First, as with most of these things, I have to admit up front I am far, far from being a master of doing these things. There is a discrepancy between knowing or understanding something intellectually and being able to consistently and effectively apply it to your own life. I will say that I’m trying, and that I’m improving. But at no point do I want you to think I’m implying these are easy changes to make, nor that I’ve somehow mastered them. I put them out there so you can take them in, think them over, practice them. In time, maybe you’ll internalize them. In time, maybe I will, too. Until then, we just try to do the best we can. Ok?
I have, as has been established, a horrible fear of letting people down. I feel like, probably most people don’t exactly want to be a disappointment to other people, but in my case, what I conceive of as “letting someone down” is kind of ridiculous. I agonize over choosing the right gifts for people; like, panic-attack level freak outs weeks and weeks before any gift-giving holidays. I refrain from taking sick time — even when I’m genuinely sick — because I’m afraid people will perceive me as lazy or slacking. When I can’t (or honestly, just don’t want to) do duties above and beyond what is expected for me at work (working extra-curriculars, working beyond my contract hours), I feel insanely guilty (even if I’m mentally stretched to my limits and have a babysitter to relieve and a child to get home to).
And while I know that people are holding me to a certain standard, it’s my own standards and expectations that are paralyzing. I expect so much more of myself than I’m told others do — I expect my house to be pristine, I expect my art and writing to be flawless, I expect to be at the top of my game at work, and on, and on, and on. And it’s not doable — not all of it, all the time.
So I need to step back sometimes and (very consciously) manage my expectations and mitigate my anxiety.
When it comes to dealing with other people:
1. Ration, but be pro-active, in your extra efforts. This assumes you have the luxury of choosing things like whether or not you work overtime, or the flexibility to say yes or no to additional responsibility — I recognize that I have considerably privilege in that my job ends at 2:35, and anything beyond that is at my own discretion. But even if you don’t have that flexibility with your working life, there’s usually other social- or work-tangential responsibilities that come up (“Can you cover my shift next week?” “Do you want to bring anything for the office potluck?” “Can you help train the new hire?”) If you are someone who feels guilty at having to say no, but you know the rhythm of the job you work, plan ahead and be proactive with your efforts. If you know that your boss regularly asks people to stay late on Fridays, pick a Friday that you feel will work for you (given your other responsibilities and obligations), and proactively ask if any coverage or assistance is needed that week. If you know your office does collections for birthdays, set aside a couple of dollars every week to cover the cost of a communal gift card, or keep a bulk pack of Birthday cards in your desk for those times when you’re caught off-guard. It’s a minimal effort thing, but at least you feel like you’re contributing — by putting forth the initiative when you have the spoons to spare, you take some of the pressure off yourself when you really can’t do X, Y, or Z, because you know you’ve done your due diligence (and you can feel confident that the effort has been noted and stop worrying that people think you’re slacking).
2. Never commit to something without looking at your calendar (and keep an effing calendar). It’s really easy to say, “Sure I’d love to!” to a good friend without first considering, hey, maybe I should make sure I don’t have something else going on that day. I keep two handwritten calendars (one for work commitments, one for social commitments),and am trying to get in on using a digital Calendar via Google (so that anything I add I can check against my husband’s shared calendar and vice-versa), but before we commit to anything, we check these calendars for any conflicts. Also, remember: “I’d love to!” is not the same as “I have totally commited to it!” If you tell a friend you’d love to do something with them, and then find out you really, really can’t, tell them immediately — “Wow, I really wanted to see that movie with you Saturday, but I just checked my calendar and I’ve got my cousin’s graduation party.” The best thing about keeping a calendar is you can then offer them an alternative — “But I’m free next Sunday. Would you want to get coffee?” The little catastrophizing goblin in my brain is always convinced that when I have to cancel plans, the person I’m cancelling on takes it as a personal affront and as a sign I, I don’t know, hate them? So having an alternative suggestion for when we could get together (because I would love to see them!) shuts that goblin up real fast.
