Or, how I learned to treat myself with kindness.

Last year, a call for entries to 24 Days of December came out, and I wanted to write something discussing PHP documentation to encourage more contributors, but … the words just weren’t coming to me.

Last year, I had started a new job a couple of months prior, after being unemployed for a year and a half. I was adjusting and acclimating to my first full-time dev job. I was assigned a project that had a deadline of end-of-January, and I had to quickly scale up learning the code I was working with and how to solve the overarching problem. I felt the pressure because I wanted to succeed. I wanted to prove myself, both to my new employer and to myself, that I could do this.

You see, in my previous role, while development was part of my job duties, it wasn’t a focus, and it wasn’t the only duty. I tended to pick up programming related tasks, push them until I was nearly complete, and then… become stuck. And I had very few options to unstuck myself. I wasn’t an experienced developer, I had taken a handful of traditional, introductory courses, and had some basic development experience, but I’d regularly become baffled why something wasn’t working, struggled to make examples that I could share with others online to ask for help, and I didn’t work with any other developers who I could ask questions. I regularly felt stuck, and regularly felt incapable. Impostor syndrome was borne from the weight of several unfinished programming projects over the years.

I had to complete this deadline to show myself that I could figure out programming problems and write code. And I did.

But the cost was burnout and the inability to work on other things for a while.

A common indicator of burnout is feeling lack of control over one’s life. The feeling of ambition and motivation turns into pressure and stress. “I want to do XYZ” becomes “I have to do XYZ.” Sometimes, this stress is necessary to complete a task, but there’s the subconscious promise of reprieve, a break, afterwards. That this pressure is temporary, and that I will have time later to recover and care for myself. Except, at the time, I didn’t understand this. I wasn’t able to identify I was already burnt out. I had become so accustomed to feeling overwhelmed in everyday life, I thought it was “normal,” or “normal for me.”

To give a short summary: I was bad at keeping my apartment clean. There are underlying reasons that are out-of-scope for this topic, but I struggled to motivate myself to keep my apartment in a state that provided me comfort. It was common for me to wash individual dishes because my cupboards had no clean dishes. It was common for me to take a shower and have no clean, dry towels ready. It was common for me to wait until my trash bags had built up before I wheeled out my trash can for waste services to pick up. You get the picture. Cleanliness in my living area was an overwhelming struggle, and another piece in my burnout puzzle that had to be resolved before I could begin the journey of caring for myself.

Year after year, I failed to clean my apartment. I forgot what “clean” looked like for me. It was the project that I would always procrastinate, avoid, or push off to next month, next season, next year. Like mental health, I realized this was something I couldn’t accomplish alone. I needed help. I contacted a cleaning company to do it for me. And it was worth every penny. I hired them to clean once a week thereafter, to build a stable foundation of comfort, of safety, in my mind.

There were objects in my apartment that I incorrectly assumed I wanted because other people had these items in their homes. I came to accept that what worked for others, may not work for me, and that’s okay. Having these items in my apartment occupied space, in both my mind and my living area, and increased my stress because they were additional things to clean or account for while cleaning. So, I got rid of them.

With the weekly cleaning, I adjusted to the feeling of having a clean apartment, the happiness that the feeling of a clean apartment brought me and built an image in my head of what my apartment looked like cleaned, and what was necessary for me to maintain it. I canceled the cleaning service and started doing it myself. Around this time, I came to learn the definition of self-care. I knew the word from therapy, but my idea of self-care actually turned out to be coping behaviors.

Self-care is taking the steps necessary to ensure my state of feeling happy, which happened to include a clean apartment. I still struggle with motivation to clean, but reframing cleaning as self-care was an epiphany. I started to realize and understand what I needed to do to feel happy, to attempt to prevent burnout from overtaking me again.

One of the hardest challenges has been acknowledging what I’m able to complete in one 24-hour day. I make a to-do list that I want to complete, but sometimes I overestimate my energy level for that day. I’ve learned to accept that I may not complete everything I intended, and I’ve learned how to forgive myself if I’m unable to finish, to not let that further weigh on my mind. Learning the act of kindness towards myself.

I tend to view two-to-four days as one really long 48–96-hour day with breaks for sleeping in between. I struggle with the flow of time, and often think I’m able to accomplish more than I can. But working towards following an internal day-to-day schedule is helping. Journaling out my hopes, dreams, and aspirations so that I can form a rough plan towards achieving those goals, is helping.

I also have days where I don’t feel up to working on anything, and that’s also okay. I spend those days taking care of myself, coping with life, and recharging in the hope that tomorrow is a better day. I remind myself that what I’m feeling in the present is temporary, and that it will pass. Another day will come that I will feel ready to take on the world, or at least the items on my to-do list. 🙂