“Self-care is also not arguing with people who are committed to misunderstanding you.” ~Ayishat A. Akanbi⠀
It was an early evening in late June of 2020. My housemate and I were eating sushi in our backyard while crickets tuned up for their nightly symphony around us.
To our right loomed a voluminous green tree, imposing in height but with a texture (furry and cuddly like a Sesame Street character) that made it seem friendly.
I could’ve really used a friendly creature right then.
Hours earlier we’d found out that our housemate—who’d contracted COVID while on vacation with a fourth housemate—would be returning home the following day.
I’d expressed my discomfort with this, in no uncertain terms; however, my housemates had dismissed me and maintained their plans to return home regardless.
I considered my options. One would be to stay at home. Even if my housemates didn’t transmit the virus, the CDC had advised (when sharing a house with a COVID positive person) to quarantine. I’d pause my life for two weeks, foregoing my income (as a freelance Spanish interpreter my assignments had not yet been moved to Zoom) while living with the anxiety of potentially contracting the virus.
*This was pre-vaccine, when knowledge of COVID and its long-term effects was minimal. People (younger ones included) were dying from the illness daily. I was experiencing mysterious health symptoms at the time, so my health felt especially fragile. Months later I’d discover the cause to have been Celiac disease.
Option two would be to stay at motels. I’d spend some of my savings while continuing to pay rent on the apartment I was leaving behind—but my health would be spared. I’d also be able to continue working, which would help to cover these costs.
I was leaning toward the latter and expressed my line of thinking to my housemate as we ate our meal out back.
There was more nuance to the interaction than I’m able to capture here, but basically, the news of the uninvited COVID house guest hadn’t fazed this housemate, and she seemed visibly annoyed that their decision was causing me anxiety.
Here was the gist of our exchange:
“You could catch COVID from one of the hotel maids,” she said. “Hotels aren’t safe.”
“Less safe than sharing a house with a COVID positive person?” I challenged.
Sensing my frustration and incredulousness, her face hardened. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she said firmly, her tone suddenly icy and sharp.
A butterfly had just landed on my chopsticks. To keep calm, I focused my eyes on its gently fluttering orange wings. I continued focusing on them while my housemate stood up, picked up her sushi debris, and walked back toward the house.
After packing my belongings, leaving the house, and relocating, my emotions fluctuated throughout the week. An internal tug-of-war of, “Just accept the decision they made and let it go / No don’t, your needs and feelings are valid and that wasn’t okay,” played out various times.
I’d have understood if either housemate had contracted COVID at work or the supermarket, or under any other circumstance that falls largely outside of one’s control. Or if they’d already been home, I would never have asked them to leave.
That they’d gotten sick in another county though, despite CDC’s strong desperate plea for people to refrain from traveling—and had then knowingly brought it home—made all the difference.
I brought these concerns up again during a video call with my housemates after I’d been gone for five days, only to be dismissed once more. My housemates suggested that if I didn’t like it, then maybe I should find another place to live (no matter that I’d been living there before them and had even chosen them as housemates).
After our call ended, the room around me spun as I sat there processing that nowhere in my housemates’shared consciousness had there seemed to be any acknowledgment of my reality or validation of my perspective.
Moving out indeed seemed like the most sensical and emotionally healthy option.
I’d left a few weeks earlier feeling like I was fleeing a burning building. While gone, I realized that the fire would have continued blazing had I continued living with them—long after my housemate recovered and COVID ceased being a threat.
It would be because my trust and emotional safety were broken for me now. When in place, these things provide light and warmth. When they’re broken, that light turns into flames. I felt like my options would have been to armor up indefinitely, or to leave the burning house behind.
Certain issues (when small enough) can be swept under the carpet. Some are mere annoyances best handled by simply letting go. I’d done that with some of my housemates’ prior behaviors that had bothered me.
But this one felt too big to fit.
The day I returned to the house to pack up my belongings, I thought about how different things had been just a few months prior. How at the start of shelter in place, the four of us seemed to be getting along—becoming, if not friends, at the very least friendlier.
How abruptly things had taken a turn.
The emotionally stressful situation brought to light two important lessons for me.
One was that we each have to be our own best protectors.
My housemates had described their decision to come home as a boundary, which I suppose it technically was (in my opinion, a harmful and inconsiderate one). They were entitled to return, and I couldn’t physically stop them.
And while they had a right to that boundary, I had a right to decide I wasn’t safe with people who’d feel okay with setting such a boundary despite the stated impact it would have on a person they were coexisting with. I had a right to decide that their boundary was incompatible with my receiving the care, respect, and consideration that I both need and provide in return.
If others are disrespecting us or disregarding our well-being, we can decide our hearts aren’t safe with them. We can remove them from their reach.
If they’re uninterested in considering your perspective, don’t try harder to explain it in a way they’ll understand. They don’t deserve the ego boost of having you chase their acceptance.
We can’t and won’t change others’ behavior. We can only care for our own selves.
I try now to spend less time attempting to prove the validity of my perspective to people who simply don’t want to hear it. I try to spend more time making decisions that are healthy for my mind, body, and spirit.
More time on surrounding myself with people around whom I don’t even feel tempted to over-explain—because their care and consideration for me keep that impulse from activating to begin with.
We all deserve people like this in our lives. But in order for them to surround us, we must remove ourselves from situations that are harming us.
The second lesson I took was that people who harm us don’t deserve our time or mental energy.
Following what happened, there was so much I wanted to say. There were comments I thought my former housemates deserved to hear. There were character evaluations I felt tempted to launch their way.
Ultimately, though, I saved my energy, communicating only about practical matters such as getting back my deposit (which they initially attempted to withhold from me).
After finding a new living situation, I poured my efforts into friendships; into long phone conversations and Zoom calls.
I immersed myself in my interpreting work.
I cooked healthy meals that nourished me.
I pet the sweet cats who wandered through my backyard.
I wrote, spent time with my nephew, processed what had happened with a therapist, devoured books, and did my best to heal from the emotional pain that the whole situation and its bitter ending had caused me.
I also paid attention to moments of goodness—recalling how the morning I left for the motel, I’d approached my car, bags in hand, to find the back window shattered. The glass littering the surrounding pavement felt symbolic of what was happening with my living situation.
A neighbor had asked if I needed help. Mask on, he came out with a broom and dustpan. He helped me sweep up the glass. Spikes of it still hung from the back window. We broke them off together so that I wouldn’t be driving around with the shards.
A small audience of neighbors beheld the scene. Kids watched the glass shatter and land against the seats of my car. They watched it rain down onto the pavement.
In short, I redirected energy I would have spent on vengeful thoughts onto improving my life.
I want my energy. I want my equanimity and mental stillness. I don’t believe they deserve the satisfaction of taking those things from me.
Because as Carolina de Robertis put it in her novel The President and the Frog:
“Rancor and revenge could keep you mired in the past, a swamp of which he wished to be free; [her character] couldn’t afford that sort of thing, there was too much to do in the here and now.”
Sometimes it’s better to choose peace over righteousness. Above all, it’s your own heart and mind that most stand to benefit.