3. Cancel plans (as a last resort, and with caveats).
Cancelling feels good… until it doesn’t. And it doesn’t feel good or the person being cancelled on, so I try to keep this as an absolutely last resort — as in, I’ve been having an unexpectedly rough time lately, I’m feeling hugely overwhelmed, and I just realized I have five separate commitments this weekend and I’m having legitimate panic attacks about it. There are some situations where, sorry, opting out of something is the best option. You have to learn to be okay with saying, “look, I just can’t do it all,” and making peace with the fact that — once in a while — you might actually just have to disappoint someone, just a little bit, and it won’t be the end of the world. Just, if you’re going to cancel, do it right. Make a phonecall if possible; cancel as far out as you can (pulling out literally hours before? Not cool. At all); in so much as you are able, suggest an alternative time to meet up (this is really only possible for more casual social commitments); be honest and apologetic. Also, try never to cancel on the same people or commitment twice, and if you are forced to cancel on an event like a birthday or graduation, make sure to send a gift and a card.
I’ll be honest, managing the expectations I have of myself is harder, but this is the best I have come up with:
1. If you don’t like something you’ve done… you can do it again. I hate to admit it, but I found this nugget of wisdom on Tumblr, and it stuck with me — you don’t have to do a project just once. A particular well of inspiration isn’t dried up just because you drew from it once. If you write a poem about a tree and you aren’t happy with it — the words didn’t come out right, or you don’t capture it perfectly — write another one. And another. Go back; pull your favorite bits from both poems. Frankenstein them together. Write it again. You like painting birds? Paint as many pictures of birds as you want. Eventually, something will look right. Eventually, through sheer practice, through sheer volume of work produced, something will fall into place. And you will have been developing and honing your skills, and you will have been creating. It seems obvious, but so often I’ve written or drawn something and said, “Well, that’s it, that project is a failure, and I can never touch that subject matter/theme/topic again.” But… why?? Of course I can. If I’m not happy with it, and it’s still nagging at me, and I feel like there’s still something I can get out of it, of course I can.
2. If social media is getting you down and making you feel like a mess, think about someone you know intimately, and how they use social media. Hell, examine how you use social media. I have a lot of friends whose Facebook feeds are full of perfect Kodak moments, and it makes me feel like a trash fires most days (which is one reason why I really don want to start normalizing messy homes and imperfection), but think of one of those people who you, like, really know. I think of my sister and my best friends. I know their lives pretty well, and I know for a fact that what makes it’s way to Facebook makes it’s way there because it’s some of the rare moments of her kids being peaceful and getting along (my sister), or her doing social/family events instead of working awful hours (my friends). I’ve been to my sister’s house, so I know it goes through cycles and stages of being a goddawful mess and being clean, but in the photos she posts, lo and behold, they’re always taken against a clean backdrop (sometimes it’s a different part of the room, sometimes, she sweeps stuff out of the way with her foot before snapping the photo). My point is, you know — like, deep down, you know — the stuff going up on social media is not emblematic, necessarily, of anyone’s absolute reality. So stop acting like it is. Or, even better — be part of the movement to normalize the mess. Post videos of your kids playing in a trashed room. Take your selfies even if there’s a pile of clothes on your floor.
3. Focus on completing three tasks per day, whatever they may be — and be ok with letting that be it. Look, if you are feeling good, and motivated, and raring to go after completing those three tasks, then by all means, keep going. But know that you don’t have to. And don’t worry about what those tasks are. Stopping at the post office to mail your bills or taking ten minutes to pay them online is just as important as scrubbing the toilets (more so, if you think about it — those toilets won’t be super useful if you haven’t paid your water bill, right?) Just because a task isn’t time consuming or physically draining doesn’t mean it’s not important. Some days, you’re energy is so low, that’s all you can do — so do it, and don’t worry about anything else. Low energy days are great days for clearing out your email inbox (err, which I desperately need to do), responding to emails, paying bills, updating your planner, making a meal plan. Days when you feel better, you can mix in clearing out the fridge, getting all the dishes washed and put away, doing a load of laundry, or vacuuming the rug. Just, pick three, do them, and do them as well as you can.
Again, I’m still trying to internalize these — the last three are so, so much harder than the first three for me, but I’m getting there.
We don’t owe perfection to anyone. We just need to be putting in an effort. Your best some days is going to be better — or worse– then your best on other days. Things change, people change, and we have to roll with it.
It’s not easy, but we have to just keep moving.