You know how in Shakespearean tragedies, the main character has some fatal flaw that generally causes all of their troubles? It’s not necessarily something bad, in fact on the surface it might be a good thing… but like anything else, too much of a good thing when it comes to character traits can spell out nothing but trouble. My Shakespearean flaw is a seemingly incurable aversion to the word “no.” As in, I will find every possible opportunity to say yes and make it work if you ask me to do something. As in, you ask me, 9.8 times out of 10 I will find a way to be your girl. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. I’m dependable, trustworthy, and I get shit done. However, my linguistic blind spot can also lead to massive overexertion, overcommitment, and stress on my part.

I have always struggled with striking a balance between that hardworking, dependable person and sanity. I want to help other people, be there, and “save the day” whenever I can… but the issue is that I try and do that even when I really, probably can’t. So, I overcommit. My planner gets filled with things that have accrued so slowly and silently that I don’t even realize how loud they are until they’re all screaming at me from one page. It never seems like that big of a deal to commit an extra hour here or there in between classes until I realize that I’m sacrificing things like lunchtime, bathroom time, or breathing time.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know how to think about myself without assuming it’s selfish or self-important. I am constantly trying to answer the question of how much is too much and what I could delegate or pass on to have some precious minutes with Tigger, Boyfriend, Friends, or Netflix (if I’m lucky, all of the above simultaneously). It’s hard for me to prioritize the extras, because each request feels equally important, especially compared to something as “trivial” as watching Netflix or getting tea with Boyfriend. I have this little inner voice that says, “Wow, Ms. Self-Important. Is Netflix really more important than heading another committee. Really?” So I commit. Netflix can’t be that important, can it?

Plot twist: Netflix is that important. I need down time to be able to function, and no, passing out on my computer after designing for four hours does not count as free time. Nor does scanning Pinterest while shoveling a meal in my face, because I’m not really enjoying either– I’m distracting myself from the reality that I’m getting too exhausted to function. No free time means no time to recharge and no time to shut my brain off so it’s not running on all cylinders. What being is actually able to function, full capacity, all the time? The answer is none, and I’m not exactly sure what it is about my brain that expects me to be able to. It’s not because I think I’m “above” binge-watching Gilmore Girls, I think it’s because I don’t believe I deserve the reward of free time as much as everyone else.

I come from a family of selfless people. I grew up in an environment of hard work and, at times, intensity. It has taught me to put my all into everything I do, and has taught me the value in thinking of others and getting things done. Having strong role models who work hard has shown me the power of my best, and to never settle for anything less than that. However, I sometimes wonder if that same environment that created a woman so eager to succeed also created an “evil twin” whose vision of relaxation is severely clouded. Kicking up my feet and trying to turn things off to just exist for a while has often been a source of intense guilt, because there always seems to be something in need of completion… wouldn’t my time be much better served reorganizing my closet or class notebooks rather than on the couch?

Often, I notice the issue as it begins to happen– I notice this bizarre, nagging guilt in the back of my mind, but I can’t quite make the mental connection with what it is that should be causing that source of guilt. It is a long and ongoing process to unlearn my association between guilt and decompression, especially as opportunities for overcommitment pop up amid that mental reconfiguration. It’s hard to unlearn something when you are constantly relearning the bad habits you already have in place.

Overcommitment makes me unhappy. Having too many entries in my planner makes me feel like a metamorphic rock, trapped under the surface getting heated and pressurized until I don’t even recognize what the hell I am. Being overcommitted makes me a hot mess. I don’t even notice I’m headed in that direction until I’m miles under melted rock being pressed on all sides by the little “nos” I couldn’t say in the moment. I want to be everything I can for everyone else, so much so that I don’t even realize there’s no possible way that I can live up to that. I forget that other people exist and that delegation is a thing, because in my mind I’ll just be a disappointment if I can’t take on that one more thing.

I live in near-constant fear of disappointing the people in my life. It feels as if I have created this reputation of hard work and creativity, so there’s an expectation that I can just figure it out if no one else can. Sometimes (most of the time), I forget that I’m a human being who’s capable of missteps and not capable of carrying the weight of everyone’s expectations on her shoulders. I forget that I’m a person who has needs just as much as the people making demands of me, and that sometimes those needs are laying on the couch or having a full hour for lunch to be able to sit down and enjoy what I’m eating.

So where do I go from here? How do I reconcile my human needs with my desire to help and work hard? I don’t think the two have to be mutually exclusive, it’s just a tricky task to find that balance. For better or worse, I’m stuck with myself my whole life, and I need to be nice to her at least every now and then or risk some kind of weird, existential coup. There needs to be a way to fit myself onto that to do list of commitments, and there has to be a way to learn “no” without it being a devastating, disappointing act every time I need to say it. There has to be a way to truly, truly relax free of an undercurrent of confusing guilt.

Boyfriend has the privilege of being an objective observer (well, maybe not “privilege.” Maybe “distinguished role”) whenever I go into hot mess mode. Where many loved ones voice frustration at the destruction my blind spot for “no” wreaks, or express vibrant anger at the people who take advantage of that, or stop me mid-sentence and make me feel like what I’m saying isn’t worth hearing because they have bigger and better matters to discuss, he listens.

He listens while I unload and freak out and spell out to-do list entries until I’ve gone from A to J without even remembering the letters in between. He listens, even after I bury my face in the pillows as if that will somehow shield me from the molten pit I’ve dug for myself. And then, after I’ve spoken every word I’ve bitten back and obsessed over whether or not my stress and frustration makes me a bad person or a selfish person or a weak person, he gives me a hug and says: “Katlyn, you are so nice. You are a good person. But you need to do what’s best for you first, otherwise you aren’t any use to anyone.”

Could it really be that simple?

In my defense, Boyfriend is outside the situation and not privy to my intense mental debates. But nonetheless, he has a point (as he normally does). I have to be somewhere on that to-do list because if “me” isn’t taken care of, I can’t be that hardworking, dependable “me” for everyone else. Besides, it’s exhausting to be cranky and overcommitted. It’s exhausting to feel as if your life is reduced to so many appointments and obligations in a planner, because that does not a human being make. The empty spaces in between it all are just as important to the organic creation of a self as the things that keep us active and stimulated. I am still learning to recognize the molten pit before I slip into metamorphic hot mess mode, but I’m getting there– with a little help of a wise vet med student, chocolate lava cupcakes (featuring sprinkles and fresh fruit), and support in as many directions as those unsaid “nos” try to compress.

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