Wednesday 13 September 2023

Erich Brenn Would Be Proud: How I Keep My Plates Spinning (Mostly)

As regular readers will know, I recently bought a new pair of glasses. I couldn’t be happier but there were a few issues at first. New glasses can lead to headaches until your eyes adjust. The frames sit differently on my face too and I had some pain across the bridge of my nose as they settled into place. They’re fine now but for the first week or two I occasionally reverted to wearing my old glasses for a few hours. Doing so was a trade-off between seeing clearly, and seeing less clearly but with less discomfort.

It got me thinking about how life is often a compromise between caring for some aspects of our health and wellbeing at the expense of others. The trick is not to ignore any one aspect for so long so that it becomes critical. It’s an ongoing challenge to keep all my plates spinning, to borrow an analogy from my friend Maya. If you’re unfamiliar with the reference, check out this video of plate spinning maestro Erich Brenn. My plates are many and varied but I can group them into three categories: physical, mental, and emotional.


I usually get between six and seven hours sleep a night. This works well enough but leaves me running a slight sleep deficit. I’ve a pretty high tolerance to physical tiredness, but every now and again it catches up with me. My wake up time is dictated by my work schedule, and I hate going to bed early because it always feels like I’m short-changing myself on the day! If I’m really tired I might retire early for a few nights, but that’s about it.

I’m talking here about the kind of physical tiredness that’s refreshed by resting and sleep. Fran and a number of my other friends live with health conditions that often leave them extremely fatigued and low-to-empty in terms of physical and mental energy. For them, rest isn’t a luxury or something that can be indefinitely deferred. It’s an essential part of how they manage their symptoms. That might involve spending hours if not days in bed or on the couch, or withdrawing from all but absolutely essential activities until things improve.

Fran and I sometimes find ourselves in need of rest at the same time, and take the opportunity to share some shut-eye time together on our regular video calls. I wrote about the first time this happened in a blog post about how sharing quiet moments can deepen your friendship. We still do this when we’re tired and in need of a little time out. I find it really helpful. It’s the only time I give myself permission to doze or even close my eyes during the day.


I’m better at paying attention to my mental health. I tend to notice when I’m getting mentally tired, stressed, or overwhelmed and take steps to reset and recoup my energy and focus. Writing helps, whether it’s blogging or writing my personal journal. That might seem counterintuitive, but working on my latest blog post or exploring things in my journal brings my focus inwards and counters any sense of overwhelm I might be feeling.

Distraction is another useful strategy. Fran immerses herself in Netflix shows when she needs to unwind or escape intrusive or unhealthy thoughts. Other friends stream music and shows in a similar way, or use computer games as a distraction. I’m not into gaming myself, although I’ve found simple colour or shape sorting games helpful in the past. More commonly, I unwind with YouTube videos on topics such as astronomy and physics, mathematics, historical/military documentaries, and air crash investigations. Anything that bears little direct relation to what’s going on in my life at the time.


It’s not a good idea to ignore my physical wellbeing as much as I do but I have few physical health issues and find those plates stay up there even when they’re wobbling quite a bit. Mentally, I recover fairly quickly. As long as I stay vigilant to any wobbles, I can give my mental plates a quick nudge now and again and they’ll keep spinning. It’s my emotional crockery that gives me the most concern. That might some as a surprise to some. I remember being told “you never get emotional” which is so far from the truth it would be funny if it wasn’t tragic. My emotional plates and bowls — indeed the entire vintage seventy-two piece bone china dinner service — have often been on the point of crashing spectacularly to the floor. I haven’t always got to them in time.

My key coping strategies are documented in my Wellness And Recovery Action Plan. A WRAP can cover any situations in which we find ourselves struggling or becoming unwell. Mine focuses on my emotional wellbeing because that’s what I struggle with the most. My coping strategies include talking things over with people I trust (but not over-processing); pulling back to assess what’s actually happening; temporarily withdrawing from connections and social media; listing allowed and not allowed behaviour; focusing on writing, blogging, and reading; and reminding myself how my actions are impacting others. Listening to music can be helpful but that depends on the circumstances. Music can soothe, reassure, and distract, but it can also bring memories and emotions to the surface I may not ready to deal with at the time.

Too Many Plates

I’ve focused on how I keep my plates spinning, but sometimes there’s just too much crockery up there! It’s more graceful to catch a few pieces before they fall and set them safely aside, but it’s okay if one or more end up on the floor. Maybe we took on too many tasks at once, either because we overestimated our capabilities or because we were given little opportunity to say no. Maybe we tried to handle just a little too much drama, our own or other people’s. Maybe life simply threw more at us than we could ever hope to keep going at the same time.

It can seem like the end of the world when a plate drops, but it’s rarely as desperate as it appears. Unless everything has utterly collapsed — in which case extreme self-care is what we need before we can ever think of setting up again for another go — there are still plates up there we can attend to. It may even prove easier to attend to those that remain. As for the broken items, there may still be something there worth recovering. An unattended friendship may feel like it’s over, but the break might be repaired and the connection strengthen as a result. That’s happened to me more than once. A health condition might have returned or emerged that appears awful but leads to it being properly diagnosed or treated more effectively. A personal or family crisis or loss might seem impossible to survive, yet we move through it.

The Japanese word kintsugi roughly translates as “joining with gold” and is an ancient repair technique using lacquer dusted with powdered gold to repair broken ceramic vessels. It’s often taken as a reminder that mistakes and damage are a necessary part of life. With care and loving attention they can often be repaired and even celebrated as important stages in our journey. Not all damage can be repaired, of course. Some hurts are too deep and their effects too devastating to be easily fixed or transformed into something valuable and life-affirming. Sometimes all we can do is look at the broken crockery at our feet and hope there’s someone to help us clean up the mess.

Over to You

In this article I’ve shared some of the ways I keep my plates spinning, recognising that there are times it’s neither possible nor healthy to have so many things up there at the same time. We can pay attention to this thing or that thing up to a point but sometimes it’s all too much and we need to set everything down and rest.

One way or another, most of this comes down to self-care. I’ve collected a number of articles on self-care which I find helpful. These cover practical strategies, suggestions for making a difference to your day, kindness and gratitude, music and playlists, getting out and about, and recognising that we don’t have to do everything on our own.

What techniques and strategies do you use when you find your plates wobbling? Do you recognise when you have too much going on and take steps to intervene, or do you tend to press on until everything crashes around you? Fran and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Matthew Henry at Burst.


1 comment:

  1. I found I experienced a trade off of caring for one aspect of my health over others, and it eventually caught up with me when I was diagnosed with various things. I had to forgo looking after my physical health because life stuff necessitated it, but my body let me know I had to listen to it and find a balance. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, it helped me understand a bit better what I experienced.