Not really sure how to ask this but…how does one stay positive when dealing with an incredibly stressful potentially life-altering situation?
I have been accepted to study Fashion History & Theory at an incredibly prestigious Fashion & Art institution in London and I’m obviously very VERY excited about it. Without going into too much detail I feel like this is exactly the right thing for me to be doing, my “path” if you will. Gaining acceptance was super duper hard and strenuous and took a lot out of me emotionally but I was happy with my application/student statement because I really felt like I was operating from a place of pure honesty and truth and the school was like, YES COME STUDY HERE. I’ve had to jump quite a few hurdles in the last few months to make it all happen (getting my GED, working two jobs to save money etc) and now I’m just waiting to get my Visa and student loans and I guess that is the problem.
My Visa application was rejected because I haven’t been approved for student loans yet and the student loan people are taking forever and I am trying very hard not to freak the fuck out. This whole process (deciding to go back to school) has been about 6 years in the making and as I said, I feel a specific deep connection and draw to this field of study (have been fascinated with fashion and clothing ever since I was a child. Like, 6 years old and shit) and I have put an incredible amount of weight on this thing happening and if it doesn’t…I just don’t know.
So how do I not put this spazzy fucked up ugly negative energy out into the world? How do I chillax? How do I remain positive and hopefully bring some positivity into my life?
Adding to my stress is the fact that I have this gross tendency to self sabotage myself and feel like I’m not worthy or entitled to do what I want. I had a really hard time even being happy when I was accepted because I was just like, ‘well, everyone there is smarter than you and you’ll feel stupid because you are stupid etc etc etc” which I feel is maybe not helping me on the whole positivity front. And also not helping me on the whole getting shit done front.
In the past year I have not been managing the stress that well and without delving too much into it let’s just say things got a bit suicide-y.
I actually don’t even understand what I’m asking anymore.
I hope you do
Ah, global bureaucracy. But no, first of all, let me say what we are all thinking, which is: CONGRATULATIONS. This is totally amazing news. You have done such a good job and worked so hard, and you’ve conquered this huge goal! One thing I’ve noticed and have been sad about is how hard it is to fully appreciate a goal once it’s been reached. I remember as a kid thinking “man, if I could just put out an album of my own music, I’d never be sad again,” or like more recently, fantasizing so intensely about how amazing my life would be once I had a PhD, but then when these things finally are achieved it is like “oh yeah duh, it’s so easy, a fetal donkey could do it.” We always kind of forget the emotions that were once attached to a thing we worked toward/experienced, because I guess a thing in reality is always going to be different and by definition more normal-seeming than that same thing in our fantasy future-projections. But seriously, take a second to just feel awesome about this fantasy-thing you have made a reality-thing!
There are lots of cards in the tarot deck that are all about trying to take a break from the strife of life and just look gently and peacefully for a second at what you have built. All of the nines (except the nine of swords, that fickle bitch), for example, are about yes, acknowledging that stuff is still hard, that your life is going to continue to contain obstacles, but also hey–look at all you’ve done and accomplished! Look how far you’ve come! The tarot is about cycles, because life is about cycles. When a new cycle is beginning, it means that an old one is ending. This moment of transition between cycles can be really unsettling/scary, which is why it’s so vitally important to take that moment of quiet meditation to look at how far you’ve come. Remember when you were first applying to this institute, how obnoxious and complex the application process was, how insurmountable it all seemed? But then, you surmounted it. You did all the steps. You got a goddamn GED! You did so many things and accomplished them in order to attain this huge goal! Now you’re reaching a new obstacle (getting into the country where the already-attained goal resides) but you should still appreciate that you fucking nailed the old one!
There will never not be an obstacle.
Obstacles are part of life. People who don’t have them are boring and/or dead. There will always be struggle and confusion. Even when you’re perfectly content, there are obstacles, there are goals, there are things to figure out and overcome. This is what makes life awesome! Freud has that whole bit about how we can’t really appreciate joy unless we’ve also felt sorrow, and this is why Jesus is creepy (long story short).
But anyway, this is I suppose the bigger picture of your question—how do you deal with that fact? How do you maintain equilibrium when things get stressful?
I have my own methods; everyone’s are probably different. Mine obviously involve using tarot cards as a sort of meditation practice. But I also do yoga, write in my journal, deliver monologues to my friends, take my dog for long walks during which I barely have a thought in my head, eat enormous meals and watch Arrested Development, etc.
