When I saw my current therapist Erin for the first time in 2019, I walked into her office with absolutely all of my baggage. I showed up fresh from John F. Kennedy Airport off a day-late delayed flight back from my spring vacation to Nashville, suitcase and all, and said, “So… we’ve got a lot to unpack,” gesturing to my quite literal luggage right beside me. She laughed and nodded, I put my bag in a corner, and I knew it was going to be a good relationship.
Most of the baggage I speak of has to do with my crisis response through a lens of trauma — how I am always trying to save everyone as if it’s my burden to bear. It’s because of my childhood. Growing up, I was forced to become an adult too quickly, responsible for everyone else, and always putting myself last.
To this day I always feel the internal tug-of-war to respond to any difficult thing in my life by minimizing my own needs and, like Atlas, holding the world on my shoulders. It turns out that being plunged into a biblical-esque pandemic situation only brings that tendency out even more than usual.
And while it’s something I’ve been trying to work on with my therapist since the beginning, now feels like the best time possible to truly dig in and do the work, in the midst of being tested like this. Earlier this week, after anxiously writing numerous articles about the coronavirus pandemic because I’m a freelance journalist, I sent my therapist an “accountability email” to tell her that I needed to talk about the unhealthy crisis responses it had reawakened in me. I was on the verge of a breakdown.
The world is not my burden to bear. And I am not Atlas.
She replied telling me that she was proud of me for holding myself accountable. She asked me if it was possible for me to stop looking at the news, or (as I’m a journalist) stop writing the news past a certain time of day. She reminded me that even though my job is to be responsible for giving information to people, and sometimes even hope, that doesn’t negate the need to take care of myself.
“You deserve some just YOU time, you-loving-yourself-time, where you’re not responsible for everyone at all hours of the day,” she said.
During our next video chat session, I talked more about the trauma the coronavirus pandemic is bringing up. I talked about how much responsibility I feel to do as much as I can, and having trouble not neglecting my own needs, like getting sleep and taking breaks. During our session, she reminded me that while it does feel like a vicious cycle I can’t escape, feelings are not facts, and I don’t have to repeat my trauma patterns.
“You have the opportunity to have a corrective emotional experience. You don’t always have to put yourself last,” she reminded me. I think this is something that many of us need to be reminded of. Prioritizing other people’s needs over our own is such a good way to distract ourselves from the ways we need to put ourselves first.
One of the first things my therapist ever said to me that cut deep and made me feel ashamed and upset about a narrative I’d been building in my head that I wasn’t even aware of was that I needed to unravel my traumas. What did she mean? Every time something bad happens to me, or within my vicinity, it triggers another trauma — reminding me of the last bad thing that had happened and making me feel like it’s an avalanche of traumas strung together that I couldn’t escape as opposed to separate events.
I had built a story in which bad things kept happening to me, like the bottom of a pool that kept collecting layers of grime. And therefore the self-fulfilling prophecy begat itself, again and again, and again.
Prioritizing other people’s needs over our own is such a good way to distract ourselves from the ways we need to put ourselves first.
On top of working on more than a dozen articles on the social and political impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, I am also the person in all my friends’ and family member’s lives who they seem to come to for advice and comfort during hard times. This has always been relatively fine with me when everyone’s crises are spaced out. However, during this crisis that affects us all, it’s been overwhelming. And it’s up to me to set boundaries to change my role in their lives.
After three panic attacks and crying constantly for three days, I’ve recognized, with the help of my therapist, that I simply can’t always be that person. The world is not my burden to bear. And I am not Atlas.
It’s time to stop trying to fix everything for everyone and start prioritizing myself, finally. I am not a pool bottom collecting grime. My traumas are not an avalanche piling on. They are separate, and manageable, and I can only start to heal them if I put myself first, at least sometimes.
It’s frustrating to admit that it took a global crisis to make me understand that life is too short not to take care of myself as much as I try to take care of others — but at least now, I’m reminded that I cannot pour from an empty cup.