Look After Yourself, Because Few Others Will

I hope it hasn’t escaped your attention that it’s mental health awareness week. Truth be told, I’m a bit torn about allocating a single week per year to encourage reflection on mental health. Shouldn’t we be doing that every week? Or even every day? But at the same time, perhaps an occasional reminder to look after yourself isn’t such a bad thing after all.

To live is to struggle. Believe me, I know from personal experience. I was raised by a mother who was either full of love and affection or anger and sadness. She suffered from borderline personality disorder, a mental health condition that eventually led her to take her own life. The traumas I’ve faced throughout the years would be, I think, for most people almost unbearable, but I’ve always come out the other side stronger and more resolved to slay the obstacles before me. Many of us are capable of confronting much more than we give ourselves credit.

In order to survive this thing called life, you really need to look after yourself. I’ve found that academics are pretty poor at self-care. One of my professors at Cambridge was notoriously bad at it. He once told me that he ended up going to the hospital for emergency surgery and had to stay as an in-patient for a couple weeks. When I told him I was sorry to hear that, he laughed and said that it was a blessing in disguise because he was able to finish his book while convalescing in his hospital bed.

Most academics I know are masochistic to some degree. I have one friend who spends 9AM to 4PM either in meetings or teaching. She then eats dinner, takes a short nap, and works on her research from 7PM until 11PM. This is her daily schedule. Even though that might be considered an extreme case, it would be highly unusual to find an academic who doesn’t work on weekends. As a Head of Department, I often tell my faculty not to do that, but sometimes it cannot be helped.

“Most academics I know are masochistic to some degree.”

So what can we do to look after our own well-being? What kinds of changes can we make that will correct our our destructive path? I have a few suggestions, beyond the obvious pharmacological solutions.

Join a society or club. I am very active in a number of societies that have given me a strong sense of meaning and purpose and the opportunity to interact with like-minded individuals whose values and interests align with my own. There is no shortage of such groups. Learn karate. Join a Men’s Shed. Take an art class. Pick up a second language. Volunteer for your political party. Participate in a Bible study. Discover the joys of baking. Just get out there and do something other than work.

Get a pet. I love my dog. She’s been a part of my family for 10 years. Even as I write, she’s curled up next to me and I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and connectedness when I look at her. Humans will inevitably let you down, but not a dog. The love I feel for her is deep and very real.

Get off social media. Twitter, in particular, is a hellscape. Yes, I’ve made some lifelong friends solely through that platform, but the interactions I have with strangers are overwhelmingly negative. The civility that typically characterizes face-to-face interaction goes out the window and it becomes a free-for-all mob of “activists” hellbent on digitally stalking and bullying you.

These are just a few ideas. There is obviously no magic bullet, but I can tell you this: if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to end up sad or poorly, or even both. Look after yourself, because few others will.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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