I personally think that dealing with stress is about being mindful, and keeping the big picture always in front of you. In the big picture, this visa situation is pretty small potatoes. I don’t even mean in the big picture of the universe! I mean even just in the big picture of Your Entire Life. Honestly, it’s going to work out–schools deal with this kind of thing literally every day, it’s not an unusual problem. University bureaucracies are legendarily loathsome and impossible to navigate, but eventually your loans will clear and your visa will be approved. All you can do is stay on top of it; maintain contact with a point person in your department who understands your situation; maintain contact with some sort of point person at the administrative department that handles international students and has definitely handled this situation for like 7,000 people before you; keep making those phone calls to the student loan people checking on their timeline and all that. It’s totally stressful, and annoying, and tedious, and even scary–don’t get me wrong!–but at the same time, this is not a life-or-death situation. This is not, like, “international terrorists have kidnapped my husband and are going to kill him within 24 hours if I don’t get 10 million dollars and an army helicopter” or whatever. Right? You don’t need Liam Neeson to solve this problem for you (although, don’t we all wish!). This is a big deal, and you definitely have your work cut out for you, but IT IS GOING TO BE OKAY. Honestly, you’ve done the hard part–applying and getting accepted!–this is all just bullshit on top. I bet there are like 50 other incoming students in your exact situation right now. And you’re all going to be okay!
When I have something akin to this in my life–something that feels overwhelming and like it’s in danger of swamping my well-being–I try to really sit down and take a deep breath and focus on the realities at hand, seeing them for what they are, seeing each individual step in the process, and trying to truly accept which things I have control over and which things I don’t. Making the phone calls, keeping in touch with a person at the school, maintaining rigorously clear and careful files and paperwork, maintaining your own mental well-being: these are things you control. Control them! It will make you feel better. But the timeline for student loan approval, the rules regarding student visas, the passage of time itself: these are things you can not possibly control. So let them go.
Letting go is hard. I will pass on this aphorism I read somewhere that is really so annoyingly true: “Worrying does not rob tomorrow of its sorrows, it only robs today of its joys.”
Which speaks to the other thing that’s important at trying times, which is focusing on the positives. If you know me at all, you know that the relentless hectoring of the “positive thinking police” in our country infuriates me and that I am wholly of one mind with Barbara Ehrenreich, who believes it is “destroying America.” HOWEVER, a little positive thinking, realistically applied, is a very important thing. Life isn’t all positive, but it also isn’t all negative.
What is good in your life? Special friendships, a pet, a book you love, a goal recently accomplished, something that made you laugh super hard, going on a hike/run/swim/whatever, the ocean, the beach, cooking something fancy, fancy cappuccino, the new Wes Anderson movie, something you’re looking forward to–a party, a hangout, a meal, any kind of lovely experience, a funny dog you saw at the park. There is no way you don’t have stuff like this in your life! Think about that stuff. Write that stuff down in a fancy new notebook you splurge on.
Also, maybe fantasize about London? Unless that stresses you out too much. But man, I love projecting my imagination PAST the stressful thing and into the future when the stressful thing is over. Imagine when you are just living in London, going to school, living the life of your dreams! Rainy ol’ England, eating your gross fish n’ chips, riding the tube, puzzling over the keep left signs, literally never figuring out how to order coffee! Going deep with your work. Learning new stuff. Living in a whole new place; becoming a new phase of You. That’s all awesome stuff, and it’s definitely going to happen, once this visa bullshit is over.
