So, I graduated on July 18th, and immediately followed up with two weeks of non-stop family visiting from out of state/country. Once things were finally back to “normal,” I realized I have no idea what my new “normal” looks like. I’ve made a pact with my classmates to finish a solid first draft of my thesis novel by the end of the year, and I have general plans to submit short stories to various magazines, but also…I am exhausted.
So I had this idea that maybe August could be like…a break?
I mean, one where I’m still working my full-time job and taking care of my cats and my dog and my day-to-day living, but like…that’s all. As stress-free as possible. Just a normal person working one job. (And then I saw that there was a lunar eclipse plus TWO planets in retrograde, so, literally, the stars are perfectly aligned for me to not try to Get Shit Done this month.)
But everything I do has purpose, even if it’s choosing to do nothing. This month, I’m choosing to rest and recuperate. I’m choosing to ease my way into a new way of living, not just post-MFA, but post-being-forced-to-acknowledge-how-toxic-and-unsustainable-the-American-way-of-life-is (aka being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome). I’m still not sure what this new life will look like, but I know at its core it will have to be about putting my own well-being first, and listening when my mind and body shout NO.
The problem is, I’ve always been someone who strives to become a better version of myself. In and of itself, that’s not inherently a bad thing, but it walks a very fine line. Self-growth is essential. Self-improvement, however, has a quietly negative connotation dressed up as something positive with the potential to seep into every area of your relationship with your Self, until you wake up one day full of self-loathing and shame, ridiculing yourself for not powering through the flu to meet your deadlines, hating the scraps of your flesh that are too much or not enough, looking at the world around you for evidence of your worthiness and, finding it lacking, berating your Self for not working harder or being stronger or having the right innate qualities to win the world’s praise and acknowledgement.
Okay, so maybe that’s just me. But, given the epidemic of depression and anxiety in this country, I don’t think so. And even though I’m mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted, it took me a full week to accept my decision (and my need) to just rest this month.
Why? Because it felt lazy. It felt like wasting time. It felt like letting myself go. It wasn’t until I could convince myself that rest is an action I can take to improve myself that I finally felt okay about it.
And that’s when I realized: in all my efforts towards self-improvement, I haven’t been striving towards growth. I’ve been fighting against my flaws, and not even necessarily real ones. I’ve been fighting against my perceived innate laziness, and I’ve been fighting against my body, and I’ve been fighting against the instincts that tell me “stop” or “no” or “slow down.” I’ve been fighting against being boring, or simple, or “basic.” I’ve been fighting against enjoying things that I can’t justify to other people.
I have valued authenticity so much throughout my life, but I’ve buried my own authentic self in my efforts to improve things that never needed improvement to begin with.
Of course, this doesn’t mean everything I’ve done to “better myself” has been useless. It’s just that the only things I’ve done in terms of self-improvement that have actually benefitted me are things that come from a place of self-love and support, and usually after reaching a crisis point where all my discipline and self-flagellation have done nothing to help the situation.
I know I’m not alone in this, and yet this realization feels like a revolution in my own life. I’ve heard it over and over again from other “self-help” gurus, but coming from a place of positivity and self-love really does make all the difference. I feel like I finally have permission to care about my own happiness, and to live my life in a way that is meant to impress only myself.
Of course, I still don’t know what that looks like…but it’s the foundation I’m trying to build from. Whenever I make a choice about how to spend my limited time and energy, I’m looking for what feels like the most self-supportive choice. Sometimes that means sitting in the sun listening to audiobooks in my backyard. Sometimes that means going to bed at 9:30. Sometimes that means learning Spanish. Sometimes that means lying on the floor with my feet on the couch while my cat eats my hair to get my attention.
This month, it means resting. And thinking about what I’d like to see happen in the next few months and years. And puttering around on my computer, organizing my writing into some kind of filing system that makes it easy to find the stuff worth working on versus the stuff I salvaged from my middle school days. And doing a few of the exercises from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.*
For example, I did my own version of the life pie exercise and it was (pathetically) illuminating. I posted the results on Instagram, and I was actually surprised how many people were curious about it, so let me explain it here. The basic idea is, you draw a circle and divide it into even slices of pie labeled by the various areas of your life you want to focus on. I made an octagon because it was easier than drawing a circle free-hand. (This one is in my chic and sturdy Leuchtturm1917 Classic Large Hardcover Dotted Notebook.*) You usually see the pie divided into 8 slices, but you can go lower or higher, whatever is most beneficial to you. (Mine is divided into Romance, Wellness, Spirituality, Play, Purpose/Career, Family/Home, Friends/Social, and Money/Prosperity.) Then, you think about each area of your life and decide how satisfied or fulfilled you are on a scale of 1-10. Here, you can see I’m a miserable divorcee, but at least I’m fairly pleased with my home and my family situation. And, even though I’m not flush with cash by any means, I’m also mostly able to pay all my bills at the end of every month, which is better than it has been for me in the past, so I’m moderately satisfied with my financial state for the time being.
For the most part, though, my life could use some major improvements.
It’s good for me to have a visual idea of what that looks like, though. It was a really excellent reminder for me to look at this chart and say, yeah, I’m actually in a pretty good place with my home and my family. And I may not be as successful in my career as I would like to be, but I’ve taken really big steps. Where I *really* need work is here, and here, and here…
The second part of the exercise, of course, takes a bit more thought. You should think about what your goals are in each of those areas, and write down what satisfaction and fulfillment in those areas looks like to you. And the third part of the exercise is to write down any concrete steps you can take to achieve those goals.
I haven’t done the second or third parts yet. I’m still figuring out what fulfillment looks like to me in each of those areas. It takes time to strip away the layers of external influence on what I think that is. It takes time to acknowledge and dismiss the toxic influence of my own ego on how I define happiness, too.
This is complicated shit.
But I know y’all have a bullet journal or something and you’re dying to try it out, so please do! And we can commiserate on our imbalanced, colorful, sketchy looking pies together over on Instagram.
* The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, which means I may get a percentage of whatever you buy if you click through those. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it does send some money my way, which is awfully nice of you.