Image courtesy of Trello.

How I salvaged my mental wellbeing by not attending a conference on Mental Wellbeing.

You say that title is clickbait? I say I’m guilty as charged

This post is not a treatise on why we should avoid virtual conferences in our already-oversaturated digital lives.
This post is a reflection on how we can make choices that support our own self-care, even when those choices seem counterproductive.

Earlier this fall I was thrilled to see the announcement for the theme of the upcoming MuseumNext virtual conference: Museums, Health, and Wellbeing. I told a number of people, “This conference theme is me.” It so perfectly represented my most recent work, passion, and the niche topic that I’ve been speaking on over the past three years.

For context: A (briefly) annotated bibliography

In the summer of 2019 (pre-pandemic), I first breached the subject of mental health among museum workers in the post, “The great museum social media manager exodus.” That inspired me to dig deeper into the subject, leading me to blog about burnout and moral injury, anxiety, post-museum identity, and emotional labor. (That sounds really depressing, but I promise my writing is chipper!) I was also interviewed for the Social Pros podcast — my episode was aptly titled, “Burnout is real among social media managers.”) I shared about self care in museums in an interview with Jing Culture & Commerce, in the GLAM Salon on Clubhouse (when that was a thing), and in a webinar panel for the Knight Foundation.

I’m no expert. I’m not a doctor, psychologist, HR professional, or researcher.
I am an empath. I’ve found solace in hearing others’ experiences and expertise and I’m grateful for the platforms that allowed me to amplify their messages.

Which brings us to November 2021.

Image courtesy of Stylist.

When does the excitement morph into anxiety?

Does this ever happen to you? You’re so enthusiastic for an opportunity that presents itself…but then the deadline gets closer and suddenly reality becomes immensely overwhelming. If you’re someone who thrives on procrastination, count yourself lucky. It means you’re likely motivated by the ticking clock and appreciate the challenge of checking off boxes down to the last second. But for others, a deadline can be the end of an anxiety-ridden journey. Motivation wanes. The mental checklist seems endless. And doubt begins to set in. Those with anxiety usually will push through these overwhelming feelings with thoughts of how they “must” complete the tasks in order to succeed, often at the expense of their mental health. In their anxiety-driven brain, not meeting the deadline means failure — and that will lead to even more anxiety.

It’s a vicious cycle, anxiety.

And that’s exactly where I was on Thanksgiving 2021 — a conference proposal deadline looming on November 30. The proposal wasn’t going to be difficult to write. I’m a bona fide expert in the art of quippy titles, contextualized descriptions, and exacting takeaways. And I knew exactly what I wanted to speak about at a conference on Museums, Health, and Wellbeing. I was confident in what my most recent thoughts, experience, and fresh perspective would bring to the conversation. None of that was the problem.

My problem was the mental checklist

When I say “my mental checklist” I mean it. The crisp paper and wet ink is a visceral feeling (in my mind) and the receipt-like list of scribbles fades into the depths as I look down at all of the things I have to accomplish. This is what my brain goes throughout the day — skimming over my list over and over, getting more and more worried as new things are added and few things are removed.

Welcome to the brain of a person with high functioning anxiety. It’s fun in here.

That Thanksgiving I was at one of my most overwhelmed moments in recent years. My anxiety doesn’t often dip into depression, but this Fall I’d stumbled into some deeply depressive and sometimes scary moments. I have support from my long-time therapist, an amazingly attentive psychiatrist, friends, and family. So I’m okay. But a divorce and two moves in six months will give anyone a run for their money, anxiety or not.

That week in particular there were a lot of personal unknowns I was grappling with, as well as 1) a major national webinar I was scheduled to lead, 2) an out-patient surgical procedure for my son, 3) a chock-full calendar only a business owner can appreciate, 4) a number of imminent contracts that were taking forever to finalize (and delayed revenue to match.)

As you could imagine, my brain could. not. deal. My psychiatrist reminded me of an obvious therapeutic trick — to write down all of my to-dos and get them out of my head and onto paper. This only helped insomuch as it illustrated to my partner that I truly did have an overwhelming number of tasks to accomplish. I moved on to another therapeutic trick —changing the things that I can control in order to minimize stress.

Image courtesy of Trello.

Change the things you can control in order to minimize stress

I just felt like that was worthy of repeating in true “header” status.
… So, anyway. I did just that. I went over my major tasks in my mental checklist and considered my options for all of those that I had control over. As a business owner, I’m privileged to have control over many things. I can adapt my schedule to provide space for self-care, I have two co-owners that can pick up my slack, and I have a brilliant, competent team who can make independent decisions. Even with all of these factors on my side, the shifts I made for my day-to-day mental health weren’t enough to combat the massive tasks I had on the horizon.

In my heart, I knew that my potential acceptance at the MuseumNext virtual conference would be mentally and emotionally time consuming for me. I’m the type of person who really, really prepares for a presentation. We’re talking typed notes, printed, highlighted, and annotated. While submitting for this talk seemed like a “have to do” on my mental checklist, it actually wasn’t. Honestly, it did feel ridiculous for me to not submit a proposal for a conference on museums and wellbeing. At the same time, it made the most sense for me to take control and choose my own mental health in that moment.

Of course there wasn’t a guarantee that my proposal would be selected. What I gave up was the potential to formally share my experience on applying mental-health-first process to team workflows. The medium, the platform, and the audience that I would be presenting to were perfect, it’s true. But another opportunity will come. The opportunity may come to me or it may come to someone else who is doing parallel work — and that’s okay. If another chance does come my way, I’ll be in a better mental space to most effectively share the information. And in the meantime I know that I won’t be working against my own mental health goals in order to — ironically — share about mental health.

Let’s keep prioritizing self-care

(Or — a list of things I need to stop forgetting over and over.)

  • Get that mental checklist out of your head and onto paper
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for support from those around you
  • Consider which things on your list are the ones you have control over
  • Change the things you can control in order to minimize stress

Anxiety brain be damned. We’ve got this.

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