Self-sabotage is such a common plight. Why do we do it? I think a lot of self-sabotage stems from the fear of failure. It’s like, you might fail at something, and that would be so awful, that you almost don’t want to allow yourself to think anything good might ever happen, because you might jinx it. Or something. Fear of failure holds back so many people from becoming fully self actualized. The thing about failure is: Well yeah, you’re going to fail sometimes. That’s life! You’re also going to die someday. Also terrible: also just life! Failing doesn’t mean anything. Or, it doesn’t necessarily mean that much. I’ve failed lots of times. Big ones, too! I had a job interview at one of the best jobs posted in my field last year, and I blew it so cataclysmically that I don’t even want to tell you the things the chair said in our post-interview phone conversation–and she was trying to be nice! It was a failure of epic, unmitigated proportions, just a completely unsalvageable, no-two-ways-about-it failure. And yeah, I cried for like an hour and was so ashamed I wanted to barf. But then, you know, I went out for pizza and got on with my life. And my next interview was way better. Nobody murdered me; nobody kidnapped my husband; it was embarrassing and truly horrible and I didn’t get something I really wanted, but, you know, here I still am. Here we all still are. You should read the stuff Stephen King has written about all the rejection notices he got from various editors and magazines. For, like, YEARS. “Dear shithead, I am dumber for having read this piece of crap,” stuff like that. And he’s back in his emo laundry room, living off his wife’s day job, drinking too much, and being all, “boo hoo, nobody likes my story about the haunted car!!” But he kept on plugging and now look at him–he’s, like, singlehandedly financing the economy of an entire town in Maine. He just bought the fire department a new jaws of life! He didn’t let fear of failure keep him from trying–he didn’t even let actual failure keep him from trying.
Yes I did just hold Stephen King up as a moral mindset guru. Why not? Dude seems like a nice guy.
A lot of failures end up being blessings. We can only create a coherent, linear narrative of our life in retrospect. At the time, all failures feel like The End, but then after awhile a lot of them, in retrospect, seem awesome. You’re so glad that relationship didn’t work out; you’re so glad you got fired because that was what finally spurred you to start your new business or whatever; you’re so glad you didn’t get into UC Berkeley because your second choice school was USC and when you moved to Los Angeles you fell in love with Johnny Depp and he whisked you away to a life of luxury and pleasure; etc. etc. To quote Garth Brooks: “Sometimes I thank god for un-answered prayers.” Heavy! Good old Garth. Like, that terrible interview I failed at–who knows? Maybe when I look back on my life I’ll be like “there was the moment where it all went wrong.” But it is just as likely if not more likely that I will look back and be like “oh thank god I didn’t get that job, because it meant that [whatever other thing] happened instead!”
The point is, dreading failure is just…I don’t know. You have to be willing to fail sometimes, or else you’ll never take any risks at all. Clearly you know this–you’ve just done all this insane shit in order to get into this school of your dreams! Clearly you know you have to take risks in life. Clearly a part of you does not actually fear failure; be stoked on that part of yourself. That part of yourself is the realistic part that’s going to get shit done in your life.
The other thing about self-sabotage is: Who cares? What are you proving, by sabotaging yourself? Is it really that important to you to make sure you don’t accidentally think highly of yourself? BIG DEAL! Nobody cares if you think highly of yourself or not! Everyone else is on their own weird journey–whether or not you believe you deserve success makes no difference to anyone else. And if that’s true, then why does it matter to you, to hold onto these self-destructive ways of thinking? Why is that so important to you? So you might as well just believe you are doing fine, believe you can be happy, just do it, just dig into the things that make you happy. My dad always says “deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it,” and he’s right. Nobody deserves anything–good or bad–except maybe Hitler or Dick Cheney or something. Are you Dick Cheney? No you’re not. We’re all just alive, trying to do our best to get through it unscathed. There is no point in dissing yourself or being like “I don’t DESERVE to go to fashion school” or whatever. What does that even mean? Who DOES deserve it, if you don’t, and why do they? I want you to know that I understand what you are describing–it’s called “fraud syndrome,” in academia, and everyone has it including me–but nonetheless I think you need to really put a moratorium on it, because it serves no one and is pointless. Just put a damper on it, when you feel it bubbling up in your brain. Just say “NOPE, I’m not going down that route right now,” and then turn your attention to something else. Just LIBERATE YOURSELF from the need to tear yourself down. Do this by reminding yourself that it makes no difference–you’re not proving anything to anybody, you’re not being noble or modest, by tearing yourself down or by resisting success or by refusing to feel good about your accomplishments. Free your mind!
Also, re: suicide, which is very serious…I hope you are no longer feeling this way, and that if you are, you will seek help more qualified than me. I mean, talk about serving no one: suicide is the worst! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some Pollyanna asshole–I think there are all kinds of good reasons to commit suicide (for example, everyone on earth dies in a nuclear holocaust except you), but not getting to go to fashion school (which isn’t even going to happen to you!) is definitely not one of them, nor is stress related to moving to a different country. To quote somebody else I forget: “You’ve got forever to be dead.” Right? Why rush it. It’s like rushing to get to your root canal appointment seventeen billion hours early. Why would you do that?
