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I recall sitting in Butler’s Blue Java Café with a budding friend. We were discussing our sleep habits, and I mentioned that I go to sleep around 11 p.m. and wake up around 8 a.m. most days. Suddenly, the mood shifted, and she looked me in the eye with a mixture of frustration and jealousy.

“Fuck you,” she said.

Her tone wasn’t light, and we weren’t close enough for me to receive her profanity as a friendly gesture meant as a joke. Rather, her tone was biting. Even if she had meant her words as a joke, that wasn’t how I received them, and the result was shame. Her words shut me down. It made me feel embarrassed of my habit which I had worked so hard to integrate into my life.

Despite the wording of the phrase, “self-care” requires much more than the self. It requires an example that you can follow—a friend who decides to attend yoga instead of starting a paper, who validates that breathing is more important than studying. It requires a university whose policies view asking for extensions due to burnout and feeling overworked as an action of power rather than a sign of weakness. It requires a community that fosters and encourages healthy habits rather than reprimanding them.

Perhaps the beginning step in creating a community that promotes self-care is defining the term. As relaxing as a Lush face mask or Netflix binge can be, I don’t necessarily think that self-care is always easy. In fact, self-care is often something as time-consuming and important as schoolwork. It’s spending the time to find a form of exercise that brings you joy and sticking to it because your body feels stiff from studying in Butler for so long. It’s saying no to an invitation to an event you’re dreading and meeting up with friends who make you feel good instead. It’s learning how to put down your homework in favor of meditating, or trying out deep breathing, or just going for a walk.

It’s difficult to take care of yourself in a community that has not only defined self-care incorrectly but also shows jealousy and aggression towards those who actually attempt to take care of themselves. Last year, I gained a reputation for going to sleep early—a reputation which warranted nicknames like “grandma.” I wondered whether my refusal to stay up until 4 a.m. in Butler and drink Redbull was hindering my ability to bond with my peers. Of course, that wasn’t the case. Refusing to stay up extremely late is normal, but our perception of Columbia’s “normal” is skewed in favor of the extreme and detrimental.

In an environment such as this, developing healthy habits is hard enough as it is, and taking the time for yourself can feel selfish or unproductive at first—a mindset that I find concerning. Why is so much of our social interaction based upon our late-night study groups and competing over how long we can stay awake? It’s no wonder so many of us struggle to properly take care of ourselves.

Maybe if we pushed ourselves to value self-care as much as we value academics, we’d be more successful at practicing it. The best way to push ourselves is to push each other. Last Sunday, it was dark at 4:30 p.m. (as it tends to be during these relentless winter days), and I lacked motivation to exercise, let alone leave my room. I needed encouragement from company, as I couldn’t find the energy to go to yoga alone. I reached out to a group of friends and, upon a few responses, found friends who would walk to 104th Street with me to breathe deeply and contort our bodies in unfamiliar ways.

On the walk back, I felt I had opened up not only physically, but also emotionally. My friends and I shared our feelings, expressed how great we felt, and basked in the warmth of our zen. A new friend of mine began talking about her sleep habits.

“I go to sleep early and wake up early. It’s so peaceful to have my coffee in the morning before everyone is awake.”

She probably wakes up earlier than I do. She also attends yoga three times per week, while I can barely muster going once or twice a week. Despite her greater ability in doing the things I wish I could do, I didn’t react negatively. I didn’t use the situation to feel offended or insecure or inadequate. Instead, I felt inspired by her ability to wake up so early, and excited to know that surrounding myself with her luminescence would teach me how to even more effectively take care of myself. Knowing there are people who push these Columbia norms and value taking care of themselves more than anything else gives me hope.

This semester, the most invigorating part of writing my column was the response. People messaged, emailed, and even retweeted that they want to foster this community of caring openly about each other. They want to smile at each other. They want honest conversations about our institution without the pretentious bullshit. They want to learn the small details about each other’s home states and favorite desserts and special traits. So take this as an invitation to open yourself up to our campus, a campus of people who simply need a catalyst—that first act of kindness, of self-care—but are ultimately all craving the same reform. Take this as permission to sleep early. Take this as permission to breathe.

Katie Santamaria is a sophomore in Columbia College studying nonfiction creative writing. She’s probably getting ready for bed already. Email her your hot takes about wellness at Wholesome Content runs alternate Thursdays.

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