The Guilt of Having an Uneventful Summer

The first week of classes, in the midst of greeting friends and classmates and meeting new peers, the go-to icebreaker is always, “So, what did you do this summer?” The people around me pounce on the question: “I did a study abroad! It was the best experience of my life.” “I had a really cool paid internship!” “I read so many books, and now I need to make a new list of things to read!” “I went to the beach for two weeks with my friends!”

A pit forms in my stomach, and when the expectant silence falls on me to answer, I flounder. What did I do? My mind scrolls through the list of things I had meant to accomplish: the books I meant to read, the stories I meant to write, the craft projects I had meant to complete. I force myself to answer. “Oh, you know. I just hung out at home … got through some of my Netflix watch list … worked a few hours at a retail job … that’s about it.” My answer is dull, but satisfactory, and the conversation turns back to the adventures and progress of everyone else.

This is the same situation that happens during every academic break. Leading up to the break, I make a list of things I want to do but I don’t have time for during the semester, things like little crafts or reading books that have been sitting on my shelf for years or actually starting an exercise regimen. The start to the break is always drenched in sticky-sweet optimism: I’m excited to check off items on my to-do list, and yet I’m in no rush to actually complete them. There’s plenty of time, I tell myself. No need to rush. I can spend a couple days doing nothing in order to recharge myself. Those couple of days turn into several … and then a lot … and then before I know it I’m panicking because the end of my vacation is drawing near and there’s no longer any time to check off any boxes. And so my list is put away until the next break when it will reemerge, grow longer, and then be pushed aside once more.

It's a cycle, a pattern, a habit, and it's what makes every vacation an un-vacation: the whole time I’m supposed to be relaxing, I’m procrastinating, and therefore I’m stressing about the things I haven’t done yet. When I return from the break, I never feel like I actually had a break because of the self-inflicted stress and guilt. Then, listening to the accomplishments of my friends and peers doubles my shame. So, why don’t I do anything? Why am I so pressured to be productive to the point of being unproductive? Maybe it’s because on social media we see friends and family doing things and we feel left out if we also don’t post about our adventures. Maybe it’s because college is a unique world in which identity is based on academics and achievements: what clubs you’re in, what work you do for your major, how you compare to your classmates.

This last point is what I think affects me the most – the fear of falling behind the people around me in terms of achievements, the fear of missing opportunities and not working hard enough to create a better future for myself. After reflecting on my after-summer guilt, I came to a realization: my constant worrying about who I could have been by now and what I could have done by now is preventing me from focusing on acting on who I want to become. Yeah, deep, I know. A little bit scary, too. I procrastinate because I’m frozen by the guilt of the past, by the twisting list of should-haves and could-haves. Each unchecked box is like another link to a chain shackled to my ankle — each new link that is added makes it harder to move forward, to act, to do, and so every time the weight of the chain prevents me from acting, yet another link is added to the exponentially growing chain. There has to be a way to break off the shackle, to toss the chain behind me and leave it there, my ankle sore from dragging it around. Maybe the answer is to change my perspective. Not by filling in the unchecked box, but by replacing it with a bullet point: solid, concrete, attainable. Instead of writing a list of things to do, I’m going to write a list of reminders to myself:

  • Stop worrying about what you haven’t done and put that energy into what you want to do.
  • Instead of thinking in terms of “I meant to,” start thinking in terms of “I will.”
  • Everyone is in at different place in their paths, and personal achievement isn’t a competition. Just because someone has done more than you doesn’t mean you have to rush to catch up.
  • Give yourself grace instead of guilt.
  • Stop thinking in terms of who you could have been, and focus more on who you are now. You are no worse for being where you are now — you are just here, and here is a pretty good place to be. 

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