knowing yourself

Published on April 7, 2020

Knowing about yourself and how you work pays enormous dividends.

These last few weeks have been tumultuous, for lack of a better word. On the same day, I have felt both sad and happy, relieved and stressed, concerned and hopeful about the future. I have allowed myself to transition between these emotions so often because of how quickly circumstances are changing. There is no playbook to guide how I should react.

This has made it difficult for me to figure out what I should do to keep myself busy, and to stay productive during these times. When you are worried about the food supply or whether your government is going to ban all outdoor exercise, the last thing that is likely to be on your mind is building new habits and setting personal goals.

I acknowledge that times are difficult, and that there is a lot of uncertainty about what is going on. I have never felt this way before, and unlike people who are old enough to accurately remember the financial crisis, 9/11, and other historical events, I have very few life experiences with which I can compare what is going on.

So, over the last few weeks, I have found myself feeling more down than normal, which led me to an important realization: one of the best things I can do with my time right now is to get to know myself a little better.

There have been a few themes that have emerged on the days where I do not feel like myself. The first theme has been that, on days where I feel down, I am thinking more about distractions like television, chocolate, or something else, rather than how I can improve.

I am thinking about these things because my mind is looking for something -- anything -- to divert attention from what is going on, which encourages me to hide my true feelings. Because I am thinking about distractions, focusing on other activities is harder, which includes all the fun work that I like to do.

I also find that I am sleepier on days where I am more stressed. Even before I acknowledge that I am stressed, I will start to feel more tired than usual. I may close my eyes for a few seconds in the middle of a task, seeking some temporary relief from the stress that is building. Similarly, on these days I find that I am more likely to be snappy or otherwise on-edge, to an extent that I find difficult to control.

Writing about these experiences may seem rather depressing, but I feel as though it is an important part of getting to know myself better. Through these times, I have been able to identify the key themes that emerge when I am feeling down, which makes it easier for me to spot when I am about to spiral.

If I find myself thinking more about distractions than usual, I now know that it may be time for me to do a mental check-in. For instance, if I am thinking about video games and television -- which are both activities in which I do not often indulge -- then I know that something is up. Or if I feel more sleepy than usual without an obvious reason why, I know it may be time to conduct a personal inventory.

Now that I know a few of my cues, I can start to take action at an earlier stage and work toward getting me out of my downward spiral.

Let me use an example to show how this has played out. On Sunday, I found that throughout the day I was more tired than usual. I had a good night of sleep, but I was still tired. I was also irritable, and was seeking distractions all day from what was going on. Then, later in the day, I realized that I was starting to spiral down.

There was a moment where I entered a period of intense discomfort, but it was shorter than previous occasions where I had felt that way. This was because I was able to quickly identify the emotions I was feeling, which encouraged me to start thinking about actions.

On Sunday, I resolved to start thinking about actionable ways in which I can improve the situation I find myself in. This involved conducting a more detailed personal inventory and writing out a list of the things that worry me, and what I can do to control those worries (if there is anything I can do at all). After writing this list, I started to find that I was more focused on things that were in my control, and I felt better.

The main point I have learned throughout all of this is that, when times get tough, I love to stay busy. I love to have many different tasks on my to-do list, even if those tasks end up being delayed for another day. I love to have something that is not related to my worries to work on.

Being able to wake up to a full to-do list makes me feel good. It makes me feel as though there are clear ways in which I can have an impact on the world, and as I go through my day I am able to measure my progress against the tasks I have assigned.

In addition, focusing on what I can control has been useful to think about. It’s easy to let yourself worry about everything, including about things that are not in your control.

For instance, I have spent a lot of time worrying about the food supply, but what do my worries lead to? Does worrying about the food supply every day really help me? Or is it a hindrance to my long-term progress? Instead of worrying about food, I can make sure that I have enough in my house to last me and my family, and then I can go and focus on something more productive.

Everyone will have their own mechanisms for coping during this crisis, but all of them are built up from one foundation: knowing who you are and how you work. For me, I now know that I need to stay busy, and focus on the things that I can control. I also know the triggers that signal I am about to spiral.

There’s still a lot for me to learn about who I am as a person, but what I have discovered over the last few days have been immensely helpful. Being able to spot when I am feeling down before my emotions get the best of me has helped me stay on track over the last few days, and I hope to retain this focus over the coming weeks. After all, we’re all in this for the long-run, and the best thing I can do is follow government advice and to keep going.

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