At the beginning of university, I struggled with stress management. My particular problem were presentations and essays. I could fret and worry about them weeks, months in advance.
And then magic happened and I learnt to “think about it tomorrow”. While I so rarely make leaps in self-development, that was the start of my present life philosophy. That I consider to be the most useful skill I’ve acquired during university and during adult life in general.
At first, I used to think about things tomorrow when dealing with school work. Everything came to be categorized into two groups: the immediately relevant and the not. All things in the ‘not presently relevant’ category I would deal with when I came to them, a day or two before the presentation or essay. While at first a conscious stress-management technique, it later became automatic. Rather than worry myself sick over the upcoming exam session or thesis defence, I managed to switch off, enjoy carefree walks and film evenings and have an altogether better time of it.
In time, the same tendency to categorize crept into other areas of life. I’m overly sensitive, so there is only so much I can take into heart. I had to learn to control at least to some extent what I care about. Psychologist might call it the repressive coping style. They say it is bad for you, apparently, but I’ve only found it to be good, so perhaps my strategy is not THAT repressive? I’ve never believed in suppressing one’s emotions. I’m the sort of person who advocates letting yourself hit the bottom because only then can a full recovery follow. So, when down in the dumps, I cry in my room and don’t repress a thing. When in the heights of happiness, I dance and giggle and don’t repress a thing either.
What I do believe in controlling, however, is the things I have an emotional reaction to. If I allowed myself to take everything to heart, life would be too emotionally overwhelming. I’ve learnt to stay calm when someone pushes past me in a queue, cheats me out of a small sum of money, snaps the very thing I want from in front of my eyes, listens to music on full volume upstairs, gives me a bad grade unjustly, and other trivialities. I always ask myself in situations like that whether it would matter on my death bed. If it does not, it’s not worthy of a strong response. Rather, a few deep breaths and maybe a curse, and life goes on.
I also do not read or watch the news very often. Major news do reach me, but I try to avoid constant exposure and commitment to following the madness that goes on in the world. I admit I felt or feel? ambivalent about that. Am I being cowardly? Hiding my head in the sand? Perhaps. Some crime reports can be very detailed and it is hard to read without having your imagination spoilt by yet another atrocity that cannot be unseen. Also, what good would MY knowledge of the worst of humanity do? I’m not in a position to help or influence. It amuses me sometimes how people are opining away on TV about what ought to be done to fight crimes against humanity or do for the poor, but then go home, drink tea and have a cuddle with their spouse. Nothing but waffling. All talk and zero action. From times immemorial, the doers and talkers are often different people.
But, to return to categorisation, to what matters and what does not. The death bed question is what I keep returning to. If I lose something that seems important, if I get hurt or angry, I always ask myself if it would matter on my death bed. If it would not, then I try to calm myself, take a few deep breaths and let it go.
I lost my job? Will it matter on my death bed? Not unless it was my dream job. If it weren’t, there will be others. There always are. Particularly in my field.
I have even learnt to categorise illnesses and dangerous situations. I ask myself: is it deadly? Will it change my quality of life? If not, then I’ll suffer through it or try to ignore it if it is chronic and nothing can be done but live with it.
Human relationships are a little trickier, but to protect myself from overdoing on the caring front, I also tend to categorize people into two basic groups: friendship material and superficial social butterflies. The former I invest myself in emotionally. Social butterflies are the kind of charming people that you can have a nice chat with once in a while but who are incapable of caring about you deeply. They have just too many other friends and acquaintances, and a different sort of personality altogether. But I want some sort of devotion, even from friends. I want to matter. If I feel I don’t matter, my heart stays locked in self-defence.
Overall, this ability to categorize may seem suspect to some, but it has helped me immensely in limiting what I get worried, hurt, angry or sad about. Very often, I can’t avoid the hurt, worry or sorrow, but thinking like this – that it doesn’t matter in the end – it helps me overcome life’s little annoyances and disappointments much faster and relatively unscathed. So there is more room for my heart to be scathed by the big things. Haha.