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Priorities & Mental Health: An Unwritten Romance

Priorities & Mental Health: An Unwritten Romance

The highest point of a tantrum, is also its weakest. This is something I learnt when listening to an NPR podcast, elbow deep in dishes, a teething baby squawking at me from her play mat at my feet. 

This is not how I thought about it, though. I assumed that a tantrum’s resolve would be the strongest at its peak, a great stony will that would be the most resolute. But it turns out, this is the point where the energy is at its weakest, mostly from being expended flamboyantly, inordinately. 

“It has to get really bad before it gets good.” Remember that cliche? Well, its true.

The downhill slope starts right at the summit, and eventually the tired tantrum thrower acquiesces to what they were wildly protesting against (or in my case, falls asleep, deflated). 

On the podcast, one toddler was throwing a tantrum because she was unbearably livid that she had feet. She just didn’t want them anymore. They even recorded the screeches as the 3 year old flung a small piece of furniture at a wall.

My personal battle was not with wanting to do away with my feet, or any other tantrum per say, but with the strong-willed force of inertia. And in its own way, felt as quietly intense as the 3 year old’s louder rendition. How ironic, isn’t it, that inertia, the very fact of losing momentum would have such a strong force? But it does, and it is that force that paralyses you. The offshoots are procrastination, low self-worth and a feeling of having missed out, of it being too late to restart now, of losing your place in the ‘race’.

One evening, applying diaper rash cream to a cluster of stress acne that had sprouted on my jawline, I decided that something had to change. 

Having a baby means many of your priorities change places or are replaced by the brand new and weakest member of your family — your newborn. The shift starts from the early days when their dependancy is near complete, but is also very difficult to manage in the months and I imagine, years ahead.

Your identity starts fogging up too, and at times is barely recognisable. Sometimes when you catch your reflection as you pump breast milk or negotiate with a baby who is resolute to stay conjoined with you even though you have a pile of survival chores to mount, and you don’t quite recognise what you see. Your memory of your reflection and your actual reflection don’t quite match, like placing a large size lid on a smaller sized container —its just off centre and won’t snap in place properly.  

And when survival chores are fighting for their life, what chance to pleasure chores have to make it?

Swathing my pimples in the unorthodox salve, I calculated that I had been eating poorly, vegetables barely a shadow of their earlier glory on my plate, and I wasn’t able to make time for exercise. There were other areas of neglects too, like not writing enough or working with my hands enough; and most mornings, I was waking up tired. But the gravitational pull of inertia was so strong, that I couldn’t just step out of it. 

From the peak of the tantrum, I drew out a loose plan.

A Trick to Setting Priorities:

Over some time, I’ve started noticing the relationship my priorities have with my mental health. If I prioritised sitting on the couch and watching double episodes of TV dramas after my daughter’s bedtime each evening, my mental health suffered. I caught myself feeling lethargic, unfulfilled, and worse, ungrateful. Conversely, if I spent even 30 minutes exercising or sitting down on my desk to write, I felt recharged and self-proud. 

So these days, I set my priorities based on their effect on my mental health, and currently they are some combination of: exercise; write; eat more vegetables.

Counting your Rewards:

As a practise of mindfulness, I started to take a minute to notice how I was feeling after doing the things I’ve prioritised. After I write, I usually feel lighter and my self-confidence picks up pace and I’m wittier and even feel sexy and tall, my spine straight and long. After I’ve cooked a meal, like a chickpea curry with roasted pumpkin stirred into the coconut milk base, I feel healthy and focused, and usually don’t care where I’ve put my phone and feel in sync with my limbs and my life, the kitchen a jumble of pots, pans and vegetable peels.   

Paying attention to what makes me feel good, and then counting the actual rewards I get from being in motion, helps me build my case against inaction.

The Magic of Repetition: 

When compounded through the act of repetition, something magical happened — my priorities started becoming cemented into habits. Now each evening after I sing my daughter her lullaby and kiss her sleepy cheeks goodnight, I wash my face and moisturise, putting a subtle self-care divider between the chunks of time within my day. Then, I sit down to write. If its nice outside, which these days it mostly is, I’ll set up on the balcony, where I can let the breeze and the late sun work on my mind and body. I’ll make myself a bowl of porridge, or a mini cheese plate and a glass of wine. From where I sit, I can usually see tree-top cliques of chatty parrots or watch a young family set out on a bike ride. 

Dropping My Standards

 A lot of the times, I have the tendency to get overwhelmed by my own goals. I have the intention, and these goals that mean everything to me, but they seem large and unsurmountable, and that fills me with dread and varying degrees of anxiety. My coping strategy is to then avoid doing what I want to do altogether, to avoid feeling out of control and lost. 

So to avoid overwhelm, I start with a minimum viable step. If I want to write an ambitious essay, I start with say, writing a loose outline. If I want a spotless kitchen, i’ll clear one, small, non-intimidating shelf. If I aim to be a good networker and build a strong network of talented, thoughtful and creative peers, I start by saying hello to one person who is next to me at an event. Doing the one thing that is within my reach, taking one or even one quarter of step in the journey, eases my nerves and also sets a small rhythm going. No pressure, no open-ended existential questions. 

Just one small step. Then I can build from there.

Sentimentality to Maintain Momentum

Every Sunday, I run. It feels indulgent, like a sacred self care ritual, and is a reliable way for me to process all the heavy emotions I feel on Sunday evenings. I love the sentimentality of ritual, so I use it to my benefit. The act itself of running may not be sentimental, but projecting that sentimentality keeps me coming back to it. It’s a date I keep, like a promise to a friend who is counting on me. It’s precious alone time, weekly housekeeping for my mind. It’s a way for my to dive into my internal life and have all the conversations that I need to have with myself. 

To me, the anchor is sentimentality, to someone else it may be social stimulation or serving the community. Just finding the thing that fuels you enough to make you come back usually works

So what does your mind tell you when you feel stuck? Mine usually tells me that the state i’m in — mentally or physically — is permanent.

It was time I proved it wrong.


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