Illustration by Jennifer Martinez

The Business of Avoiding Misery by Jamie L. Rotante

One Punk’s Look at Social Anxiety, Neuroticism and Other Fun Stuff

2020 was a year and a half. That’s not a net positive, it just literally felt like a year that wouldn’t end. And while I believe it’s absurd to ascribe the ills of the world to a numerical year, it’s hard to not notice how much awful shit was crammed into those twelve months.

I want 2021 to be different, we all do. But there’s a level of realism that needs to supersede the optimism—we’re still reaping the terrible things we’ve sown.

I want 2021 to be different, we all do. But there’s a level of realism that needs to supersede the optimism—we’re still reaping the terrible things we’ve sown. There’s still a raging pandemic with no signs of slowing down. We’re still not reckoning with the consequences of the harmful practices we excuse as “business as usual.” There’s still so much progress that needs to be made. We still need to look out for each other just as much as ever before. There is no “returning to normal,” because normal was pretty fucking awful—there’s only moving forward from this moment. And right now, this moment seems to last forever.

But here’s the thing—positive strides are really hard when you fall into a pit of despair. I’d argue that we collectively, as a nation, world, global community, have fallen in and out of despair, but I can’t speak for everyone—those who have been thriving or completely unaffected to a point of actively acting against science and compassion may not be disconsolate themselves, but they’re definitely contributing to a communal sense of despair. We’ve learned that it’s hard to get everyone on the same page, but I can affirm that it’s damn near impossible when you’re trying to pull yourself out of a hole to pry your grip from the ledge and reach your hand down to help another, as worthwhile an effort as it may be.

That’s why I’ve decided to focus on myself first and foremost this new year.

As much as I try to be “above” the idea of resolutions and as hackneyed as “fresh starts” are, I still try to face every “new beginning” head-on, hoping to bring my best self to the table and get at least a fraction of that goodness in return.

I’ve found the biggest obstacle to that approach, however: other people.

I’m trying my damndest not to let anyone rain on my parade—my parade, of course, just being my day-to-day. I have this intense need to listen and to help others, but with that comes the converse of being used as an emotional punching bag, having to take blow after blow of other people’s bad news and hardships, only to be made to feel bad if I harp on a little too long about the state of the world, how upset I am at their situation, or—god forbid—my own woes.

At its worst, someone else’s bad day triggers my personal panic attack and a foreboding sense of existential dread. My body tenses up at even the slightest bit of venting from someone else. My sleep schedule is destroyed because I’m too stressed to sleep at night and too depressed to wake up in the morning. Then, if my day turns out pretty okay, I actually feel bad about the way I felt the day before. But my attempts to not attract this negative energy become obsessive—I target the people I’m sure will bring me down and avoid them like the plague (even virtually). 

I never want to stop someone from feeling like they can share their feelings with me. I strive to create a safe and open space for others to speak openly and comfortably—but what happens when that safe space becomes dangerous for me?

Just over a year ago there was a heavily debated online thread about emotional labor in friendships. The initial statement was in favor of asking for consent from our friends before we unload our problems on them, giving them the space to say no if they don’t have the capacity to process it at that moment. The argument against it was about considering friends’ issues as emotional labor, or a burden. I think if I reached out to someone I trusted to talk to them about an issue I’m having and they told me they didn’t have the space for me and my problems, I’d be devastated. At the same time, if I found out that someone I was talking to felt like they were collapsing under the weight of my problems, I’d also be devastated. All in all, arguments like this just scream out “shut the hell up” to the already anxiety-riddled.

I think you need to take care of your own house before you stomp into someone else’s.

So what’s the solution here? How do we not make others feel like they’re a burden while also not allowing the problems of others to burden ourselves? Well, this may surprise you to read this, but—I have no fucking clue. This is where that bit about being putting my own self-care and self-needs first comes in. I think you need to take care of your own house before you stomp into someone else’s. In those moments when we’re angry, upset, feeling isolated, it’s our instinct to reach out to someone else, be it to commiserate or vent or just feel heard. But maybe we need to take a step before that: just a quick bit of inner monologue, no more than fifteen seconds of your time, to stop and say:

Does this really need to be said?

You can’t be expected to read minds, but you can control the future to some extent by understanding the impact of your words and how you wield them.

Sometimes opening up that Pandora’s box of anger or despair can be therapeutic. Sometimes it can just be a downward spiral into feeling worse. We can control that. It doesn’t mean bottling up your feelings until something far worse happens; it means understanding what your desired outcome of the conversation is and if it’s worth embarking on. Is this a feeling that needs discussion? Or is this a fleeting moment that laboring over will only serve to make you, and someone else, feel measurably worse? Is this a minor inconvenience you’re passing off as a major obstacle, insisting it’s not you, but instead an ill of the human condition—something that you could have just shrugged off as an annoyance, but now is causing someone else to feel a sinking sense of dread and maybe one that they’re not telling you about, forcing them to take the opposite approach and not share their feelings? You can’t be expected to read minds, but you can control the future to some extent by understanding the impact of your words and how you wield them.

That doesn’t, however, answer the question of how to avoid feeling miserable when someone else burdens you with their problems. I don’t have a neat answer for that one, either. I want to say put forth the energy you want to receive, but let’s face it—if someone else only wants to exude negativity, your positivity might get trampled in the process. Likewise, you want to be wary of a kind of toxic positivity that completely invalidates someone else’s genuine concerns.

All I can do is be present for others without indulging them to a point where we’re both miserable.

It’s like walking a tightrope, and I feel like I’m constantly on the verge of toppling over. All I can do is be present for others without indulging them to a point where we’re both miserable. Learning to separate their problems from my own. Trying to find what connects us rather than divides, without erasing their unique problems. Just trying to be a ray of fucking sunshine when it’s needed, as well as a voice of reason. It’s all about balance. And balance is really hard to achieve, especially when you’re as uncoordinated as I am.

It’s about resisting anger and hatred and sadness when you can help it. It’s about welcoming moments of joy when they come. It’s about feeding what’s good for you without starving yourself from reality.

I know it’s not the first time I quoted this, I know it won’t be the last, but if I can make this my mantra day after day, I may finally be on my path to peace. Or at least momentarily spurts of serenity which, at this point, I’m happy to take:

To resist despair, cuz you can’t change everything. To resist despair in this world is, what it is, what it is, what it is to be free.