off days

I like riding rollercoasters, but not so much in the metaphorical sense. This past week was filled with bouncy hurdles and repeated difficulties, almost as if invisible sine waves were tracing my volatile emotional state. The more colloquial term to describe this phenomenon: off days — where the lights abruptly shut, the music stops, and the proverbial rug gets pulled from underneath your feet. Often used by athletes and artists who find themselves drifting out of their high-performance zones, I also find it a comfortable comparison to the day-to-day dread that sprouts out from time-to-time.

I've been thinking more about the psychology and philosophy of these off days. Where do they come from? How do they permeate into all aspects of daily life? What are the solutions to react and respond in an emotionally healthy way?

I find myself especially scatterbrained during these times. Almost like getting hit by a spiritual sucker punch of sorts. Worse yet, there's not always a rhyme or reason for these haunting sensations — although sometimes it surfaces as an aggregate of unlucky & unfavourable events. The most insidious thing is the circularity of the situation: off days are the result of off days. A nasty case of negative compounding and gradual degradation of your mood. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy propagated by the barrage of negative thoughts, infecting and consuming every aspect of your life until you're nothing but a dried sponge. Okay, I admit I'm being a bit dramatic with the metaphors — but just imagine getting mentally locked in a limbo loop for god knows how long. No bueno.

For me, my off days are coloured by a flat, foggy shade of grey, analogous to the texture of a murky, soil-infused riverbank. The undertone is complete slowness. My usual pathways to progress and productivity (and by generous extension, purpose) grind to a complete halt. Fulfilling labour morphs into fatalistic lounging. My sense of time is containerized and locked somewhere abstract, suspending my ability to make meaning and find small joys in the mundane.

For me, slow is suffering, slow is suffocating. The thing is, I didn't realize I had been trapped in thinking that slowness was Enemy #1. The dominant sentiment was that I always had to be moving forward, probably exacerbated by the recent energy of “hot boy summer NYC 2021”. As Ava aptly speaks to slowness:

"Slow weeks often feel like a failure to me. But slow weeks are inevitable. I know I write this over and over, but I still believe it’s true: all we do is lose faith and regain it, lose faith and regain it. We try to touch the hem of perfection and we miss by inches. Then we try again."

Fortunately, my experimental curiosity — the quality of trying again — is one overriding characteristic that rarely gets crowded out by fluctuations in my mood. At the end of this weekend, I purposefully leaned into deliberate slowness and I took a trip to a lavish Turkish bathhouse. I signed up for a literal full-body experience, with a post-bath massage and a tea tasting to boot. The result? The most relaxing yet immersive experience I've had for a very long time. By willingly surrendering my soul for 2 hours, I happily converged on an appreciation for slower settings and gratitude for the emotional rollercoaster ride that enabled this much-needed reset.

I'm going to wind down this piece by logging three reminders to myself, in order to re-integrate the bathhouse magic anytime I find myself drifting in slow space:

  • Tapping into self-therapy: Therapy teaches you to lean on self-inquiry and self-care to address internal tensions. But there's also an important lesson about how to best react once you find yourself in a kerfuffle: pause & pick.

  • Reframing as rest days: The most practical application and the most simple execution — slow is just rest. As a naturally high-energy organism, I'm an advocate of the sprint-to-slow cycle where both motions live symbiotically.

  • Embracing nothingness: There might be truth to Jenny Odell's argument in How to Do Nothing, where a critical point is that nothingness is a reminder that you're alive. A cautionary tale to not get lost in the woods of the world.

I've painted a dramatic scene about being stuck in “off mode", but the silver lining is that everything does pass. Definitely an overplayed platitude, but the awareness and acceptance of that fact develops an armour of built-in resilience. I'm typically too hopeful (to a fault?) but I sincerely think that developing calm is a mid-20s competitive advantage to mitigate the risk of persistent off days. I've learned that one benefit of becoming generally calmer is having a lot of control over yourself when negative moods bubble up. This adds a layer of subtle support, harmonizing your self-talk with self-aligned behaviours. After all, I don't really believe in balance, but I do strive for harmony.

Let's allow our off days to co-exist with, and even reinforce, the ~on days~.

Published by Sam (samwong) 7 months ago on Saturday the 16th of October 2021.

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