When Does It Become Too Much?

It’s a Friday, and I’m at work. By 1:30, I am feeling the effects of the week’s responsibilities — and the compromised sleep that has resulted: my head is pounding, the bags under my eyes are an atrocious periwinkle, and I’m checking the time in between yawns. Even so, I love my job. As an intern for a major museum in the city, I have my hands on materials from future exhibitions and am — quite literally — playing a role in what millions of visitors see (and read) every day. I knew when I took on the job that it would require sacrifices, especially in the forms of sleep, socialization, and academic performance. I imagined myself rotating these focuses to strike a balance — having a particularly social week here, a more well-rested week there, and all the while killing it at my job and commuting an hour and a half home each night without any major issues.

But when does it all become too much? This semester, I tend to ask myself this question frequently, worrying that I’m failing to balance all of the moving parts within my life. I’m commuting partially to be more present for my family and to help care for my 91-year-old grandmother. Yet, I’m barely around at home. Running from school to work to extracurriculars has left me too busy and exhausted to spend quality time with the very people I had been trying to prioritize. Similarly, I took on an internship to help accelerate my career; however, I’ve stalled in my GRE studying and job searching in an effort to keep up with the day-to-day.

The question of too much came to a head on this precise Friday, when my high school best friend was traveling back home from Philadelphia for the weekend. I had been excited to see her until the day finally arrived. By the time I had left work on Friday, I was stressing over making the train home, having time to freshen up before we met for dinner, and the lost productivity that would result from a night out. A nice night of catching up with a friend threw a wrench in my carefully constructed, yet infuriatingly tenuous, delineation of time. I quickly realized that I was allowing my stresses to taint the fun and exciting portions of my life, and knew I needed to take a step back.

Taking such a step, however, is much easier said than done. My hands were shaking and sweaty when I walked into my boss’s office to ask him to cut my weekly hours by two. Even after he completely understood my situation and granted my request, I felt the guilt of letting him down. Such guilt was far from new for me (Catholic guilt? Anxiety? Some combination?). At the beginning of the semester, I had dropped one of my fondest campus involvements and the resulting guilt followed me constantly. I knew I had to begin shedding that feeling: the remorse of disappointing people, including myself, which was eating at my already rapidly depleting energy. 

A common misconception is that freeing up one’s mind is as simple as dropping a few responsibilities. I subscribed to that concept for some time, and then grew even more dissatisfied when feelings of guilt and failure refused to go away. I realized that the freedom — in the form of reduced stress — comes from doing the mental work of forgiving oneself. I needed to forgive myself for not always working through lunch; for asking to leave work early if I have an exam the next day; for scoring lower than I wanted on a homework assignment. I have come to understand that it becomes too much when joyful moments no longer have permission to be joyful.

I have not reached any level of enlightenment in terms of balancing it all. I still struggle with happiness and fulfilment when I am constantly going from place to place, activity to activity. I still have to remind myself that time out or time off is natural and healthy. I still need to figure out how long it’s been since I’ve seen a friend, and reach out to people to fix that. Coping with stress and finding a balance has been a learning process, but identifying when it’s become too much is the first step.