This has far and away been the most challenging semester in my entire 3 years of uni. The workload has been overwhelming, the work itself has been harder, I had one class where we got a new lecturer and tutor three weeks before the end of the year and my time-management and motivation have been at an all-time low. All of this coupled with my job, which requires strange hours (I’m a functions waitress, not a prostitute) has meant I haven’t been sleeping very much either.
I handed in something late for the first time ever earlier in the semester and that one late hand-in became two and three late hand-ins. I was so stressed and anxious that every time I would sit down to do an assignment my heart would race, my brain would turn to mush, I would feel physically ill and like I was going to pass out or cry. This led to me getting very sick, but I still had to work 6 days a week. I have never been closer to dropping out.
But I didn’t. I clenched my jaw and continued. I’m proud of that.
At the start of the semester the three values I chose as being my most important were concern for others, kindness and being trustworthy. All three of these still very much resonate with me, but I have also realised they’re all about other people, and how I can help and make other people feel better. I’ve always been reluctant to put myself before others because it feels selfish. Even this blog sometimes feels like an exercise in narcissism, but if I’ve learnt anything over the course of this semester, it’s that putting myself and my health first is so important, so I’ve reassessed the things I value.
The first is that my health, whether that be physical, mental or emotional, has to always come first. This is because it is impossible to properly function while any one of these is under threat. I’ve had problems with all three over the course of the last three months- it started off mentally, with me telling myself I couldn’t cope and that I was bound to fail. This became an emotional burden that caused stress and general unhappiness, leading to a weakened immune system. My physical health was then in jeopardy because I became sick. Being sick caused more mental and emotional stress which kept my immune system weak and made it impossible for me to get better. It just became a vicious cycle.
Professor Kristen Neff of the University of Texas works in the field of human development and is the mind behind the idea of self-compassion. This concept encourages being less self-critical and accepting that you can’t be the best at everything or help everyone who needs it. It is about promoting a self-love that goes much deeper than body acceptance or the like- it is about accepting your own limitations and respecting yourself enough to not berate yourself when these limitations become apparent, but instead to take a step back and realise they are there for a reason. Self-compassion also promotes the idea that if you aren’t taking care of your own health, it becomes much harder to care for the health of those around you. Over the last week or so I have started incorporating the notion of self-compassion into my own life.
A couple of weeks ago one of my closest friends went through a very tough break-up. She was devastated and couldn’t cope because she had uni going on at the same time. I was there for her as much as possible, and would stay up talking to her instead of going to bed, only to have to get up early for work the next morning. I don’t regret this at all- she has always been there for me and I am so happy that she feels the same way about me. Unfortunately it was at a time when my stress and sickness were extremely bad, and the extra emotional pressure of being a confidant made it very hard for me to function. I also really needed someone to talk to about how I was feeling and it would usually be her, but I would never have done that because I knew that she didn’t need the extra stress. I think one of the worst characteristics a person can have is to be a one-upper and put all your problems on someone who trusts you enough to confide in you about their own. Looking back, I should have practiced self-compassion and realised there was too much on my plate at the time. I should have told work that I needed a day or two off and asked for an extension on an assignment I was doing. If I hadn’t had these things hanging over my head making me feel inadequate and sick, I would’ve been a much better ally for my friend. In order to practice this self-compassion I took a day off work this week, the day that would’ve been my friend’s 3rd year anniversary, and I’m going to spend it with her at the beach. Just this simple act of knowing that I have a day to relax and spend with someone I care about has in and of itself made me feel so much better, and I plan to practice self-compassion much more in the future.
The second thing I’ve realised I value really highly are my personal relationships. Looking back, the periods when I felt most stressed and sick were times when I didn’t have time to spend with my friends and family. I felt isolated and like I had no one to talk to or confide in about what I was feeling and this just made everything worse. I would spend so much time at work or inside doing uni work that I wouldn’t have interaction with anyone further than messaging on Facebook and seeing my parents and brothers for the hour or so a day when we were all in the house. I am friends with everyone I work with, but this is a different sort of relationship to my close friends from school. I don’t feel like it’s appropriate to confide in people from work about personal problems because the way a person acts at work differs dramatically to the way they are outside of it (this is to do with the sociological role theory which I’m not going to go into, because I’m all sociologied out for this semester).
Doctor Mary Jo Kreitzer has performed research into the vital nature of personal relationships. She has found that having close relationships and connections extends life expectancy, helps you cope with stress and makes you healthier. In this way, focusing on the important relationships in my life heavily links into putting my health first. Doctor Krietzer also found that there were many negative effects of not having a strong support system and close relationships. These are increased risk of depression, a weakened immune system and higher blood pressure. I can attest to all of her claims (except maybe higher blood pressure). When I felt like I didn’t have time to see any of my family or close friends my stress and unhappiness increased, and my immune system weakened. I am planning to prioritise the nurturing of my personal relationships in the future. This is because in the long run good marks may get me a good job, which will get me a good income, but if I have no time for the important people in my life then it’s not worth it.
These two values form the basis for the third thing I have realised I value above all else. It is going to sound a little cliché, but I think it’s the most important of all my values. I want to be happy. This means creating a healthy balance of university, work, and looking after myself and my relationships. It means not letting things affect me in such a negative way and realising that there’s always going to be things that challenge your sense of self and wellbeing. It also means knowing that these things are temporary and not worth putting yourself in jeopardy over. I am not expecting to get marks half as good as I usually do this semester, and in some ways this scares me. But I also know that at the end of the day these are numbers on a computer screen. They don’t define me as a person. I know that I’ve had some shifts at work over the last month where I haven’t done the best job. These don’t define me either. What will define me as a person is who I surround myself with, and how I treat these people. What will define me as a person are the experiences I have which help me to grow. What will define me as a person is being happy.
In order to achieve what I consider happiness I have made some resolutions. I don’t think it’s appropriate to call them New Year’s resolutions, even though it’s very close to New Year. I would prefer to call them life resolutions. This is because a New Year’s Resolution is usually synonymous with shallow temporary mottos like lose weight, gain money. The resolutions I am making are much less about materialistic wants and much more about improving my personal health, fostering my valued relationships and in consequence maintaining my happiness. The first of these resolutions is practicing self-compassion in all aspects of my life. This includes doing 3 subjects next semester instead of 4, taking less shifts at work, making plans to see my friends even if it’s just for coffee and spending more time at home with my family. I am also resolving to learn to recognise the signs that my stress and anxiety are getting out of control and how to step back and make sure these feelings don’t overcome my life. I am going to learn techniques that will help me do this such as breathing exercises and meditation. Another way I am going to try to achieve happiness is by eating healthier and exercising more, as these will improve my physical health as well as my mental health. I think doing these things will make me much more able to cope next year, and will make me much happier in the long run.
As for my future career, I’m not entirely sure what this all means or will amount to in regards to that. This semester has made me realise that I have a lot more options than I originally thought, and the anxiety that I have been feeling about not being able to get a job after uni is irrational. If I don’t get the exact job I always thought I would, that’s fine. There will always be a way to end up doing what I want to do. And what I want to do effectively is write. I have also realised that deadlines aren’t good for me, and that I do much better work when I don’t feel pressured and can do it in my own time, about subjects that interest me. For this reason I would ideally like to blog for a living. And yes I do know this is an unrealistic aspiration because very few people are good enough or get the right sort of exposure to live off a blog, but you also never know. I am still young and have so many options, and as long as I’m healthy and happy, then my life is a success.