Grab Your Parachute, Bitches! Self-Care as Calculated Risk

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Beyond Bubble Baths

I’ve watched the internet’s recent obsession with self-care from a distance, with deep fascination and a generous sprinkling of distrust. Like the good 17th century Puritan that I secretly am, I side-eyed all these people walking around enjoying themselves. Manicures, sheet masks, and baths with glittery slime trails filled my feed under the hashtag #selfcare, and I scoffed. Who’s scrubbing the baseboards or--what’s a 17th century Puritan chore?--darning the wool socks while all this relaxation is happening? Who’s making sure all the things that need to checked and straightened and fretted over and being checked and straightened and fretted over?

My initial take-away from all this was that self-care was about taking a break from your daily stressors by indulging in something you enjoy--a use-as-needed mini-vacay. And don’t get me wrong, that’s definitely something this stressed out sock-darner needs to cultivate in my life. But then I started seeing people diving deeper and exploring the functions of self-care as a tool for healing and personal growth. I started seeing things like @makedaisychain’s illustrated series of “Boring Self Care” actions that include things like picking your clothes up off the floor, scheduling necessary medical care, and attending to your sexual needs. I read think pieces on the social-emotional and political side of this concept with titles like “5 Reasons Why Setting Boundaries is Crucial to Self Care” and “Self-Care as Radical Feminist Praxis.”

I really connected with all this, and I was stoked to be able to start calling my ritualized Saturday cleaning frenzy and my extreme avoidance of literally any phone conversation Good Self-Care. After all, technically those things fit squarely under the parameters I was seeing. My Saturday chore frenzy is an intentional ritual that helps me feel productive, and avoiding phone calls is honoring my preferred methods of communication, right?

…...right?

Self-Determination and Letting Disabled Kids Fall on Their Faces

At the end of the school year this May, like I do every year, I reflected on the successes and failures of the special education program I manage. The toughest fact I had to face was that for all the growth students have made while they’re with us, and for all the internships we’ve been able to place and keep them at, they are still not achieving permanent supported employment after graduation.

The best current research tells us that self-determination--that is, viewing yourself as the causal agent in your own life--is the biggest predictor of improved quality of life outcomes for people with disabilities, including employment. When I first learned that, I thought “Sure, okay, but we do the whole self-determination thing and we’re still not seeing those outcomes. We help kids be independent, we give them lots of choices, we teach self-advocacy, right?”

...right?

The more I studied self-determination theory, the more I realized where our missteps have been. We’ve given kids choices, but either through heavy-handed suggestion or shielding from potentially negative consequences, they always end up making the right ones while they’re with us. We’ve manipulated the environment too heavily, and the result is that kids are able to be effective causal agents ONLY in that heavily padded environment where there’s always another internship waiting if you get fired from your first one and your teachers are always waiting in the wings to remind you to get your hall pass signed and brush your teeth before your interview.

There’s a clip in the show Speechless where J.J., a teenager with cerebral palsy, gets mad at his dad for refusing to let him play sled hockey in a league for wheelchair users because it would be too dangerous. When the rest of the family finds out, they’re mad too.

“He could get hurt,” Dad reasons.

“So?” his daughter counters. “I get hurt playing sports all the time….why shouldn’t JJ?”

The instinct to protect those that we love, especially those we perceive as vulnerable, is a strong one. We want them to be successful like everyone else, not to fail like everyone else, completely forgetting that you can’t have one without the other. Not authentically, anyway.

The House That Comfort Built

I can’t think of a single time in my life that I made a significant amount of growth without an equal amount of discomfort. Building tolerance to targeted, repeated discomfort is the basis of exposure therapy, which I believe is biggest reason that my panic attacks and OCD drastically decreased in high school. In order to become good at my job, I had to experience excruciating seasons of discomfort as I forced myself to do things outside of my norms and habits and experienced the cycle of setting a goal, taking action, and adjusting my plan.

But in my own self-care practice, I began to notice a trend of shielding myself from discomfort. I can send an e-mail instead of call so that I don’t have to deal with my phone anxiety. I can eat a lavish take-out meal instead of confronting my flawed coping mechanism of overeating. I can binge watch The Office instead of processing that microaggression I did earlier that day and making a commitment of how to do better next time.

I can drastically manipulate my environment so that I become the most functional, healthy, wise, self-cared-for individual...in my living room.

Self-Care as Calculated Risk

There’s a time for ice cream, and a time for bubble baths. I’m not trying to knock any particular type of self-care practice, because they are all healthy and useful to different people at different times. But I am saying that lately I’ve been really into this particular type of self-care that I don’t see represented very often in the Tumblr-Insta-Twittersphere: the self-care of calculated risk-taking. Just like with my students, I’m trying to stop shielding myself from discomfort, and start actively planning to toss myself into it,  knowing that growth will follow.

This looks like forcing myself to make that phone call to a stranger, but taking two minutes for deep breathing afterwards. It’s choosing to wear an outfit that draws attention to an area of insecurity knowing that I’ll feel a little anxious all day, but that if I do it enough times the feeling will go away and I’ll gain a new level of self-confidence. It’s having the difficult conversation I’ve been putting off but planning ahead to text a friend after to debrief it.

It’s possible to put so many bumpers on our lives that we make a barricade. When that happens, we need this type of self-care to start chiseling holes into it that give us a glimpse of what’s waiting on the other side. And we need it even if the chiseling really, really sucks.