The Downsides of Passion

I am a pretty passionate person. I get real excited about stuff. I have strong feelings about a lot of things, and I really, really, really want to get involved in like…everything in the world (I told my coworker this the other day and she nodded and smiled. Later in the conversation I happened to mention that when I was younger I used to be really into raptors and for a while had considered becoming a raptor rehabilitator and her response was “wow you really DO want to do everything”). For the most part I love this about myself. Many of my friends are the same way, and it’s pretty great to care a lot about things, to be unabashedly enthused, to just want to do the things you’re doing.

Very few people would say that having a lot of passion and a lot of care for a great number of things is a bad thing. But like most things in life, it is not without its downsides. It’s easy for outsiders to always encourage those of us who are overly passionate to follow our interests, to keep getting involved, to never let that passion die. It’s easy for it to seem like an unqualified joy: after all, who doesn’t want to enjoy lots of things? It’s easy for those of us who do love a lot of things to put ourselves in some unfortunate circumstances because we can’t see that sometimes it’s good to let go of a passion or a love.

So what is it about loving lots of stuff and caring a whole helluva lot about stuff that can hurt you? The thing that tends to pop up the most quickly is burn out. I’m going to use my life as an example because it’s the one that I know the best. Starting in high school I participated in every extracurricular I could possibly jam into my life. I also volunteered, took as many advanced classes as were offered, and attempted to have something like a social life. It didn’t take very long before my stress levels shot through the roof. By the time I hit my junior year I was in therapy thanks to the breakdowns from just NOT HAVING ENOUGH TIME. Just for an idea of what it was like, here are the activities I participated in my junior year: competitive swimming all year round, theater, speech team, quiz bowl and knowledge bowl, piano lessons, three AP classes, volunteering at the local library, and attempting to study for and take the SAT and ACT. This is not healthy. I loved each of these things individually, but all together they made me miserable.

This still happens. I know others who are like this. We can’t pass up an opportunity. An LGBT happy hour? Count me in! Going climbing with a friend? Heck yes! Volunteering? Of course! Joining organizations? Add them on! Learning something new? Yes please! And of course now we’re adults and don’t have the boundless energy of a child, and we’re trying to build up a career, and have relationships, and save money. It’s just too much. So sometimes we have to say no. And that hurts. It hurts a lot. It’s like cutting out a little part of yourself and throwing it away. Giving up on something you have passion for? Oh man, the worst.

This is the next piece of the loving puzzle: the obligation you feel for everything you care about. We feel we have to fully commit to everything. We start to identify ourselves with each and every activity we do, each and every cause we care about, each and every thing we could possibly incorporate into our lives. And then everything starts to feel like a life or death decision. Should I go to this workshop or that volunteering opportunity? If I don’t make the right decision I’ll have let people down, I won’t have lived up to my commitment, nothing will be right! It makes every day into a series of “I’m disappointing someone” tradeoffs because there’s no way you can do everything. You constantly feel like a screw up because overextending yourself means nothing gets done as well as you’d like it to.

This all seems to me to tie back into a myth that many of us learned as kids: we can do it all. There are a lot of people living their lives right now under the impression that they’re capable of doing everything that they want to. Unfortunately, you can’t. That’s not meant to be a negative: you can do all sorts of fantastic and wonderful things. You just can’t do every single fantastic and wonderful thing that you would like to do. Believing that you can sets you up for a trap when you’re a passionate and engaged person. Here’s how it goes in my mind: “I’m really excited about everything in the world. If I’m excited about something it makes perfect sense to try that thing and to not give up that thing. Therefore I should do everything in the world”. At this point I usually realize I can’t do everything in the world, start freaking out and hating everything and wondering why I have to live in a world in which I can’t do the things I love.

I can see some of you out there looking shifty and pretending you don’t do this too. Repeat after me: “I cannot do everything I want to do. I am capable of doing each thing I’d like to do, but I must pick and choose where to spend my energy. This is not a bad thing. This is not to hurt me. It is simply a fact”.

Loving things is great. Loving things so much that you can’t give them up? Not so great. Loving so many causes that you feel obligated to work yourself into oblivion? Also not so great. Being passionate is only good in so far as it is effective for you as an individual. When your passion pulls you in too many directions at once, when it leaves you pining for something you gave up years ago because “well what if?”, when it means you’re running around morning to night with no time for self care…then you need to start carefully reminding yourself that your passion is not an imperative.

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