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Getting off the stress-and-guilt merry-go-round

Samseng Zhabor
I’ve been a little bit paralysed by stress recently; my brain doesn’t want to focus on anything and hates the idea of doing work. Everything feels half-hearted. I want to read novels but can’t make it past a page at a time, I think about watching drama but can’t settle on anything because everything just feels kind of meh.
There was some talk about languishing previously as we got collectively sick of lockdowns, working from home, and the pandemic in general. What do you call it when you feel like you’ve gone waaaay beyond languishing?
Apart from Covid fatigue, I do have identifiable sources of stress that I can attribute my current floundering state to. My country’s government, dominated by the same ruling party that has been in power since 1959, is trying to pass a terrifying anti-foreign interference law that would allow them to demand information, censor online content, shut down online platforms, put people on a “politically significant” list, and impose onerous reporting conditions that would be tantamount to spoon-feeding the state surveillance apparatus. Nothing will be confirmed until the law is actually in force, but I have very good reason to expect that I will end up on this “politically significant” list. I have no idea what that might mean for my work and my livelihood. But I have started to wonder if Books Kinokuniya might be willing to hire me to stack shelves.
So I feel quite justified about buying large amounts of crisps, and my overwhelming urge to just stay in bed.
BUT! I am also a child of the Singaporean guilt-trippy capitalist machine, which means that even while I feel exhausted and stressed out and very much in need of a break, I am still internally scolding and blaming myself for “slacking off”. I’m two months behind on my book’s second draft. I still have other commissioned work to do, and I should probably pick up on pitching and getting back into the routine of writing reported features. I need to think about how I can up my game with my main newsletter, and surely I can be doing better than this, overall?
The idea of being gentle with yourself is much easier said than done when your internal voice has been primed for years to think conflate that concept with indulgence and irresponsibility. The result is turning into pendulum that swings between low motivation and high guilt.
Did I say pendulum? I meant to say the pendulum is also a merry-go-round. (I’m too angsty to get my metaphors straight.) Because the high guilt also adds to the burn-out causing the low motivation, which makes me crack open another packet of crisps instead of writing my book, which then creates more guilt… and round and round we go. On days like these, I’m not sure there’s much point in pushing oneself to get very much done.
Simone Biles pulled out of various events at the Tokyo Olympics because she said she got the “twisties”, a sudden mental block where gymnasts lose track of their own bodies and where they are in relation to flips and twists in space. I wonder if I have the writer’s equivalent right now. “Writer’s block” doesn’t sound right because I’m technically not blocked — I can write, but my heart’s not in it, the words don’t feel right even as they appear on the page, and it’s clear that I’m not in a good state to communicate my thoughts. I struggle to focus on what exactly I’m saying; it’s especially challenging when it comes to my book because I’m even losing my train of thought in relation to the draft’s overall thrust.
To get over the twisties, gymnasts go back to the basics, re-learning simple flips and twists to rebuild trust in their muscle memory. I don’t really know what I need to rebuild trust or comfort in — my skill as a writer? My sense of security in my own country? My circadian rhythm? — but I’m currently trying little things that might eventually get me back on track. Instead of forcing myself to write reports or work on my book, I write newsletter issues like this, which allow me to vent while also proving to myself that I haven’t lost all sense of articulation. Or I transcribe interviews, which feels like writing even though it isn’t. When I get tired of doing this I read my book, even if I only make it through one page. I tune out to some cheesy drama that I don’t necessarily care about — currently, this is Take My Brother Away on Netflix. I don’t do anything that I don’t feel like doing right at that moment, which means that there are moments in which I just sit and stare into space, or play games on my phone because it’s the easiest thing to do while lying in bed.
This is very far from life advice, so I’m not saying that you should be trying this at home. I have no idea if this is working. I just don’t have any better ideas, nor do I have the energy to do some of the things that self-care websites advise, like going out for exercise or eating healthy. (In fact, right now that sort of advice just ends up feeling like more pressure or things for me to feel guilty about.)
If you feel like you’re very done with everything that’s going on in your life and the world right now, yet still feel like you can’t just disengage or step back, know that you’re not alone. Getting off the stress and guilt merry-go-round is an ongoing project, and progress is very much “one step forward, then feel bad about that step and take 30 steps back”. But it’s one worth undertaking nevertheless, because the alternative is to live forever with this unhealthy attitude about work, self-worth, and rest.
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

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