Last week I came back from a holiday at home for Labor Day and found myself surprisingly sick. It crept up on me in a way I wasn’t used to. Because of my autoimmune issues, I can usually tell when I’m on the verge of sickness and my immune system has been beat down. But this time I found myself on the painful end of several seemingly unrelated symptoms which led me to believe I wasn’t actually sick so I still tried to function at my normal level. Which lately has been pretty high-stress and filled with obligations.
Lacking in margins, you could say.
A friend once told me how she’d learned about needing to keep “margins” in life. Margins being designated free space and time in life so that when the unexpected happens (as it inevitably does), it doesn’t completely throw your life into chaos. American life in 2018 doesn’t really advocate for or encourage margins. It’s all about the “hustle” and how you’re praised for working a full-time job and a part-time job and freelance work on the side so that you’re working something like 70 hours a week which isn’t healthy for anyone. It’s a time when self-care is derided as “Millennial Laziness” and people tell you to “do what you love because you’ll never work a day in your life” but really you’ll just create confusing and basically nonexistent boundaries between your identity as a person and your career.
None of this is pleasant, but it’s everywhere I look, and having the type of personality that never feels quite like I’m doing enough in my involuntary but ever-present quest for perfection, I get sucked into this mindset more often than I’d like.
Because the thing is, we need margins in our life. At least, I certainly need margins with the volatility of my health (honestly, both mental and physical). When I get sick like I did last week, right in the middle of several freelance projects, a high-stress time for my full-time job, and two-weeks before I go on a much needed vacation so I’m attempting to get ahead with my YouTube and blog content, it starts to feel like my world is crumbling around me. I have to start asking myself “Do I cut quality or quantity?” and “Who is the person I can disappoint with the least amount of blowback?” and “How much sleep do I really need?”
All this does is start a cycle of disappointment, shame, guilt, and illness as I push myself too hard for too long and always end up miserable. This was common for me in high school and college. But after hearing about the concept of margins, I took it to heart and tried pushing back and adding more margins once I’d graduated and essentially got to start building my life the way I wanted it. Admittedly, that first year post-graduation, I went from having A LOT of margins because I was unemployed and simply making YouTube videos in order to build my skill set and demo reel to taking MBA classes, being a webcasting graduate assistant for Lynchburg College’s Athletics Department, and working a full-time video production job. After 4 months of doing all 4 of those things (plus juggling a long-distance romance in there too), I knew I’d severely run out of margins again, and made the choice to pursue the full-time job and take a breather on the MBA and graduate assistant position.
At the time, it was a scary decision to make. Buying into the “hustle” mentality I probably should have given up the relationship and spent 100% of my time working and going to school. But I was a only a few months out of college at that point, and I was a bit tired of trying to juggle everything. So instead, I decided to draw some boundaries in my life and embrace the margins. And I think it was the right the decision in the long term especially considering the mental health journey I was just starting at the time. I needed that extra space in my life and a break from the intense (and in my opinion, unhealthy) “hustle.”
The thing is, everyone needs a different kind of margin. Some people can function effectively with just a sliver of free space while others need a much larger amount to feel comfortable. Plus I think our margin needs can change over time. I’ve been in places mentally where I need free weekends to recharge and catch up on my life. And other times, I’ve been functioning at 110% seemingly all the time, like when I was either traveling to Richmond or Charlottesville nearly every weekend to see my ex during the last year we were still long-distance.
What I try to remember is to be gentle with myself and my needs. I wasn’t very gentle this week as I felt the weight of expectations I’d placed on myself and allowed others to place on me pushing me down when I felt I couldn’t meet them because I was sicker than I’d originally thought. But I also have to remember to be gentle with others and the margins they need (or don’t think they need) in their own lives. I think if we all had a little more compassion for how other people might be experiencing the world, we probably wouldn’t expect everyone to work 70 hours a week or call self-care “laziness,” but all I can really do is fix my own margins and try not to worry about what everyone else is thinking.