A difficult lesson I've learned in the past year is that sometimes you have to say no to things to protect your own well-being. I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes you have to cut yourself a break, which isn't always easy in a world that celebrates people who push themselves to (and often past) the limit. Every season on Dancing With the Stars ,(one of my favorite shows - judge me if you want but you're the one who's missing out), someone inevitably gets hurt or starts getting stress injuries but keeps tight-lipped and powers through. They receive praise and commendation for their work ethic, which part of me agrees with, but part of me has started questioning it...Shouldn't we create a culture where instead we encourage people to take care of themselves?
We praise those who work themselves to the bone because that is the "American way": working as hard as you can to earn money, status, respect, the right to remain here. The problem is that working hard, while admirable, can cost you a lot as well, and usually it's the priceless things that are hard to weigh against the money you earned. I don't want to sound too critical, I just think it's something we need to talk about more and consider how we tend to reinforce the destructive lifestyle of workaholism, chronic stress, and sleep deprivation. Do we praise people for taking on a large courseload and joining a multitude of activities? Do we shame the person who decides to lighten their workload or say no to another commitment?
As someone who tends toward workaholism, I understand the temptation of adding one commitment after another to my schedule so I can maybe hopefully feel like I'm accomplishing something in this world. The problem is that we typically end up burnt out when we're overwhelmed with commitments, which then means we're not accomplishing much of anything and stop being a good friend, son/daughter, spouse, student, leader, etc. because we no longer have the energy or focus to invest into those commitments and we stop investing into our relationships because we don't have time.
I also understand why it can be so hard to say no to something or decide to take fewer classes; there's an immense amount of pressure, whether spoken or unspoken, to do as much work as possible as quickly as possible. This will be my fifth year of college, and I've seen the amount of pressure that is put on students, even those in middle and high school, to pile up their workload with as many and as hard classes as possible. To graduate early. To build a resume. To fill up summer break with work too. I had a friend who consistently took four classes a semester instead of the expected five. She received some passive-aggressive flack from people, but in retrospect, I think it was a really brave choice. She knew she struggled with anxiety so it was best to keep the work to a manageable level so she could build in time to relax.
I don't think it would be too much of an overstatement to say that, in general, our culture makes it hard to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves. And like I said before, the problem is that when you don't take care of yourself, you get burnt out and can no longer do any of your work, whether in the office or in relationships, effectively. You can even become draining for other people to be around. And if you struggle with mental illness, stress can be a major player in causing you to relapse. I had this confirmed for me in the past month when school stuff raised my anxiety level so high that the buildup of anxiety chemicals led me to start having panic attacks at night again, something that hasn't happened in two years since I went on medication.
In the last week or so, I've had to make some tough choices that other people might question but that I know were the right decision to make to keep my own mental health protected. The first was to drop my fourth class, which was tough because I felt this overwhelming pressure to take a full courseload and not back out of the commitment I had made to take those classes. But as my semester went on, I realized that my other classes were just too overwhelming and I needed to cut back to three. I didn't have the motivation, I was miserable, I was stressed, I was panicking about how I could get three 10-page papers and multiple projects done.
Part of me (the therapy-informed part, I guess) said, "This is ridiculous. You don't need this. DROP IT." The other part of me gave all of the warnings your advisor will throw at you. I'm thankful I dropped the dumb class because now I feel overwhelmed just with the three classes that are left. I guess I realized that it really wasn't that long ago that I was really sick - less than a year. In fact, it was in October of last year (I think) that I dropped out of the classes I was in at community college because I had another nervous breakdown. I realized that I needed to take care of myself; I'm still fragile. Even if you feel the pressure, it's worth putting your own needs first.
My second tough choice was to postpone applying to graduate school. That was tough because I spent about six months planning to apply and I had pinned a lot of my future around it, but obviously that isn't healthy. I think the toughest thing though is the fear of disappointing people; I told my professor I was going to apply and she was very excited, but now it feels like I'm bailing, even though I still intend to apply eventually. The reality is, it's pretty rare for people to go straight to grad school. It will be valuable - and completely normal - for me to take a year or more off and get some work experience, earn some money, and take a break from school. Most people my age didn't even work as hard as I have in their undergrad years, so what's wrong with taking a breather?
The biggest reality check for me was that I already feel burnt out with school. And I feel that stress and apathy sapping my happiness and enthusiasm for school, my jobs, my hobbies, and my relationships. Why add even more pressure to my semester by forcing myself to scramble to study for the GRE and get my application together? Why force myself into another even more brutal two years of schooling when I feel like I am just barely going to drag myself to the finish line of my first five (or should I say eighteen??) So I decided that - regardless of what my professor thought - I would postpone the application process and take a year or so after school to do cool internships and work and travel and accomplish the things I've been dreaming of.
I love doing real-world work because I feel like I'm accomplishing things. And I felt so locked into a certain schedule that allowed little freedom for exploring my interests and dreams before. The funny thing is that even though I hadn't been consciously worrying about my application, once I made the decision to postpone, I felt this enormous sense of relief and so much less stressed. I started thinking about all of these possibilities I could consider for my "gap year". I'm so excited about it all, I was to just apply to jobs, not do my homework.
So if you have a plate that is overflowing, considering scaling back a bit and cutting out the unnecessary elements so you can really enjoy the parts that you love (dessert).