I’ve always struggled with work/school/life balance. As in, most of the time the “life” part is generally the first thing to fall off when there are too many variables to balance the equation. That’s part of the reason why I haven’t blogged in over a month– because so many of the things I enjoy doing have taken a backseat to the intensity that is senior year of college. When I’m averaging about 70 pages of reading a night plus projects, job applications, playing the waiting game with grad school, and what feels like dozens of little extra responsibilities, things like writing for pleasure, snuggling with Tigger, and sometimes even sleeping take a backseat. Almost everyone I know has fallen victim to this: the mentality that the things we do to take care of ourselves aren’t as important as everything else.
I never realize how bad I am at relaxing until someone asks me (usually after I’m rattling off my commitments for the week): “What do you do to relax?” Usually my response is something like “Uhhhhh, I mean I take breaks from reading for African Philosophy by working on projects for Writing in the Public Interest…does that count?”
No, Katlyn. No, it does not.
One of the great things about Boyfriend being not just my boyfriend, but also my partner and friend, is that he never hesitates to encourage a little slow-down every once in a while. He often pays a lot more attention to my well-being than I do, and has mastered the art of administering tough love with plenty of compassion.
When we went on a long weekend trip to Traverse City to tour his favorite brewery, he told me to leave my planner and computer at home. Anyone who knows me knows that my planner is basically my Type-A lifeblood. At first I felt a minor blood pressure spike– but what will I do if I don’t have access to every single thing I’m supposed to do between now and Monday?? –but it helped me enjoy our vacation a lot more. I was able to unplug (even just a little) from the busy schedule I feel constantly tethered to. And, surprisingly, the world did not end. I did not self-destruct. I did not get fired from my job, or start failing all of my classes. What I did get to do was enjoy a weekend away of good food and good drinks with a really good guy.
Learning (or re-learning) how to make time for self-care is really, really hard. I tell myself on a regular basis that I’m going to prioritize taking care of myself, because I do notice when I’m not– I feel anxious, tired, isolated, and burdensome –but that doesn’t mean I can immediately rewire my brain to balance better. I’ve grown up being influenced to think that relaxing is “lazy” and putting my needs first is “selfish.” That’s probably a combination of society, the different environments I’m in, and just the way I think. Reminding myself to prioritize myself requires an incredible amount of patience and self-compassion, which are also skills I’m still learning.
Luckily, I’ve maintained a strong support system through this time of transition in my life. In addition to Boyfriend, I also have some incredible friendships that have helped nurture me and care for me while I find the patience to care for myself. It’s easy let the isolation of anxiety and depression trick you into thinking that you’re in it on your own, but the amount of people over the last two months who have called me just to check in or see what I need has surrounded me with so much love. When I expect (or feel I deserve) to be abandoned or told I’m just being dramatic, the outpouring of kindness I have experienced reminds me just how valuable the people in my life are. They remind me to slow down and turn off busy-brain Katlyn every once in a while to play (or paint a kick-ass likeness of the sweetest kitty in the world, aka Tigger) and they remind me that it’s okay to let others take care of you. It’s okay to take care of yourself.
Self- care has at times felt like a dirty word in my mind– how dare I try to take care of myself when there’s a paper that should be outlined, a committee task that needs to be completed, a thousand other stressed-out college students just like me? What gives me the right to slow down, acknowledge my stress, and listen to my needs? That mindset normally puts me into a positive feedback loop where my schedule makes me anxious, and then anxiety makes me feel guilty, which in turn makes me anxious, which makes me feel dramatic or selfish, which makes me more anxious, and so on to infinity. So I try to work harder, assuming that checking off my to-do list is some kind of magic recipe for eliminating anxiety and feeling “worthy” of a break.
I don’t hold anyone else to the kind of standards I hold myself to. I’m constantly telling Boyfriend to take a break from vet school and telling my friends how much they deserve a night off– most of us are like that. We see the toll that stress and anxiety and pressure take on the people we love, and we want to remind them that it’s okay to nurture themselves. But we rarely remember to nurture ourselves with the same kind of compassion. That is my biggest challenge– remembering that I’m human, remembering my human needs, and remembering that’s okay.
I am fortunate to have a team of cheerleaders and coaches as I continue learning what I need from myself for a work/school/life equation that actually includes the “life” variable. Boyfriend is such a great teammate, who reminds me when I need a water break (or a Battlestar Galactica break), and my friends are there to listen and support me (and don’t give me too much grief if what I need is a quiet night in instead of a wild night out). Even Tigger plays his part, making sure I know that if I’ve been working too long or too hard that it’s time to pet him (I’m serious. If I’ve been reading or on my computer for more than a couple of hours at a time, he will find a way to curl up on my lap for tummy rubs).
Being patient with myself as I learn to treat myself like a person with needs is a huge challenge. I’ve spent most of my 22 years of life thinking that the way to feel valuable is to do it all and do it often, but closing the planner and embracing the sliver of Type-B in me is becoming an important part of managing my anxiety (and health). I’ve started keeping a list of loving things I can do for myself and I try to do one of those things every time I start to feel anxious or stressed. Sometimes, that means going for a run or cuddling with Tigger for an hour, and sometimes that just means getting up and getting a snack before returning to work. Balance is hard. But I’m pretty gracefully when I put my mind to it.