Lately, when people ask me how I’m doing, I explain how I’ve been pretty overwhelmed and stressed by my workload and commitments this semester. Either they respond sharing the same feelings and we gab on and on about the struggles of failing to juggle it all, or they say they hope I’m finding time to take care of myself. I’m relieved yet sad to know I’m not the only one experiencing all-consuming stress. But when given the second response, I’m often annoyed that people mention taking care of myself, because I’m trying to do that, I just often don’t feel like I have the time.
In my Community Action and Social Change classes, many of them have lessons on self-care. They mention how in professions where you are working with others or for causes where there is little immediate gratification, common in the social services, you need to take care of yourself. Self-care is crucial to avoid burnout, where you cannot do your work any longer due to not prioritizing your needs. Everyone has different self-care practices, from reading or watching some TV at the end of the day to journaling, listening to music, going on a run or taking a bath. These self-care practices are supposed to allow one to unwind and take some time out of the day to spend on oneself.
My professors encourage us to create some of these practices for ourselves. My practices are watching several NPR “Tiny Desk” concerts, re-watching old sitcoms like “New Girl”, taking a shower, going on a walk or playing my ukulele. But on nights when I have multiple assignments, a house emergency and an exam the next day, I do not prioritize taking care of myself. I put my commitments and obligations first, because I often worry about falling behind.
I see this competitive drive in my friends and fellow classmates at our university. Last week, a friend of mine with strep throat continued to go to her classes — even though the best way for her to get better was to stay home and rest — because she did not want to miss class. Observing this need to push through it all, I have noticed we have a really hard time taking a break from class and our obligations, even when we are physically sick or dealing with our mental health.
This message is not just fostered at our university but in our society overall. It is the framework of our economic system. Competition is what drives our markets and fuels economic growth in our capitalistic society. I remember learning in economics that competition has been known to create better goods and drive people to work harder, because they can compete with one another.
I think this competitive drive that is felt in the economic world generalizes to our academic world as well. This competition is damaging when students put their physical and mental health on the line to compete with their fellow students to get the best grade point average and impressive résumés to get into the best graduate schools and jobs. But there is the overarching ideal that we will not get into the best graduate school or job we want unless we are doing better than those around us.
This notion of always having to work and perform is fundamental to our society. People are not even guaranteed good health care unless they are a working person in our country. If one cannot work or compete at the same level as everyone else, there are real consequences in the resources one receives. This means even if one doesn’t care or doesn’t want to compete with others, one has to participate in a society where the reason one is doing better is because others are not as well off.
Throughout high school, I was always trying to do well in my classes so I could get into a competitive college, but now that I’m at this competitive college, I cannot turn off the need to perform exceptionally well in classes. Even though I don’t have any competitive graduate program driving me, I still feel this need to do my best or be better than those around me.
Last academic year, I made a promise to myself that I would focus on me first and my relationships, the things that bring me joy and my classwork second. I still performed well in my classes, but I felt so much happier. But this semester, something felt different. Maybe it is that my time is ending as a senior or that I have a harder and larger workload. Honestly, I think that I lost this promise I made to myself. I have begun to prioritize my classwork, commitments and obligations over my own wellbeing, and I’m not okay with it.
Now that the semester is coming to an end, I’ve been able to reflect that I took on too many commitments and got caught up in our competitive college atmosphere. It is not easy to prioritize ourselves and make time when it can impact our ability to succeed in school or work. It is upsetting to me that I live in a society that values competition and work before well-being. And the truth is I don’t need to be the best or beat others to feel comfortable, happy and successful. I just need to do me.
Ellery Rosenzweig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.