the desire for vacation and what one is looking for can already provide information about where things are going wrong or what is missing in everyday life. Maybe I would like to finally experience something new, meet people, push myself to the limit in sports or plunge into nightlife without worrying about the next morning. Or maybe I long for just lying on the beach, not talking to anyone, spending more time with the kids or eating something other than take-away pizza. Our fantasies and desires already say a lot about what our everyday life looks like and which of our needs are missing in it.
Vacation moments in everyday life
While the Id usually gets more space on vacation per se, it can be a worthwhile investment to devote more time to it in everyday life. How can I better notice and integrate my needs? Your own vacation practice can provide information: when did I ever feel really recovered/balanced? A intervention that especially busy and workaholic people experience as helpful can be, for example, a technology-free weekend, or even just a technology-free afternoon. I leave my cell phone off today and “pretend I’m on vacation”. As the subjunctive already indicates, the ability to use one’s imagination and inner play is helpful here, which most people know from childhood. Doing something different than usual, playing tourist in your own city, breaking up everyday routines. With children, we can observe how the experience is shaped above all by inner images: the armchair, with a few blankets and a rocking horse, becomes a carriage that crosses the desert in a faraway country. This ability to play is often lost as we grow up and face the demands of everyday work (and the superego). It can be reactivated – but it requires practice! Little playful vacation moments in everyday life also take away some of the pressure that the annual vacation must be relaxing at the push of a button and compensate for all that is lost in everyday life. This can improve the quality of life you feel and also prevent the risk of burnout. Inner distance and recovery are especially important in times of crisis, as they enable us to deal with demands, stress and difficult feelings after the vacation (or after a little moment of relaxation).
Rebekka Haug, Coach at dynaMIND