For a peer advisor for first-year students whose favorite bite-sized piece of advice is “prioritize self-care”, one would think that I’m excellent at practicing what I preach.
However, it’s my junior year of college and I’m still learning how to take time for myself, especially at a place like Harvard where, pandemic or no pandemic, everyone is running a mile a minute, working on a thousand different projects and opportunities.
One of the biggest misconceptions of Harvard is that it fosters an incredibly competitive environment. I can say with complete confidence that the opposite is true; I’ve met my closest friends and biggest cheerleaders in both classes and extracurriculars at Harvard. The passion every student wields, especially in my communities within the arts and humanities, translates into support rather than rivalry. When one person succeeds, we celebrate their success with them like it's our own, because we know that person would do the same for us.
With a community that is so kind, I often wonder why I feel so much pressure to be productive every waking hour of the day. Why do I feel the need to say yes to every single experience, to sacrifice time with loved ones to work on yet another project time and time again? The pressure is wholly internal: I feel so genuinely lucky to have the experience of a Harvard education, and I don’t want to waste a single second of it. Harvard is full of so many opportunities, and I have had some life-changing experiences during my time here. However, at an institution where there is so much going on, it is truly impossible to take advantage of every single happening at Harvard. Every time I have to say no to an author talk or a class offering, I always stop and play a game of “what if?”. If I had gone to this networking session, would I have a junior internship finalized already? If I had auditioned for this particular singing group, could I have traveled the world before it shut down? If I had taken this freshman seminar, would I be a statistics concentrator now? As someone who is a very happy English and Theater, Dance, & Media concentrator, I am fairly certain that no class could make me a mathematician, but we can pretend for the sake of debate.
Wondering all the ways my life could be different based on the thousands of choices I’ve made to this point can be fun, but not when focusing on the past inhibits me from moving forward. As someone who has burned out several times in her college career, I’ve learned that I have to start taking the advice I give my first-year advisees. It is impossible for me to say yes to every single thing, and it’s wholly unproductive to feel guilty over the things I have to say no to. Saying yes to some things does inherently mean saying no to others, and that’s okay. I have to prioritize what gives me joy and purpose, and learn how to back away from activities that don’t leave me fulfilled. I still want to make the most of my time at Harvard, but I am proud to say that I care about everything I put my time and effort into. My health is as important as my joy, and my well-being will never be less important than a grade. Most importantly, I’m learning to give myself a break from time to time while trying to remember that a break that I spend obsessing over what work I could be doing instead is no break at all.
These past few months, I’ve been making an active effort to do more self-care. Not everything I give my time to can be put on a resume or talked about in an interview, and I am fully content with that. In the past year, I’ve read more books for fun than I have since eleventh grade. I’ve tried new recipes as I bake and cook meals for my friends. I’ve also started to paint again—something I had not done since high school when I realized that art wasn’t going to be my career path. I even created a painting for a virtual concert put on by my choir (which was enthrallingly terrifying, considering I had barely drawn a thing or shared my art with people for two years). It ended up being one of my most fulfilling experiences of the semester when my choir friends sent lovely messages about the piece, and the composer of the music I had painted the artwork for even asked for a print!
At a place like Harvard with a world of opportunities, it’s much too easy to fall into the mindset of overexerting oneself now to hopefully “earn” a break at some distant, far off point in the future. There is no shame in letting yourself rest, in letting yourself have fun, and in letting yourself enjoy moments of wonder and spontaneity without worrying about what comes next.