An (almost) 2017 Resolution

When I was a kid, my life was fairly simple. I had a great family and, if I’m honest, I spent quite a significant amount of time skipping school up until the age of 11. This wasn’t me playing truant, it was because my mum thought it was better to be in the park when it was sunny, or snowy, or at the library when it was rainy than at school where I didn’t particularly want to be. Some people might frown upon this approach, but I got all the education I needed. I read voraciously, had a maths tutor when it became apparent that numbers were difficult, (nobody knew this was a dyslexic thing at the time), played the piano and went to dance class 3 or 4 times a week (I didn’t like talking so this was for self-expression). Indeed, my mum and, later, my dad always had my back. When I was 6 and my teacher thought that I was too slow to learn because I wasn’t particularly attentive, she chose to use some very choice words to point out that this was because I was, in fact, almost completely deaf and waiting for an operation that would fix this.

So you see everything was very easy, my biggest concern was that I had to wear a head-brace. Neither of my parents had ever been to university and were making life happen by running their own businesses, as such there was no pressure on me to be anything other than myself. As long as I was doing my best that was all that mattered. My parents even chose my secondary school because it had a reputation for prioritising pastoral care more than academic prowess. I was still largely silent at this point so that made sense. My parents didn’t even break a sweat when at 14 my PSHE teacher said that I was so introverted I spoke to myself more than I spoke to anyone else, they knew that everything was going on inside my head so it didn’t matter if I didn’t want to verbalise everything,

Then I got into year 10 (or 4th year depending on the system that your school used) and everything changed. Nothing about my environment changed, I did. I got pissed off. I was sick of the teachers thinking i was less competent than my classmates, sick of my maths teacher saying things like “why don’t you just not worry about this topic, Jess” when I asked a question in class and sick of the girls in my class constantly leaving me out because they assumed that my silence meant I didn’t want to socialise. Susan Cain has already done an excellent job of articulating why the fact that our schools and businesses are designed to make introverts feel this way so I won’t go into that here, suffice to say I wanted to prove them all wrong.

I knew that the way that I learned and saw the world was different to other people. I make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information that other people can’t see and I can recall conversations verbatim for weeks after they have occurred. If nobody else was going to help me make sense of school and society in a way that worked for me, I was going to have to do it for myself. That’s exactly what I did.

Enter the next decade of my life where my solution to everything became ‘work harder.’ You see I learnt a dangerous lesson in the next two years, that if I worked as hard as I could I would get the results that I wanted. I say that this was dangerous because during my A-levels I became so obsessed with the idea that I needed to work every hour under the sun in order to meet the criteria of my A-levels that I actually halted my physical development and collapsed the morning after my final exam, suffering from stress-induced anaemia, and glandular fever.

It took 6 weeks before I could get to the end of the street without being exhausted, but it worked. I got what I wanted. I got into Oxford and I thought that the stress I’d put myself under and the damage I had done to both my mental and physical health was worth it. Consequently I didn’t learn my lesson. I spent the next 3 years at Oxford working harder and harder and harder to get the results that I wanted. Don’t get me wrong I also had a fantastic time, I had some of the most insane experiences and met my best friends who I hope will be in my life until I’m 6 feet under, but when I finished finals my mum described me as looking like a crack addict. Still it had worked, I got my degree and my graduation day was one of the best days of my life.

So you see I entered adult life with the belief that any problem I was facing could be solved by working harder. Not satisfied with my social life, bend over backwards for all my friends no matter what I get in return so that they will like me. Sick of being viewed only as a nerd, and sick of my body — kill myself in the gym every day. Want to climb up the career ladder? — spend all hours possible in the office and absorb significant amounts of responsibility from everyone else.

Where has this got me? Well I’m a manager and a homeowner but I’ve also spent the last couple of weeks signed off work and suffering from acute anxiety and stress-related exhaustion at 26. I felt the first couple of days repeatedly asking myself what I had done wrong to wind up in this position? At first I couldn’t answer the question. Then I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who pointed out that I was trying to do everything backwards. I’d forgotten that early lesson my parents taught me — that if I was happy, healthy and doing my best that’s all that mattered. Instead I’ve spent the last four years trying to be the best at everything for everyone, except my self and now instead of just reaping the rewards (of which there are many), I am also paying the price. I am, therefore, making a public commitment to myself and to those that have supported me over the last couple of weeks, to change this.

Arianna Huffington argues in Thrive that what people suffering from burnout (or those wishing to avoid it in the first place) need to do is introduce a third metric of success into their lives. This third metric is one that focuses on wellness, wellbeing and wisdom rather than money and power. Arianna stresses the importance of sleep and meditation and of prioritising your wellbeing instead of trying to take first place in the who is working harder competition that seems to fuel the western workforce. She makes the evidence-based argument that if you make a concerted effort to introduce measures into your life that enhance your wellbeing, such as getting adequate sleep, you will actually perform better in the rest of your life because you will be able to perform at your peak.

I want to test this theory. I am not saying this will be easy, there’s always going to be a part of me that is a compulsive perfectionist who will be uncomfortable with leaving the office if anything is just ‘good enough’ rather than outstanding or wanting to go for a ten mile run when all of me aches with the need to sleep, but I want to try. I owe myself that. So I am making this my (slightly early) 2017 resolution to put my wellbeing at the top of my priorities list. I’m excited to see the results.

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