[Note: Woe is me, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s supposed to be about how people are different.]
My wife told me she has a “stress bucket”. When new tasks come in the bucket gets gradually filled up, and when she crosses them off her list it gets emptied. As long as the bucket doesn’t overflow she’s fine, but if it does, due to sick kids or things going pear-shaped at work, she loses her shit — snaps at the rest of us, can’t sleep, cries, and/or eats too much very dark chocolate.
I tell you this because once she phrased it like she did I realized it’s not how stress works for me. I don’t have a stress bucket, I have a stress plate. As long as there’s anything on it I have to get rid of it before I can feel restful, at all.
The difference has consequences for how we cope, and how we communicate our coping. I feel worse and get testier in rough proportion to how much stuff is on my plate, while she’s alright until it’s suddenly too much AND EVERYTHING IS NOT FINE AT ALL.
I don’t know why I have a plate because having a bucket just seems better. She has a greater processing capacity than me, as evidenced by her being, apparently, much less affected by the constant administration of tasks that comes with being an adult. Despite the neverending deluge she says she’s fundamentally happy with our situation, and I struggle to say the same.
Yes, despite outwardly having everything a person is supposed to need in life and, honestly, being in no position to complain, I can’t feel happy with things. I suspect it relates to not ever being able to rest and relax because I’m always low-key aware my plate has shit on it. This summer we had a rare chance to eat lunch alone together at a responsibly socially distanced restaurant. It was a beautiful day. She asked me if I felt stressed right then and there, even though we were on a well-deserved break. I said I did, noting the muscle tension extending from my lower jaw down to the middle of my chest that never quite goes away. The sense that there’s stuff on the plate has been burned into me after years and years of daily cooking, cleaning, shopping, working, maintaining health, house, garden and car, and keeping the kids fed, rested, cleaned and clothed despite their best efforts at resistance.
With a stress bucket it’s all about throughput. Sometimes at home we discuss how to improve things, and she suggests better storage organization, good routines, and planning ahead. I nod in agreement and we make plans together but I know that these solutions don’t satisy me, even when they work. It’s not really that I need the tasks to move by us faster. I need them to stop coming in.
Yes, faster processing keeps a bucket from overflowing, but unless it’s an order of magnitude faster than normal it still doesn’t keep a plate clean for any significant proportion of the time.
Having a plate is fine when you’re a kid. You’re in school but once homework is done and you’ve cleaned your room there’s nothing left and you get the restorative relaxation you need. Over easter, christmas and summer you are genuinely free for long stretches of time. Sure, things drop in — you have to clean your room again, go to the hairdresser, or buy a new pair of shoes — but as soon as you’re done the plate’s clean again. Having something to do might even be fun.
It’s not fine at all when you’re an adult, with animate and inanimate dependents. The plate’s always packed, and crossing things off a neverending list does little to alleviate the situation. It keeps you from drowning but you never get to stop treading water. Apparently some get satisfaction from completing tasks and I assume they’are all bucket people, because “staying on top of things” is an achievable goal and every little tick is a meaningful step towards it. But a clean plate is unrealistic and you know you’ll never get there. There is only more treading, forever.
Ironically, I think this has become worse as I have become better. By “better” I mean better at actually doing things that need to be done. As a student I dealt with having more responsbilities than as a child by tricking myself that I had nothing to do through selective blindness and amnesia. It kept me happy enough. As an adult that doesn’t fly. You can’t put off doing the dishes for days or you’ll be buried. Today I can get through what would in 2007 have been a month’s worth of chores every day, and it cost the ability to shut stuff out and relax with a clean conscience.
Yes, a plate seems worse than a bucket. Why then, don’t we all have buckets? What’s the upside to constant dread over entropy existing?
I don’t know, but I think there’s a clue in the fact that needing an empty plate and therefore hating the mere existence of chores and tasks isn’t the same as regular laziness. If I was just lazy I wouldn’t write this blog for no tangible reward. No, it’s less about the total amount of work and more about the pure number of things needing to be managed, costing mental resources even when not currently being done. It’s like they have to be lugged around all the time like a backpack full of coconuts. It makes the mind feel bloated, heavy, and always tired.
If I were to speculate I’d say that perhaps the benefit of being a “plate person” is better concentration, patience, and precision. While my wife is much better at all things “management” than me, and does more of it, I’m better at focused tasks. I’ll happily sew things by hand, for example, while she starts swearing after 30 seconds and begs me to take over. I’m also more careful and conscientious when gardening, and better at painting, building and remodeling at home when it requires patience and precision, i.e. the kind of stuff that requires putting pieces of wood together into complicated patterns and I need to go back to the workshop and sand off another hair’s breadth so it fits just right. She asks me with disbelief how I can possibly have the patience for it, but somehow I don’t find it hard at all. I’ll do stuff like that for eight hours straight and come away from it refreshed as if after a good night’s sleep. But ask me to do a thing while I’m in the middle of doing another thing and I’ll struggle to not bite your face off.
Are these expressions of the same underlying trait? Can they be changed? Can I make myself a bucket or will I be anxious for the rest of my life unless I become a hermit or rich enough to afford servants?
And I’m curious whether people recognize themselves in this description. Are you a bucket person? A plate person? Or something else altogether?
• • •
Once when I worked at a restaurant in England we were polishing the cutlery after a busy evening. Two of the cooks were drinking and invited me to join them. I said I had to finish working first and they loudly proclaimed that I was no fun. My answer “I’ll be fun when I’ve finished the job” remains my psychology in a nutshell.
I still forget things, I just don’t forget enough things for it to work and I don’t forget that I’ve forgotten them.
The exception is when I’ve had a few drinks and no longer think far enough away from the present moment to be aware of the full extent of my obligations. This feels unhealthy but it’s true. Maybe I haven’t actually lost any ability because I never had it as a student either, I just drank a lot more back then.
I wonder if our differing approaches to packing is about the same thing. In short, my wife’s far better at organizing things in time and I’m better at doing so in space. She has an elaborate taxonomy of prewritten lists for different kinds of trips with everything she could possibly need and always manage to bring with her things I forget but sometimes wind up needing — but her bag is always a mess because she just throws everything in there. And when we get to where we’re going, it somehow explodes and all her things are instantly spread across the room. I, on the other hand, try to remember the bare minimum the day before, and then pack like I’m doing a jigsaw puzzle. Everything is exactly in the right place depending on when and where I’m going to need it. During the stay I keep most stuff in the bag and take it out only when I need it, and then put it back again immediately.