**Speaking to a student whose school I recently visited…**
Me to teenager: “Are you driving yet?”
Teenager: “No, but I’ve got my learner’s permit.”
Me: “Are you excited? I remember how excited I was to learn to drive. It was scary, though, too. You’ll get the hang of it. It won’t take long.”
Teenager: “I hope I don’t freak out, I’m worried other drivers will get mad at me.”
Me: “Don’t worry, student driver cars are usually marked in some way.. People know you are just learning; they’ll give you some leeway. It just takes time and practice.”
I didn’t pass my first driving test. I showed up for my class, studied and aced the written test, but I didn’t take seriously the idea that learning the art of driving would take time, practice and a lot of patience. I imagined that I would have this innate knowledge of driving once I got behind the wheel. I didn’t take into account the need for real-world practice or experience. I was cocky for the actual road test; it didn’t occur to me that my instructor might “fail” me for not coming to a complete stop at that crosswalk or parallel parking “too slow; “but he did, and I was mad.
Looking back, I was focused on what should be and what I expected, paying no mind to what is.
Learning the skills of self-care is a lot like learning to drive a car. We often expect to already have these skills, when in reality, learning how best to care for ourselves is a process that typically requires a lot of trial and error before we figure out what actually works. When we fall short of caring for our bodies or managing our stress levels, we are often surprised and frustrated. When we watch other people have difficulty taking care of themselves, we tend to be much gentler, especially if we are aware that they struggle with balancing their lives. If they share their situation with us we are likely to say, “We’ve all been there. It’ll be okay. It just takes time and practice,” much like I told that young teenager.
Self-care is an art AND a science. Trial and error, attention to patterns and assessing needs take time and practice. We must be patient, observant and thoughtful. We have to develop an understanding of how our “vessel” works and how best to respond to its unique needs. There is no perfect manual for us to consult; we do not arrive on the scene as an expert. We do however, have the roadmap that we are constantly adding to that shows us tried-and-true routes to healthy self-care. Consulting an expert or trained professional to guide us in balanced nutrition habits, good sleep hygiene, avoiding negative influences, getting in some mindful movement and setting up support systems are excellent places to start.
We are learners, and learners deserve empathy and compassion. Harsh judgement and criticism do not help motivate us to try again. Expectations of perfection, whether from ourselves or others, is even less helpful. Permitting ourselves and others to learn and make mistakes –to be human – are the most helpful things we can do to take care of ourselves and the people we care about.
If you or any of the people around you are making the effort to learn a new life skill, be patient with them. Offer them the same margin for error that you would offer to someone just learning to drive. It takes time and the support of the surrounding community to foster the growth of a person who will be thoughtful enough to fully stop at the crosswalk, and thus more likely to pass the test.
What You Can Do: We are all learning, and we can all be teachers, too. What healthy behaviors come easy to you? Using your strengths, how can you support others in becoming proficient in self-care?
What You Can Do Today: Imagine everyone you see (especially those who seem to be struggling in some way) as having a “learner’s permit” sign hanging around their neck. Does this make you feel more compassionate or patient towards them?
Stephanie Haines, M.Ed., CHES, is the prevention education specialist at Walden Center for Education and Research. Her role is to provide prevention education to school communities including students, teachers and administrators regarding eating disorders, body image and related topics. Before joining Walden, Stephanie was a senior health educator and prevention specialist at the nonprofit organization Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD) Educational Services in Newton, where she provided education to students in 50 countries about the prevention of alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse. Earlier in her career, she was a licensed occupational therapist in the Newport, N.H., school district. Stephanie earned her master’s degree from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where she served as a graduate assistant to Margaret Burckes-Miller, founder and director of the university’s Eating Disorders Institute. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Granite State College and an associate’s degree from New Hampshire Technical College.