My mother has told me many times, “You thrive under pressure. You like stress.”
Then I went to therapy. It turns out, that’s not true.
I don’t thrive. I’m just competent. I can handle it. I have a lot of brain power and a lot of physical energy. I’m not bragging; I’m just saying what’s true.
But being able to manage a tremendous amount of activity and stress does not mean that I am at my best or giving my best to the world. I might be moving, but I’m not grooving.
Thinking that I “thrive” under stress has resulted in perpetually taking on too much, which happened this past year. Back in September, my choruses were starting back up after an eighteen-month hiatus. I only had two private students. I need extra income to make up for the work I lost during the COVID shutdowns.
I took a job at a private school teaching general music. During the school year, I ended up picking up a lot more private students and a third chorus.
Did I manage? Yes!
Somehow, I managed to teach at a school twenty-one hours a week, plus prep lessons, grade, encourage students, organize concerts and recordings, and plan a couple of end-of-year parties. And, I had seven and a half hours of choral rehearsals a week, plus practicing. And, I taught twenty-five students privately. I also drove twelve hours a week. And, I continued to send in pieces to calls for scores, attend a couple of conferences, and fulfill my duties (though less well) as secretary of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers.
Sure, I did all that. Does that mean I thrived?
Well, here’s what I didn’t do: I barely composed. I’ve written only about three minutes of very simple music since January. I didn’t exercise at all from January to May, including any hiking which I love to do. I didn’t make any meals or do any housework. My husband took care of it all, and good thing! I didn’t write any poetry. I barely read.
I thought that I was going to get composing done the mornings I didn’t go in to school, before my afternoon lessons. But it didn’t happen. I was so tired, and my brain was mush. I didn’t have the mental space I needed for creativity.
I think it can be hard for high-achieving people to know where the limit is, especially when they have been encouraged and told they “thrive” under stress, when they are used to extremely high expectations and being heaped upon at school or at work with more, more, more. “You’re smart, you’re capable, you can handle it.” Until you can’t.
First-borns, too, are also often taught we’re responsible to and for other people, sometimes legitimately and sometimes not, and we can end up feeling like we owe it to other people to continue on in positions where we serve, even when our energy is sapped. It can be hard to say no, especially when we are successful, especially when we care.
So, how do I know when it is too much?
I am glad to say that my limit became clear to me: it is too much when the poetry stops.
Before I started the school year, I could take a walk and poems would float into my head. I could write descriptive program notes about my pieces. Poetry was a frame of mind.
That all stopped like the flow of water from a kinked hose. The pressure has to come off for the poetry to percolate again.
I’ve decided not to return to the school. I am improving my private studio so I can work smarter, not harder, and increase my income without overtaxing myself.
If I’m going to be a composer, a poet, a creative person, and give my best to the world, to my family and friends, and to God, I need to stop living under so much pressure.
Creativity does not thrive under pressure, and neither do I.