Over the past few months I’ve slowly come to realize that I’ve never truly put myself as a priority. 

I grew up trying to prove my worth to my parents. I’m not quite sure why; my parents, despite their faults, have always been fairly supportive of me and given me the freedom to make my own choices. Perhaps their own individual excellences put pressure on me. They told me to always be better than them – be a better student, make better choices, achieve better outcomes.

But how could I be better than them as a small child, struggling to grasp concepts in classes, afraid of being scolded for not understanding a “simple” math concept or for wanting to read stories that helped me escape reality?
How could I be better than them when I grew up in a place of economic privilege and they grew up, starving, in Mao-Communist China?
It should never have been a comparison.
I fell back to their advice, time and time again, up until very recently. Put your studies before everything else; take more AP classes than your peers in high school; don’t go to art school, you’ll starve; go to a STEM school because it’ll help you get a job anywhere. My mother once told me that I should drop one of my best friends because she was too mediocre. It might be one of the only pieces of advice I never took.
In my head, they were always right and I was always wrong. They knew better because they were older and they were wiser and they had lived through more.
I put their wants ahead of my own without even realizing it.
Like most of the students I knew at MIT, I always put my work before myself. It was fine for a while; I was tired a lot, but I got my work done, ate proper amounts of food, still slept somewhat, and didn’t participate in many extracurricular things. I managed. I bargained with myself – I could read a book if I finished this thing, or I could have a snack if I finished this other thing. I worked multiple part-time jobs just for the feeling of having my own money, for the near future when I was no longer allowed to rely on my parents.
The first year and a half of MIT is a blur in my memories. I was so busy spreading myself too thin that I don’t really have many good memories from that period.
Junior year of college, I took it to the extreme. My work for architecture studio became such a priority for me that I stopped eating or sleeping. I was so constantly anxious about everything and I was incapable of being a good or even decent friend because I was so wrapped up with trying to make my psychologically abusive studio professor happy. I was lethargic. My hair started falling out. I had to take breakfast supplements because I couldn’t muster the energy to eat real food.
One of my best friends, Caitlin, started making me food to make sure I wouldn’t starve, and then told repeatedly me to go to MIT Mental Health until I finally went. My other best friend, Julie, checked in on me weekly and had me over at her dorm, and I would watch TV with her boyfriend Stephen – also one of my best friends – for a few hours before the anxiety of not doing work and “slacking off” caught up to me.
Somewhere in the middle I joined a dance group and it became an escape. I gave up working so many part-time jobs and opted for relearning to dance and memorizing choreography. Despite a few scrapes and bruises, dancing made me feel good. It was a place where everyone was constantly trying to improve themselves, but doing it together, without the ruthless competition that had been ingrained in me as a child.
Being part of ADT was one of the most significant parts of my college experience, and it was one of the few times in college where I allowed myself to put myself first.
Ask me what I want to do with my life, and I would tell you that I want to help make people happy. I think that’s what I would find the most meaningful: making the world a happier place.
That’s kind of what I do in my job, actually. For all the gripes I have with what I do, and my dissatisfaction with feeling like my work isn’t particularly meaningful, I do think that some of my work helps make other people a little bit happier. Maybe that’s enough.
Watching people smile is one of the most beautiful things I can think of. Watching people smile because I helped make them smile is even better. And because I was gifted with a decent amount of hand-eye coordination, I am capable of making things that puts smiles on the faces of people in my immediate circle.
This also means that when gift-giving season comes around, I fall into a whirlwind of gift-making and gift-giving anxiety. I forget about the joy I get from creating things with yarn and paint and fabric and paper and instead turn into a ball of anxiety attempting to finish a growing number of presents and worrying that my friends might not like the things I make.
I discovered that the secret for finishing a growing number of gifts is to just make them year-round. There’s a reason Caitlin calls me her Christmas elf.
I prioritize the smiles on my friends’ faces over my own sanity sometimes. I don’t think I ever stopped to think that they might worry when I fall into cycles of anxiety over their gifts and their smiles.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been tracking my daily average mood – rating it from 1-10 – just to see how my mood fluctuates over time and its dependency on the events going on in my life.
It’s pretty drastic.
Before my past relationship ended, my only extremely happy days almost always ended up on days when I was seeing my ex. I didn’t realize how dangerous that emotional dependency was until I was no longer part of that relationship.
I also didn’t realize how unhappy he could make me until we left each other. My worst days were days when his carelessness cut me the most, when I could not brush it off as successfully as usual.
Words can hurt. Lack of words, sometimes, can hurt even more. Usually it was a mixture of both.
Because I knew the relationship was ending, I spent a lot of time before preparing for its inevitability. I ended up planning event after event after event in June, trying to give myself things to look forward to and things to be happy about – and it worked.
My amazing friends gave me a birthday that made me feel so incredibly loved – more loved than I had ever felt while I was in my past relationship. I planned dance classes with my friend Alyssa. I planned a whirlwind weekend for when my dad visited me, and then again when my friend Rosa visited me. I bought tickets to see a musical and ate tasty food. I painted pictures of sunsets with new paints inside a new sketchbook. I bit the bullet and bought tickets to see Julie and Stephen in San Francisco.
I prioritized the things I had wanted to do for a while – seeing things in the city that I hadn’t been able to because I had spent so much time traveling back to Boston for so many months – and in doing so, prioritized myself.
I think being prepared for the hurt and knowing about our incompatibilities for months beforehand helped me deal with and get over the breakup so much faster.
I was so stupid happy throughout June and July that it was actually rather astounding to see the contrast in my mood tracking.
When I was sure I was capable of making myself happy on my own, I thought I might maybe try dating again. I had heard so many horror stories from my friends about dating in New York City that I wasn’t sure, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt.
The worst that could happen is that everyone is creepy, I give up, and I go back to planning fun things with friends and exploring the city that I was finally, slowly, starting to fall in love with. For worst case scenarios, it wasn’t that daunting.
I got lucky. I met a guy who seems to be just the right amount of weird and the right amount of dorky and the right amount of caring. I don’t know where it’ll go, but the addition of him in my life currently gives me immense happiness.
And because I am continuing to rate my average mood every day, I can say for sure that so far my happiness isn’t dependent of whether or not I see him that day. I’ll try my damnedest to make sure it stays that way.
I still prioritize my friends’ smiles now, but I’m also trying to make sure I smile every day too.

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Turns out, it’s not that hard.