– big picture focus. This is just one obstacle among many yet to come. It is annoying and difficult but ultimately not that big a deal I SWEAR. It’s going to get dealt with; you are going to be okay.
– conceptual meditation. You don’t have to literally sit in full lotus thinking about your chakras or whatever. But find some sort of quiet peaceful vibe zone in which you can somewhat honestly and calmly examine your life, the situation, and your feelings. Take deep breaths. Write it all down, look at it, and then close the book and put it away for awhile and go for a walk and think about how life goes on, life goes on all around you, your own life goes on, no matter what sorts of things are currently harshing you out.
– work with open heart and devoted mind toward CLAMPING DOWN whenever you find yourself veering into self hating sabotage or feelings of un-worthiness. These are chimeras, they are false friends. They aren’t real. They serve no one; they prove nothing. Rise above them. Acknowledge yourself as a creature on the earth, doing your best, living your life, no better or worse than anyone else, no more or less deserving than anyone else of success or failure. Just a human person, trying to build a cool thing in your life, because why not build a cool thing? Given the choice between laying around feeling unworthy and actually doing something cool, I honestly think we should all choose option B. Nothing wrong with that at all! And if you try and fail anyway, OH WELL. I know an old lady who has “Oh Well” written on a piece of paper and taped to her bathroom mirror–it’s her life motto. It’s a pretty good one. Simply do not allow yourself to fall down these various shame spirals. Distract yourself when you realize you’re coming close to one–like when you catch a dog chewing on your couch, you’re supposed to clap your hands to startle him and then shove a more appropriate chewtoy into his mouth. Do this with your brain!
– on a way more literal level, I will give you the advice I give to almost every person in every situation: make lists! Do you make lists? In this case, deeply concrete to-do lists. Write down every aspect of every thing you have to get done (i.e. don’t write down “apply to grad school,” but instead write down: “download application forms,” “email advisor,” “write draft of personal statement,” “buy stamps,” etc.). If you are feeling overwhelmed by shit you have to do, always make a deep list and keep it with you 24 hours a day and look at it constantly. This may not be something you need to do right this second, as it sounds like you’ve actually come to the end of a major to-do list (getting accepted to school) and are now waiting for what comes next, but I’m just saying, in the future, this is very helpful for maintaining realistic sanity in times of duress. Nothing is so grounding and satisfying and CHECKING SOMETHING OFF A TO-DO LIST!
– Take a break and really appreciate what you’ve done, how far you’ve come, what a good job you continue to do. You’ve already accomplished so many awesome goals! You’ll get past this obstacle too, one way or another. You totally will, I swear.
Finally, I can’t tell if having taken 6 years off before going to this school is stressing you out or not, but it shouldn’t! I took 6 years off before grad school and I’m so glad I did. It meant that I loved EVERY MINUTE OF IT, instead of complaining about it like the people who’d never had a real job or paid their own rent or whatever. Grading papers? Reading 600 pages of arcane theory? Listening to some boring-ass person at a conference Q&A talk for a thousand hours about Hegel? Guess what, it’s all better than getting some asshole coffee, which is what I’d been doing before. You will be the best student and have the best time, you’ll love everything you have to do in school, you’ll love your classes, you’ll love your homework, you’ll love London, you’ll feel so blessed! It will be so great.
Change is scary but also awesome; trying to avoid change is futile. There’s another lesson of the tarot deck.
Be real, focus on realities and not chimeras (I love this definition of chimera: “a horrible or unreal creature of the imagination; a vain or idle fancy”). Be real to yourself. Acknowledge your own humanity and your own capacity for joy, your worthiness, your human right to experience pride and contentment, if they are there to be had.
I know you can do it! And keep calling the school and staying on top of this bullshit bureaucratic nightmare. Email your future professors to let them know what’s up, or to see if you can reserve spots in their classes even though you aren’t allowed to register yet or whatever. Doing things like this will help you to feel on top of it, and like you are managing.
So, a mixture of real-world task management and calm meditative grace, I think that is your new goal, a goal of mindset, of attitude, of awareness. Totally accomplishable goal.
And again, congratulations! We are all so proud of you, and happy for you. And I for one am highly confident that this is going to work out, and that soon you will be making yet another to-do list, this time titled “Moving To London.” That’s a whole new can of worms! But again, that’s what makes life amazing–new cans of worms to open, new lists, new fears, new goals.
good luck!! Keep us posted!