06/30: The Emotional Olympian

From a random note in my phone.

“If there was a sport dedicated to running from your problems- I’d be an Olympic gold medalist. Watch out Ussain Bolt.”

I have several short notes like this in my phone and I write them in hopes of eventually turning them into something larger and more in depth. This note made me laugh because I can think of countless reasons for writing it but there wasn’t any context. If I remember correctly, this was written while I was living in Oregon but it’s still applicable to my current self here in Boston so here we gooooooo.

Before leaving for work on Friday, I received some unpleasant news about someone in my life. This person has consistently hurt those around her without any remorse and refuses to take accountability for her actions. I’d prefer to leave the situation itself out of this post and instead, I’ll write about how my initial instinct was to push it into the back of my mind and carry on with my day. I clocked into work and immediately spoke with co-workers and customers about anything at all. I can’t worry about things if I’m immersed in a conversation about little squirrels in little office chairs or finding sloths in Costa Rica, right?

I forgot orders, fell behind on some side work, and felt overwhelmed during a relatively calm, Friday night shift. While talking to people, I found myself stumbling over my words and making my responses longer than necessary. Not longer in a good way, though. If you have, or have ever felt anxiety, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’ve never experienced anxiety, imagine Microsoft 3D Pinball but with your thoughts.

Anxiety is frustrating because you set out for a simple task that you’ve probably done several times – like ordering a coffee, eating a french fry in front of another person, or contributing to any zoom-icebreaker question – and then you become hyper focused on every possible outcome, especially the absurdly improbable ones.

On several occasions, I’ve been asked “how do you have anxiety AND still work as a waitress?” It’s actually quite simple, if you’re coming into a restaurant, theres a pretty high chance that you’re going to ask about the limited selection of food and drinks we have in the building. It’s highly unlikely that someone will lift their eyes from the menu and ask “Is there any way we could just go around the room and have everyone say 1 interesting fact about themselves? Oh, and what’s your house tequila?” Anyway, I love being a waitress because that introduction you do at every table works as an icebreaker, and the conversation after that is smooth sailing.

I’m not saying that I avoid casual conversations with customers, its actually the complete opposite. I love strangers and I’m usually more comfortable with a total stranger than someone I’ve met on several occasions. My love for strangers is also what got me hooked on being a transient backpacker over the past couple of years. If I do something silly or awkward in front of you, I’ll probably never see you again. Knowing that I’ll probably never run into these people again reduces the fear of doing something weird. Also, knowing theres a limited amount of time together means that you’ll never find out if your first impression about me was correct or not. I’ve always had a poor self-image: mainly the issue is that I’ve developed this belief that I’m incredibly toxic. My decision to remove myself and limit contact with those in my life is because I believe that I’m doing them a favor. It wasn’t until recently that I realized this was the root cause of the series of failed relationships – casual, platonic, and romantic – I’ve experienced throughout my life. I understand now that you can’t use strangers as a distraction, and you definitely can’t leave your sadness at a baggage claim. I’m currently working on reframing that narrative, but rewiring every cognitive process you’ve ever known doesn’t happen overnight.

ANYWAY, back to the original story: It wasn’t until this morning in the shower (where all my best ideas come from) where it hit me. My body knew something was wrong so it started firing a bunch of physical responses while my brain was shouting EVERYTHING IS FINE UP HERE, WHY DO YOU ASK? Instead of hearing the news and leaning into the sadness, I put it on a mental to-do list and ran off to work hoping that the emotion would get lost somewhere off Mass Ave. Sometimes, I’m unsettled by my ability to compartmentalize painful and heavy emotions. As a psych major, I’m also unsettled by my need to constantly remind myself that mental health is not a problem for later.

Every time you neglect an emotion, it doesn’t just go behind a door and patiently wait for you to have time. It’s like when a store clearly has an “opens at 8” sign posted on the door, yet anyone who’s ever worked in that store knows that there will always be an elderly couple making sharp eye-contact while they make an attempt to storm the door at 7:50. Your restricted hours of service mean nothing.

Sometimes we can spend years feeling riddled with anxiety because we never consider the hidden weight we carry on a daily basis. Instead of considering that feeling sad over sad news is a totally normal response, I focused all my energy on ignoring every uncomfortable emotion. Once again, my brain was yelling THIS IS FINE when clearly, things were not fine. These neglected emotions can creep up on you in subtle, insidious ways. They could start off as slight anxiety with irregular breathing, chills, and an accelerated heartbeat, or they could be mistaken for a “strong work ethic” or being a perfectionist. It’s better to lean into an uncomfortable feeling and figure out how to address it because minor symptoms are easier to manage. Processing uncomfortable experiences as they come is more reasonable than trying to address a horde of emotional elders with piercing eyes barreling through a door you weren’t ready to open.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tory says:

    A few months ago I had an emotional breakthrough, and like most of these, it wasn’t pretty. I experienced the most difficult year of my life in 2020 and the loneliness I felt was like a sopping blanket draped over me that I had to carry at all times. The worst part was losing my wolf companion of 13 years. She was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a child and she was my best friend. Also, I was incapable of being in a romantic relationship (for many years) because I was damaged, but I falsified that image by being with emotionally unavailable men. I never felt like I was enough before, and seeking men who would never meet me back further deepened this belief.

    I went into therapy and talked this out for months. I knew many parts to this; I knew my affinity for unavailable men, and I had so many other pieces to the puzzle, but there was one small shard of realization I didn’t have. I could feel my lacking of this connective bit, but I didn’t know how to find it.

    I went on a first date with the man who’ll most likely make it my last first date, and the next night—while doing some emotional untangling—the fragment suddenly appeared to me. This was what I needed. So, I wrote my realization down, and did a ritualistic burning of the paper under the full moon; it wasn’t quite enough. I had to process all of it, and it was not pretty. It took place the next day in a blanket cocoon on my couch, and when I emerged I did so as an emotionally exhausted butterfly of understanding. I did not want to sabotage this budding relationship; I wanted to be healthier and more emotionally well-adjusted. It was a struggle for the first month or so. Reminding myself of what I’d learned—and that it was ok to be absolutely terrified and just to lean into the discomfort—even though the anxiety could be all consuming, it was typically relatively short stints. I still have bouts of anxiety, but I talk to my partner about them. We communicate in the healthiest way I have ever experienced.

    What you wrote is relatable, and I just want you to know, with work, there can be a more manageable other side to opening yourself to people.

    If you haven’t watched the TedTalk The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown, I highly recommend it.


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