Tonight, it is with great joy that I welcome my first guest post written by my dear friend, Emily Winter. Although I was a mentor to Emily in her high school years, I have to say that if it weren’t for her, I may not have returned to my writing in my early 20’s. It was her encouragement and inspiration that reminded me of how much my writing meant to me. Emily has always been a gifted writer herself, and I am honored to be able to share some of her work on my blog.
A Healthy Vice by Emily Winter
If I were to have a conversation with my sixteen year old self, she never would have used the word “organized” to describe her personality.
Recently my coworker and I were interviewing candidates for a new position on our team, and one of the questions that she asked was “How would your friends and coworkers describe you?” After the interviews, I asked her how she would describe me. Without hesitating even a moment she said, “Organized.”
I can’t blame her. I am the advocate on our team to use organizational tools like Trello and SmartSheet. When you pass by my desk you can usually see my planner (and six different colored pens) spread out on my desk for constant reference. My foldering system on my desktop is so slick that I’ve had coworkers ask me to help re-do theirs. If there’s a color in sight, you can bet I’ll coordinate it.
So without a doubt, I am organized.
But did I always used to be this way?
I asked my mom and she laughed a little. No. Through high school she often joked with me about my poor attention to detail. I was a big picture thinker, like my father. I preferred to pick a course and figure it out on the way.
Ruminating on this change in my personality, I decided to chalk it up to becoming more grown up. I decided that it was a necessity of being in college, of being a young adult. It was normal. And I would have thought nothing of it except that shortly thereafter, the Trello servers crashed and it was like all of the lights in my world went off all at once.
Now, Trello is an organizing platform that allows you a lot of creative freedom to make it what you want so that you can stay organized in a way that works best for you. I’m obsessed. My boards, lists, and cards have extensive detail and are meticulously color coordinated and always up-to-date. Every single thing I do in my work day (and many things from my personal life as well) live in Trello.
And when it crashed, I panicked. I was suddenly lost and very close to curling up in a ball under my desk.
How did I go from a girl who had no time for details to one who was immobilized at the temporary loss of a single organizing tool? I had to recognize that my extreme reaction was perhaps unhealthy.
Plunging into Chaos
When you look up coping mechanisms you’re met with long lists of suggestions ranging from journaling to playing with puppies. There are plenty of articles outlining unhealthy coping mechanisms as well, like excessive use of alcohol or over eating. A coping mechanism is a natural response to a stressor.
But where does a coping mechanism cross over from healthy to unhealthy?
When I was seventeen years old my dad suffered a seizure that led to the discovery of a cancerous brain tumor. The doctors gave him a year to a year and a half to live. During my senior year I watched, helpless, as he went through two brain surgeries and chemotherapy. My freshman year of college I drove five long hours from Seattle to Spokane every weekend to be with him in his final days. I was nineteen when he died; a year and a half almost to the day.
If I had turned to alcohol or started smoking, there’s no doubt that the group of incredibly caring individuals around me would have seen the red flags. They would have talked to me, expressed their concern. They would have sought to understand the pain that was breeding such an unhealthy coping mechanism.
As it was, I did not turn to alcohol or begin smoking.
I got organized. Very organized.
The life I had was so suddenly plunged into chaos that I clawed helpless at mere smoke, trying to regain a sense of control. What I grasped onto was organization. It was stacks of post it notes and planners with nice neat lines. It was finite dates and lists. It was knowing what to expect. It was having control.
I was so desperate for that sense of control that I clung onto it; I became very good at it. And it’s true that part of it was bred from growing up, but I know it went deeper for me.
An Honest Evaluation
According to one expert from Psychology Today, “A coping mechanism could accurately be looked upon as a type of addiction. Like most habits, coping mechanisms have an addictive quality to them; we feel some degree of compulsion toward them, and we experience some level of difficulty in resisting them.”
When the Trello server crashed at work and the little controlled environment I had created for myself went down with it, I came face to face with the realization that perhaps my skills at organization had crossed into an addiction. What was once only a coping mechanism, one that brought me a lot of success, was really a vice in disguise.
But should I just stop being organized? It’s a helpful skill. One that I am even proud of having honed in a world of chaos, excuses, and people who are always late.
Organization in itself is not bad at all. In itself, it’s a good thing. What’s different for me is that it’s inevitably linked to something else – that desperation for control. I have such a hard time when things don’t go according to plan. I become vastly stressed and anxious. It can be agitating to a debilitating sense. And that’s where those lines need to be drawn. I had to reevaluate.
I am still organized. My planner is color coordinated and I’m still preaching the virtues of tools like Trello from the rooftops. But I am also more aware. I acknowledge that my need for organization comes from a need for control. More importantly, I acknowledge that I don’t always have to be in perfect control. And that it will be okay even if everything is not organized flawlessly. My stability in life is rooted in more than the lists I make. It’s hard. It involves a lot of deep breaths. But I have to admit, it feels healthier. It doesn’t feel like as much of an addiction, a compulsion; I don’t feel so desperate.
We are all different. And not all healthy coping mechanisms toe that darker line (I can’t imagine playing with puppies ever would). It’s good to be self-aware and conscious of your own tendencies. For me, it meant surrendering my need for control. And while I will cross “write blog post” off of my to-do list when I finish this, I know that my universe would still be okay if I didn’t.