I’ve always been a fairly ordered person, though not an obsessive one. But lately, I seem to find the most trivial things upsetting an inner sense of equilibrium I didn’t even know I had. A spot of dust missed out when wiping my desk clean, a sheet of paper out of order in my file, the tail ends of the scarf around my neck unequal in length, the lack of absolute quiet when eating a quick meal in the middle of a rushed day, the surge of frustration when a freshly laundered sweater dips for a mere second to an unclean floor on its way to the cupboard; these are all examples of trivial upsets that seem to be taking on more significance than they ever have before.
Am I becoming a less patient person? Am I a closet obsessive-compulsive? Am I simply witnessing a delayed onset of perfectionist tendencies?
It could also be much simpler than that, like a temporary reaction to increased chaos in my usual routine. Is there more than usual going on in my life which drives me to control the things I can?
After nearly a year of staying at home without work due to pandemic-induced redundancies (though by no means having remained inactive or entirely home-bound), I took up a new position last year in my hometown. The work, teaching at university, is incredibly satisfying; not only do I enjoy engaging with students, I also have the opportunity to create additional activity by putting to good use the experience and network of contacts built up over a decade. The work is usually long hours and means the occasional loss of a weekend as I rush to catch up. I don’t mind it when it happens, especially as a deadline approaches. The bulk of my entire professional career has involved greater pressure and higher stakes than what I have at this time. But for some reason, I find myself seeking small outs where I didn’t before: a quick ten minutes on the balcony with a cup of tea and a magnificent view of the hills surrounding our city; a brief escape into music and the desire to block out all human contact for the length of two songs; a lone coffee outside after work instead of a meet-up with friends.
None of this seems out of the ordinary, but it is unusual. And that’s what makes me wonder: am I growing less tolerant of intrusions or am I choosing to prioritize order? Perhaps the query that really matters is why these changes in behavior feel out of character and therefore troubling.
We’ve all had our world turn topsy-turvy over the last couple of years, whether in large or small measure. A reaction to that would not be entirely out of bounds. Human nature instinctively craves a sense of balance; when faced with a situation beyond our means of control, we tend to focus on aspects we can manage and mold. This, in itself, is not wrong, but is there such a thing as taking it too far? I don’t mind being the person who likes her breakfast tea at the perfect temperature or who insists on getting quiet time away from family after a long day. But I do mind being someone who, when a passing motorist honks their horn at her unprovoked, feels her temperature quickly rise instead of ignoring it and moving on.
This may be a call for therapy. Or it may be the refusal to keep de-prioritizing myself anymore. The latter explanation is more appealing, for obvious reasons. But it also rings a little truer.
My last job was a very different work environment from the academia of my education and professional career. A corporate sector position in a different and overwhelmingly large city, everything about it felt a little more cut-throat and a lot more political; this was true for both the work and for the place. I quickly realized that adjusting myself to survive in this environment would entail having to jettison all tolerance for the bad or inconsiderate behavior of others. Not only was it a relief, it came a lot more naturally than expected. It may well be the case that even after having moved out of that environment, and back into my natural setting, I have retained that approach. It does not involve inconveniencing others or pulling the rug out from under their feet; it simply means refusing to be the only one compromising or accommodating others, especially at my own expense, and expecting behavior as professional as my own from those around me.
So, how does this tie into my craving for calm and balance in other aspects of my life? Simply put, it is about taking more care of my needs than I have before and which I didn’t pay attention to. This then seeps into other behavior, the desire for order so as not to have another set of concerns to take care of. Those other concerns may seem incredibly trivial. But isn’t trivia what ends up taking the most of our mental space and energy?
Dealing with them proactively and immediately may be the only way to retain sanity when everything else around you seems a little less certain than it was before.