When I was 7 or so, I got a sweet purple banana seat bike. Oh man, that bike was great. At the time, we lived next to a small elementary school that had a set of steps leading up to the front door of the school. They were wide steps with a short rise and a long run, and we used to ride our bikes down them. Which was awesome, until the front wheel on my fancy purple banana seat bike came loose and I didn’t know. About half way down the steps, the wheel won it’s campaign for independence, and I went ass over teakettle. I’m sure it was pretty spectacular (and horrifying) to watch. I don’t recall any of the aftermath – not because of head trauma or anything like that, I don’t think. I also don’t remember how I got my ersatz unicycle home.
I was in a professional development session today about self care. The subtle and ancient art of not burning yourself out. The facilitator said that she’d never had so many people sign up for a session before. So in the minds of the good people of $dayjob, knowing how to care for yourself is more important than how to have difficult conversations or how to recruit the best people for your team or unconscious bias. Those things are all important to career development but knowing how to put on your own oxygen mask before you try to save your loved ones topped them all.
I mean, $dayjob is pretty great at supporting our mental health with things like notmyselftoday, and our EAP and good stuff like that. Several jobs ago, I worked at a place where, after completing my 8 hour day, I was told that I couldn’t be the first one to leave all the time. The collective understanding was that we couldn’t just leave after 8 hours. I had to say until someone else left first. Wait, what? I had to continue to give time – for free- to my employer so that I wasn’t the first one to leave? And when I didn’t feel like playing chicken with the rest of the department about how long I was willing to say beyond my defined work day, I was labelled someone who was not a team player and let go. That didn’t break my heart even a little bit. Later, at the evil empire, we sat in an all hands meeting and listened to the Overlord squawk about how he didn’t understand why we were complaining about the availability of parking. Just the week previous, he was walking through the building at 8 pm on a Friday wondering where everyone was. Um. At home? With their loved ones? Sheesh. It seems almost like a joke, but it really, really wasn’t.
So now that I work at a company that values it’s employees mental health it is refreshing. Having peers who are willing to admit to things like postpartum depression or anxiety disorders or work-life balance problems with sick parents makes it feel less scary to admit that you aren’t as together as you might (in another place) feel like you need to project. I’m more likely to admit when my own anxiety is several orders of magnitude higher than allows me to function well. If I’m feeling crispy around the edges in one facet of my life, I can usually smother the flames in other facets. But not always. Sometimes, it’s just a disco inferno.
So how do I avoid setting myself ablaze? What does self care mean to me? It means staying hydrated without feeling like you’re drinking from the fire hose. Having the bandwidth to be challenged, without feeling like I’m going to bury myself alive, just to prove I can use the shovel. Realizing that the front-tire is loose before I go careening down the stairs.
The facilitator of the session today got us to reflect on what fuels us, what sucks the air out of our sails, what we need to feel our best, and what others can count on us to do. She’s suggesting that we do a quarterly (or more frequent) check in with ourselves. It occurred to me as I was thinking about these things that these are moving targets. The thing that used to fuel me can eventually drag me down. I feel like that’s a pretty good indication that I might be about to jump the tracks. Or possibly already be airborne. I mean, the answer to “what is self care” is easy. Taking care of yourself so you can take care of everything else. The harder part is *how* to take care of one’s self.
I was talking to Bossman recently about the end of my volunteer position at the cadet corps. I used to really enjoy the effort, but then it became work, and then it just stopped being invigorating and started being rage-making at worst, draining at best. So I gotta go. He asked what I was going to do with all my found time. His point was that the 20 hours a week I was chasing things and doing things would leave a gap, and if I didn’t have new goals, I might feel unmoored. Fair point. I had some hand-wavey ideas about spending the summer doing more gardening (without burying myself with the shovel), and sitting on my terrace drinking frosty beverages (not from the firehose) with my friends and family, and visiting the beach (without getting caught in a riptide). These are the Right Now self-care answers. In the fall, the answer will be different. And that’s OK.