I’m a very highly-strung perfectionist, if you didn’t already know. What this means for me is that I will set the bar almost unattainably high for myself and then get worked up about the slightest possibility of failing to reach it. Over the past year, I have started feeling this catch up to me. In a high-stress situation such as studying abroad, distanced from my home comforts and the people who know how to handle my irrational messy outbursts, I have felt anxiety and pressure building on me bit by bit, causing me to start being even more self-critical than I already am.
And so a couple of weeks ago I did something that I have never done before. In the face of an impending deadline that had been giving me more trouble than I had felt about a piece of work in a long time, I packed up all of my books and ran away to the Amtrak station to hop on the train to Santa Barbara. I literally removed myself from the environment which had been causing me trouble. Three days before the deadline. Second Year Emma would get the shivers just thinking about it. I don’t know what the straw that broke the camel’s back was: be it the limited time I have left in this country, or me gradually losing any interest or appreciation I had for LA, or my bottled-up anger at the quality of the education I was meant to be enjoying (more on that coming soon). Whatever it was, I snapped, and I left.
I’ve never really had the financial means or the actual opportunity to do something like that before, nor had the motivation to do it anyway. And in that instance, I’m lucky. Most people can’t just run away from their problems however much they want to – something I have spent many years painfully aware of. This isn’t an advert for any of that.
However, what this experience taught me is essential, even for when I do not have the means or opportunity to run away on a train to the beach for the weekend. This experience taught me that I do indeed work better when I stop and take care of myself. I have a long history of pushing myself to my absolute limits to complete work to a standard I find half-satisfactory – chugging energy drinks, staying indoors all day and up all night, and sacrificing personal necessities and healthy living alike. But when I was in Santa Barbara I had reason to take long breaks so that I did not waste the trip, but my internal voice was still screaming that I needed to remember to get work done as well. I then found a happy medium – working in comfortable places such as by a pool or in a cosy lounge rather than cooped up in a dark bedroom; taking extra time just to go for a walk and clear my head; putting my work down when I came to a mental block on the promise of returning to it later; and most important of all, sleeping to a normal schedule (the hostel environment I was in does not really embrace working through the night!)
And in spite of this distraction – or perhaps because of it – I finished the paper well in advance of the deadline: something that only ever happens for me if I have another thing due the day after it. I was about as pleased as I ever am with my work: forever nitpicking, a standard I have had to learn to accept given tight deadlines. And more importantly, the world didn’t stop spinning just because I put my mental health over my academic success. And this has been the crux of my problem for such a long time: I have no sense of balance (literally or figuratively). I have been trapped in a mindset that if I take time to care for myself, be it taking a mini-break or even just going outside for one evening drink with friends, then I would deserve the potential failure that would somehow be caused by taking a little time for myself. Actually taking time for me and finding it easier to complete my work than I had been doing with my bad cycle of habits has reminded me of the importance of taking some time out of my day to ensure that I am as okay as I can be in a given circumstance, be it playing a game for half an hour, or doing a face mask, or preparing a healthy meal, or even just stepping outside and seeing the sun once in a while. I needed reminding that I do not deserve to suffer for my achievements to be valid – they are not lessened because I didn’t work solidly all of the time to get them done. And to be working at my best standard, I need to be treating myself the best I can be – an idea that I had never paid much credence to before.
And so this perhaps dramatic gesture may not be something I – or my bank account – plan on doing again in a very long time, but the lessons that it reminded me of are slowly beginning to find their way back into my life. I can take some time out of my day to do a face mask, I can feel less guilty about choosing to do what is best for my mind rather than my grades, and I am a better me when I consider my health as being as important as my academic output. Because grades and assignments come and go, rise and fall, but the damage you do to your body and mind in the process can take even longer trying to overcome.