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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

States in Limbo

Recognizing the impact of physical space on my attitude and my mood

The result of some furniture shifting at work: A cozy plant corner!

I always seem to forget what a big impact the physical space around me has on my mood.

But like it or not, as a high self-monitor, I can’t help it. When I’m in a group with a lot of energy, I feel energized. When I’m among quiet introverts, I can easily frame shift to fall in line. I’ve noticed that days when I have to go underground and ride the subway, my mood slightly worsens. On the contrary, on days when I surround myself with plants and nature, I feel much better.

None of this is all that surprising. But one area where I’ve noticed this physical space pickiness coming out has been when we change up our office environment. When I worked at Stack Overflow, I had 4 or 5 different desk setups in four years. I used to point to my anxiety around an in-office move as evidence that deep inside, I’m change-averse. But I don’t actually think that’s it.

After all, in the 7 years that I’ve lived in New York City, I’ve lived in four different apartments in three different boroughs. Even when I have lived in the same place for awhile, I have a habit of rearranging our entire apartment every six months just to shift perspectives. So clearly the change itself isn’t the part that stresses me out.

But I’ve also noticed that, when I do move from one apartment to another, I have a tendency to unpack and organize about 80% of the boxes right away. In fact, I would have a hard time going to sleep in my own home if I were surrounded by boxes. This isn’t actually because I’m a neat freak (anyone who has seen my desk knows this isn’t true).

I’m realizing it’s because I have a strong dislike of “states in limbo.”

An unpacked suitcase. An apartment in transition, full of boxes. That feeling at the airport when your flight hasn’t taken off but you don’t know how long the delay will be. The way you feel after sending in a job application but before you hear back from a recruiter. Or, in my current case, an office environment that’s been in a transitory state of construction and partial rearrangement for several weeks.

On my best days, when the weather is nice, and I have a few great meetings and time for my afternoon coffee break, the condition of the office setup around me would be annoying, but by no means debilitating. I could laugh it off, roll my eyes, go for a walk, and take my meetings somewhere else for the afternoon.

But on my worst days, days like yesterday, where I spent all weekend sick, felt a progressive headache throughout the course of the day, sat through a long meeting while feeling anxiety about the work week ahead, an invisible line is crossed. On these days, just one little annoyance like, “I can’t find a place to take a phone call in private” is where I hit my breaking point, transforming from a normal, collected person into a manic and irrational one in a matter of minutes. I can no longer think, I can no longer breathe, and I certainly can’t get work done.

It’s likely that all of us have triggers like this — little things that shouldn’t normally mean anything, but when compounded on an already bad day, deplete your willpower muscle down to zero and cause you to act out. Maybe for you it’s noise. Maybe it’s interruptions. Maybe it’s something else. But recognizing them seems to be an important first step. For anyone I’ve ever come across in a “state of limbo” — whether it be at work, in the airport, or on the subway — I’m sorry. Going forward, I’ll be sure to have my coffee beforehand next time.

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