life choices

On Low Self-Steam and Big Life Changes

Several months ago, I published my website for the world to see. In the Facebook post promoting it, I declared that it was my intention to publish at least one blog post a week. And then... I didn't. I had good reasons: crises at my day job resulting in 9-10 hour work days, collapsing with exhaustion when I arrive home, burning the candle at both ends as I tried to juggle work + passions + even a shred of a social life, etc. etc. Yet despite the validity of the obstacles that derailed me, I still spent much of that time beating myself up for my perceived lack of productivity. I started half a dozen posts that inevitably fizzled when I couldn't find the time to get back to them (or didn't have the energy to write paragraphs of text when I happened to have a spare hour). Even my morning routine, documented so lovingly in my last blog post from July, was suffering, as I was too exhausted to drag myself out of bed in the early mornings and always found myself rushing through my tea and tarot or spacing out in a drowsy haze when I wanted to be focused on the task at hand. I was stuck in an endless cycle of internally berating myself, telling myself there's always the time if you choose to use your resources wisely, sitting down to write or throw cards again for a few minutes before rushing off to my next obligation, then watching the half-baked post wither in my drafts folder as my inspiration slipped away and staring miserably at all the days devoid of readings in my tarot journal, before starting the whole thing over again, telling myself that THIS TIME it would be different. This time I would push through.

It's easy to fall into the mindset that what we are doing isn't enough (and, admittedly, this is sometimes the case). We live in the cult of self-sufficiency, raised on the legends of the ones who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, surviving on stale potato chips, impossible dreams, and belief in themselves until they finally hit it big. Even as children, we're fed this myth in the form of storybooks. One of my favorites growing up was "The Little Engine That Could", the tale of a small steam engine that crested the impossible mountain that had defeated so many of its larger and stronger counterparts, powered only by the strength of its self-confidence. The engine's rallying chant, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can", wormed its way into my young brain and lodged there, reminding me throughout the coming years of the importance of believing in yourself when all the odds are against you.

Illustration from  The Little Engine That Could  by Watty Piper

Illustration from The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper

And certainly, this message can be an empowering one. It is nigh impossible to achieve a seemingly unattainable dream if your mind is occupied with doubts and insecurities, and belief in oneself is the defining factor in many a situation. But there is a darker side to this story as well, one that our shadow side is only too willing to jump on: if you are NOT succeeding, perhaps it is because you do not believe enough, do not care enough, are not working hard enough. You see, though success stories are meant to empower, there are so many factors left out of the final tale, things like health, economic standing, social privilege, additional obligations, etc., all of which have a dramatic effect on our ability to devote our energy, money, and attention to a single-minded goal. We may all have finite resources with which to work, but this does not mean the total sum for one of us is equal to the total sum for another. 

The idea that we are all trying to do our best within our individual means is not a new one, of course. The Spoon Theory, a term coined by Christine Miserandino, is a popular metaphor for the allocation of limited energy reserves when one is living with chronic illness, and the incomparable writer and artist Esme Wang writes extensively about the importance of establishing our own definitions of success and productivity according to our individual limits. In fact, though this post has been percolating in my head for many weeks now, it was her excellent post this week titled "You Are Not Lazy" that provided the final catalyst for getting this all down on (virtual) paper. 

As for me, I call the feeling of working with too-little energy "Low Self-Steam", a phrase borne of a magnificent typo made by one of my cousin's students that ties into the tale of our beloved little train exceptionally well. After all, if that steam engine had run out of fuel, it would have been an entirely different situation than the one portrayed in the story. As much as we may pretend otherwise, we cannot run on belief alone, and if our resources are depleted it becomes very difficult to power ourselves forward, with any attempts to push through the exhaustion and burnout only leading to us crashing even harder. Self-Steam is also inexorably linked with that student's intended target, self-esteem, for when our ability to propel ourselves forward is compromised, when we feel that we are not living up to our full potential or operating at our highest capacity, it can be detrimental to our mood and sense of self. And when our self-esteem is low, so, too, is our ability to motivate ourselves to push forward, and so the cycle continues. 

The very picture of Low Self-Steam. I call it "Exhausted With Cat". 

The very picture of Low Self-Steam. I call it "Exhausted With Cat". 


So what's a person to do? Honestly, the only answer is "the best we can under our current circumstances", and those circumstances will vary greatly from person to person and time to time. Sometimes our situation dictates that we must set aside some of our goals for a time in order to take care of ourselves mentally, physically, financially, or emotionally. Sometimes the best we can do is get ourselves out of bed in the morning. For many years of my life, it meant working full-time jobs to support myself while trying to fit a little bit of acting in on the side. It was frustrating and sometimes demoralizing, but I made the best of it and certainly don't regret doing it. However, thanks to a the hard work I've done building some stability over the years and the support of my incredible partner, I'm now able to start taking a different approach and divesting myself of the one thing that is sucking away so much of my time and energy: my job. It's a terrifying and heartbreaking prospect; I love the organization I work for and the people I work with, and I certainly love having a steady income. I've never been much enamored with the concept of the Starving Artist, preferring instead to be the Not Riddled With Anxiety Over Where My Next Meal Is Coming From Artist, but I am even less enamored with the concept of being The Artist Who Played It Safe And Never Pursued Her Dreams. And I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I have a strong support system, several offers of part-time work should I need them, and a fairly clear idea of where I want to be in life and what steps I'll take to get there.

So, as of December 18, I will no longer be gainfully employed in the non-profit world. Instead I'll be putting my newly-reclaimed stores of energy to use in my writing, auditions, and tarot readings (which you can purchase here if you're interested). And if or when I need to take on outside work to bring in more money, I will take a page out of my friend Nikki Dee's book and make sure that it's work that does not draw so heavily on my resources. After all, what is a steam engine without the steam to power it? So if you hear somebody quietly chanting, "I think I can, I think I can", it's just me, pushing myself ever forward and doing my best under the current circumstances.

Note: The Spoon Theory refers specifically to the experience of living with chronic illness and should not be appropriated to describe low-energy levels in general. Self-Steam is, as far as I am concerned, open for use in any and all situations. Thank you.