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This Year, I’m Thankful for Space

I crave social attention. Last year, my social life was unbelievable. Between my job as a bartender and position as a University campus tour guide, I interacted with hundreds of people on any given week. I had millions of mini conversations and shared thousands of laughs. Each day, I moved building to building, friend’s dorm room to friend’s dorm room, taking advantage of time in between classes. The only space I ever got was when I hopped on the bus home each night, dragged myself through my front door, and collapsed on my bed. Falling into a deep sleep, my mind drifted from the chaos that consumed every waking hour.

The only space I ever got was in my dreams. And that wasn’t enough.

[bf_image id="q7jzxl-5b99lk-1rsvv9"] Don’t get me wrong, I still crave social interaction. I appreciate every conversation I have nowadays. I recall the spontaneous lunch meet ups and group study dates that I took for granted before the pandemic tore apart my social life. I love the late-night chats with my roommates and look forward to catching up with my friends over FaceTime.

Even so, I am grateful for the space that this pandemic has awarded. A little space can go a long way. 

I’m not good at long-distance relationships. Ask any of my friends; I’m the last to reach out for a FaceTime call and the first to say we should meet up in person. And yet, this summer I made more calls than ever before: FaceTime, phone calls, Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Google Teams, Snapchat, you name it. If I can improve my long-distance relationship skills, anyone can. And so, with all of the time and energy I put into maintaining my social circle, I decided to take a step back and see who would match my efforts. I wasn’t pleased with the results. 

Let’s talk social distancing. No, not standing six feet (or more) apart from other people and wearing masks (although you should do both of those things too!). I mean distancing yourself from your social group. I know some of my friends are just like me – they’ll wait until things are back to normal and then we’ll hang out as if nothing ever happened. Even so, I appreciate the people who have made an effort, and I make a mental note each time someone shoots me a text or calls me spontaneously. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last. And I know that when someone reaches out, it’s because they’ve been thinking about me and want to let me know. That stuff matters: with our current situation, you have to hold on to the little things. And now, I make an effort with those who reciprocate. If I have been the one to initiate phone call after phone call, I wait a few weeks and see if that same friend reaches out to me. 

Relationships work two ways. If you feel like you’re talking to a brick wall, take a step back, get some perspective, and reapproach the relationship after some time has passed. In the meantime, look inwards. 

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The past nine months have truly been a period of growth and self-development. I am an imperfect person. Trust me, I’m the first to point out my own flaws. I’m the first to reveal my insecurities and anxieties. I'll admit, I'm loud, overly enthusiastic, and stress over the most insignificant things. This year, I've been worried that I'm not good enough - that I won't be able to succeed on my current career path. Space has helped me reflect on the ways I can improve as a person. Taking a step back from other commitments has allowed me to commit to myself. I’ve committed to change, to development. I’ve committed to being a better person. 

For instance, something I’ve learned during this time of taking space is that I rely on others to feel good about myself. My job as a bartender is a great way to fish for compliments. You get all dressed up – hair, makeup, clothes – and put yourself in an environment where liquor makes people’s tongues run fast and free. You’d be surprised how much a job like that can boost your confidence. But at the end of the night, what happens? My customers go off to more parties and people. And I go home, deflated and alone.

I'm not working as a bartender this year. I'm choosing to prioritize my health, along with the health of my family and roommates. And while financial strains are a source of my anxiety, I'm grateful for the opportunity to disconnect from my job in the party scene. This year, I'm thankful for space - space from those with conflicting priorities, space from things that add to my anxiety. I need to learn to be happy and secure without other people supplementing my ego. Insecurity plays a role in my anxiety. It affects the way I see myself and the way I perceive others. My insecurity took a huge dip at the beginning of the pandemic. Slowly, I’ve been able to work my way up to a stronger and more secure woman.

Taking space means broadening your focus. In the craziness of college, it's so easy to get caught up on your day-to-day schedule, only looking a few days ahead. You never shifted your focus to examine the bigger picture. Even when you're walking to class, students have headphones in and their heads down. I'm going to give you a piece of advice that can instantly make you feel more connected to the world: look up. Take out your headphones and look around. What's going on around you? Who is walking next to you? What do the buildings look like? 

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Last year, I didn't take time for myself. I rushed from class to studying to work to studying to class, hardly even sleeping and eating. Now, I see that I need to prioritize my mental health. I’ve taken time for things that make me happy – working out, cooking, treating myself to a Java House coffee. Sometimes we get so busy worrying about what others think that we don’t even bother to stop and worry about what we think or what we want. We rely on others to tell us how to feel, how to act. Just remember that you are the important one. It’s your life – live it well. 

With the pandemic, people are afraid to disconnect. They don’t want to lose their only outlets to other people. I’m not asking you to cut yourself off from the rest of the world. You don’t have to stop talking to your friends or delete all of social media to gain some perspective. I’m just suggesting you take a step back. Stop trying so hard to be social. Remember that if people truly care about you, they aren’t going to forget about you if you go a day or two without texting them. They aren’t going to hate you if you put your mental health first. And if they do, screw them. If they don’t care about you now, when the world is falling apart, they aren’t worth your time of day. 

Take a breath.

Take some space.

Take a step back to move forward. 

And let me know what you find out.

Emily is a senior at the University of Iowa, majoring in journalism & mass communication and pursuing a certificate in sustainability. After graduation, she hopes to work as a science journalist for a digital news outlet, working to engage and inform audiences on relevant scientific topics. She interned at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the Office of Communications during the summers of 2020 and 2021. In the future, Emily strives to improve scientific awareness, and show audiences how science intersects with culture and human behavior.
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