Long story short: Overwhelming myself in co-op taught me to take care of my mental health and respect my personal boundaries

“I signed up for co-op when I wasn’t ready because I let my lack of confidence and fears get in the way of what really matters”

Image credit Tiffany Chan

By: Tiffany Chang, Peak Associate

When I was in Grade 12,  I’d already decided on doing co-op during my third year of university;  I thought it looked like a good way to map out my academic career. After two years at SFU, I’d get used to the campus environment and the workload, maintain a good GPA, and start co-op before finishing too many units to qualify for the program.

I was admitted into co-op spring of 2018, and I landed an eight-month, part-time position that spanned from September 2018 to April 2019. The plan was to take a course simultaneously both semesters.

Everyone congratulated me, telling me how great of an opportunity it was. On the surface, everything seemed fine. I seemed fine.

But I wasn’t.

Last summer, the stress of it all had really gotten to me. I was going to school, working eight hours a day, four days a week, and still managing to apply for co-op jobs and schedule interviews with potential employers in between. I was so exhausted that even after taking a relaxing trip with my family at the end of August, I still felt burnt out. By the time my work term rolled around, I didn’t feel anywhere near ready for it. With a mindset progressively getting worse, something was bound to go wrong, and I wanted to run far away and hide.

A huge part of who I am is that I’ve always been a “people-pleaser.” As far back as kindergarten, I did things I didn’t want to do to make other people happy. I wanted people to like me. Unfortunately, this habit reinforced the idea that my value as a person was determined by doing things to please other people . . . often at the expense of my own happiness.

Things were complicated in this case, as co-op was a direction I went that made those closest to me happy. I always thought that to be a people-pleaser was to completely disregard what I wanted or thought was right.

Although I like the organization I worked for and love what it represents, I realised early on that I wasn’t the right person for what my supervisor needed. The atmosphere made me feel extremely insecure and I constantly worried about making mistakes or disappointing the established people around me. I felt paralyzed with anxiety whenever I thought I couldn’t do certain things that were assigned to me.

Getting out of bed on days when I had to go to work became a major struggle. I would show up looking put-together but was a tired, nervous wreck on the inside. On horrible, sleep-deprived mornings when I had no motivation whatsoever to commute to the workplace, I actually thought about jumping in front of the oncoming SkyTrain.  

I remember crying while looking at my goSFU account in October with the cursor hovering on the “drop” button for my class, wondering if I should just focus on the job that was sucking all the energy out of me without worrying about school. But after several minutes of staring at the screen, I decided that as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t. Our class was in the middle of working on group projects and I’d never forgive myself for letting down classmates. Ditching, especially with no explanation, is not my style. It never has been, and it never will be.

According to the professor, my group’s presentation turned out as one of the best that semester. After all the hard work we put in, I was ecstatic with the outcome. The course became one necessary hurdle I was glad I didn’t avoid or postpone, though the option to was literally at my fingertips.

As relieved as I was about finishing the presentation and felt that I had the course under control, it obviously didn’t help with getting rid of the black cloud that magically appeared above my head when it I went to do my job.

Don’t get me wrong. I worked with very friendly people and some days were better than others. It wasn’t them — it was me.

I wasn’t good enough. My internal voice just kept repeating it time and time again. It isn’t hard to imagine that I dreaded every single shift throughout the three-and-half months I was employed there.

“Wait . . .” you say,  “Hold on . . . I thought you said it was for eight months.”

It was. But because of funding issues, the position had to be cut short in the middle of January.

That’s right. I got laid off from my very first co-op job.

Here’s what’s hilarious about this: I seriously considered quitting a week before what I found out would be my last day. A tug-of-war was happening in my mind as I ping-ponged back-and-forth, wondering if the credits were worth losing my sanity over. I remember going over what the consequences might be if I did: Is my supervisor going to freak out? Does this make me a ‘quitter?’ Would all the work I’ve done so far amount to nothing? Have any co-op advisors ever dealt with students who’ve wanted to quit? 

I took a deep breath before bringing it up with my supervisor and we spent some time weighing the options together. One long, emotional conversation later, we agreed to make it work. Little did I know that my sanity would be spared within the next seven days.

To say the least, they were the longest, most emotionally draining three-and-a-half months of my life. While I was proud of myself for finding the strength to stick with it until the end, I should’ve considered my own needs more carefully before taking such a huge step. It’s probably one of the worst choices I’ve made since severely overplucking my eyebrows back in high school.  

I admit that the reason why I applied for co-op was not only to gain the supposedly “valuable experience,” but also for a more personal reason. I’ve always felt as though students in the same year as I am are maturing faster than me, and co-op looked like the best means to keep up with them at the time. Feeling like a young kid and wanting to appear “grown-up” has dictated a lot of decisions I’ve made in the last three years and these decisions haven’t exactly made me happy.

“Maybe if I got a job in ‘the big world’ right now, people would notice that I’m ‘adulting.’”

I mean . . . clearly, this was a mistake. I prioritized a three-year-old plan, that honestly could have waited a little longer, over my own mental health and sanity. Although, there have been times where I wish that I could turn back the clock and stop myself from going through with it in the first place, deep down I know that this rough patch led to learning an important lesson. I signed up for co-op when I wasn’t ready because I let my lack of confidence and fears get in the way of what really matters.

Overall, I’m grateful co-op helped me come to this realization. It took the experience of feeling trapped and alone to finally say to myself that I’ve had enough. I apologize to myself because I tried to quiet down my voice.

I will never try to quiet my voice ever again.

The big takeaway: Don’t let what you believe people’s opinions are overshadow your opinions of yourself or what’s best for you. There’s information shoved down our throats from basically everywhere, especially for us students, but nobody knows what’s best for you better than you. I realized it’s OK sometimes to put yourself first.