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Take care of you: Check your own oxygen mask first

I think writing is one of those things that gets harder with time.

Over the weekend, I wrote four essays. (Why? Because I’m irresponsible and can’t do things in a timely manner.)

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any words left in my system for the column. Fortunately for me, I have 10 pages worth of peer-edited paragraphs! I realize that recycling essays is a total cheater move and I promise not to do it again, but I’d really like to share this one with you.

The prompt was, “Reflect on a time when you didn’t perform as well as you had anticipated. How did you respond? What did you learn?”

Before each takeoff, flight attendants demonstrate safety procedures and remind passengers that in an emergency, they must put on their own oxygen masks first. Only then can they assist others.

I must have not paid close enough attention during orientation week because my first semester of college felt a little like a crashing plane, and I had no idea how to put on my oxygen mask.

Growing up, my parents instilled in me the importance of selflessness and duty to one’s community. I conformed to expectations by putting other people’s needs above my own. I reveled in being the good girl, the go-getter.

Being a polite people pleaser worked wonderfully in high school. College, however, seemed to have no need for martyrs. No one cared about how impressive or nice I thought I was. All of my high school tactics failed spectacularly and left me both mentally overwhelmed and emotionally drained before the first wave of midterms.

Dropped off at a residential college 2,000 miles away from home, I was never alone but often lonely.

To combat all the stress, I threw myself into more work, more volunteer opportunities and more helping friends through existential crisis. Fueled by ambition, I perceived everything as a challenge against my character and competence. I mistook stubbornness as strength; if it didn’t kill me, it only made me stronger

By winter break, my very bones ached. After my last final, I trudged back to my dorm and promptly fell apart on my bed, letting all of my pent-up anxiety and frustration and confusion bubble up to the surface. I made it through the semester, but I had to gut myself raw to get there.

It shouldn’t have ended that way. Taking part in my studies and meaningful work should not have been personally detrimental. I realized too late that that my single-minded approach to first semester was painfully misguided. I needed to learn how to take care of myself before I could hope to take care of others. I had to put on my own oxygen mask first.

This lesson on self-care has been more of a gradual process than an epiphany. Slowly, I’ve started to forgive my shortcomings and balance my expectations.

I’ve forced myself to open up, to ask for help, and to set boundaries. Respecting limits is not a weakness, but a strength. I don’t think the strain of a college workload will ever disappear, but I’ve found healthier ways to cope. Good food, good people, and a good night’s sleep can go a long way.

But the most important thing is that at the end of the day, I need to be able to count on myself. When I am alone, I have to be my own friend and advocate. Only after knowing to how care for myself can I fully commit to caring for others.

Goeun Park graduated from DLHS and attends college in California.