I’ve started this blog post a few times already. I had a smarmy quote from Goodreads. I had one of those stock photos of a smiley woman in a field. Then I had a flippant jibe about how it’s pointless anyway in the face of impending nuclear destruction.
Then I deleted it all and closed the window, because it felt a bit pointless. Today’s post is about that pointless feeling, and balancing the weight of expectation against the reality of your capabilities.
Writing with anxiety is a nightmare. (Doing anything with anxiety is a nightmare, but one thing at a time.) When you have a low opinion of yourself mentally, it is incredibly difficult to make yourself do anything. I’m not talking about the usual portrait of mental illness you get, with a clear-faced sad lady lying about in a bed with suspiciously clean sheets. I mean that weird feeling you get when you’ve gotten home from work and you know that you used to be excited for the evening, but now you’re just waiting the time out until you can go to bed. You crave sleep, but you don’t hurry because it means getting up again tomorrow. Rinse, lather, repeat.
I’m talking about a lack of motivation that really gets in deep. An acid self-awareness that burns your personality out of your brain because you’re so self-conscious about everything. You’ve moved out, you’ve got a job, you call friends on the weekends. Sometimes you buy yourself a little treat at the supermarket. Sometimes your family visit you. For all intents and purposes, this is as good as it gets, right?
So why do you feel like you’re wasting your life? You’ve got your routine down to an art form, but you need something to fill the gaps in between. And now that you’ve noticed the gaps in your life, you can’t stop thinking about it. You almost miss the days when you worried about exams, or finding a job, because those were attainable goals. This, now, is all in your own head. Everything is always inside your own head.
When you’ve noticed something, you see it everywhere. When you become aware of your own breathing pattern, you gain an unwilling control over it. You don’t want to have to think about how often to breathe, but it’s too late, and the more you don’t want to think about it, the more space it takes up inside your brain.
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, otherwise known as frequency illusion or recency illusion, is a phenomenon which occurs when the thing you’ve just noticed, experienced or been told about suddenly crops up constantly.
When you’re keenly aware of everything that you could be doing, you can become insistent that you should be doing everything. I’m hardly the first blogger to complain about the pressures of FOMO and Living Your Best Life, and I won’t be the last. But when there is a real weight of anxiety and mental illness mixed in, things move up a gear. You see that someone you went to school with runs a business, and another one speaks multiple languages, another has a beautiful family (already!), and another is travelling the world and taking perfect landscape shots to prove it. All of a sudden, you feel like you should be doing all of those things. It’s impossible, rationally speaking, but you can’t tell your brain that. You should be keeping up with the news, but also watching the hot new shows on Netflix, and reading stylish new books, learning new recipes, booking holidays, meeting exciting new partners and finding niche new music to listen to. All those things add up to more time and energy and effort than you have, so things drop and you beat yourself up. More things drop, and you become loathe to replace them. Nothing lasts. Nothing is meaningful anymore. It’s pointless.
There’s something toxic in the millennial’s mental makeup. As a generation, we were praised and polished, promised the world if we behaved correctly and did as we were told. Our generation has been given a poisoned apple in the job market, economy, political sphere and availability of affordable housing. I keep looking to achieve things, as if to make things better, but it doesn’t. It can’t.
In the last two months I have taken up yoga, started re-learning French, learnt basic code, forgotten how to code, started a new sketch pad with one half-filled pencil portrait, taken up adult colouring books, kept three days of a diary, bought a dozen cookery books, written rubbish poetry, taken online classes in all kinds of nothing, in order to make my time useful and fruitful. But it never is. If I go and run five kilometres (and we’re being really hypothetical here) I feel like I won’t get anything out of it. So my anxious mind, the one that wants results and wants them now, starts to spew toxicity. What’s the point?
So then I don’t do anything.
There’s nothing worse for an anxious mind than giving it more time to think.
I can’t be the shiny woman going travelling in the stock photos. I can’t go find myself in a yurt for a few months. I can’t buy myself flowers on the way home from work, then whip up a gourmet meal from scratch.
The advice you’re often given is to try to remember who you were before the anxiety or before the depression. I don’t think I ever was somebody, except perhaps a half-formed teenager with a mild addiction to hair straighteners. I have to make myself from scratch, now, in the bleak landscape of office work, estranged university friends and tatty shared accommodation in an unfamiliar city. Pushing myself to try new things is good, and abandoning the things that don’t work out is a positive step. Flitting about in an anxious mess because I feel like I should be able to do everything is not helping anybody.
Racing against an imagined weight of expectation is incredibly damaging. Doing things that your brain tells you that you should be doing, instead of what you want to be doing is a one-way ticket to misery. Sticking with things long enough that they become familiar, enjoyable and easy is the only way to feel like you’re growing as a person.
That Goodreads quote about authenticity I abandoned earlier on probably would have come in handy right about now.
This is a personal understanding of an impersonal problem- anxiety, stress, and other mental health problems affect lots of people, and I can only offer my own experiences.