Is “Self-care” the New Millennial Term for Being a Wuss?

It seems nowadays there’s a lot more talk about self-care than there used to be. When I was growing up no one talked about this, and in my formal training it was inferred that you weren’t cut out for the job if you couldn’t handle the frequent rejection and frustration that accompanies most creative professions, particularly during one’s formative years. Signs of weakness were typically looked down upon and were often met with responses like suck it up, get over it, toughen up, etc. There certainly wasn’t anything like taking a “mental health” day. Nobody talked about mental health unless it was obvious that someone was “not all there.”

During a conversation about performance anxiety, a colleague said to me, “They throw you out there and you either sink or swim. It’s as simple as that.” That seemed a little harsh to me.

But this is indeed the mentality of almost everyone from my generation and older. We came from a line of thinking that told you you’d never ‘make it’ if you didn’t have thick skin. Of course, no one taught you how to build thick skin; there were no classes in mental fortitude and resilience. You either had these qualities or figured out how to grow them for yourself somehow.

Teachers asked about your talent but rarely (if ever) asked how you were doing as a person. You either won or you were a loser. You either had what it takes to make it or you didn’t, and some teachers were more than happy to tell you to your face if they thought you didn’t have what it takes.

There are commiserating chats among teachers about current students’ abilities to handle, well, most things. Somewhere along the line, things changed from winners and losers to “everyone gets a trophy” no matter what, and all work is fantastic. An A grade rarely constitutes excellence anymore, and parents’ and educators’ desires to bolster the confidence of all children actually led to expected privilege, narcissism, and a warped understanding of skill acquisition.

In creative fields this also led to quite a bit of delusion of course, which we frequently see exploited on first round auditions of TV talent shows.

It’s easy to see why the pendulum swung so far the other way. Adults who, as children and adolescents, heard things from those in mentor positions like “You’ll never amount to anything” must have felt so damaged by such statements that they feared another child going through something so painful. I’ve heard countless stories of good, talented people being told horrid things; a prominent director once told a colleague of mine she was a “waste of space on stage.”

She was in college. (And she turned out to be a world-class singer so joke’s on you, nasty director.)

These kinds of “get tougher or get out” statements did cause many people to turn a corner and come back with an “I’ll show you” kind of attitude. But really – are statements that put people down and challenge their validity really the most effective way to motivate someone to rise up?

Not from what I’ve seen.

But now it’s all quite a mess, isn’t it? There are those who had to fight their way to success despite being beat down by others who now pass that ritual on, and those who swore to never give negative feedback to someone even if that was the truth.

Millennials got stuck in the middle of all this. And to complicate matters further, they are also the first generation to have access to computers and digitization since birth.

So while Millennials might seem like a soft, squishy version of generations coming before them, I’d assert it’s not their fault.

Parents, teachers, and others in mentoring positions: it’s you who really need an attitude change. If you’re dealing with a Millennial who’s complaining about life, teach them perspective. Stop complaining about them – they weren’t brought up in the same conditions as you. Help them understand how to assess and cope and build. If you’re dealing with Millennials who are being lazy, teach them about self-discipline and show them what they would get out it. Telling them they’re lazy isn’t giving them any information they don’t already know.

For those who are afraid of crushing a young soul and thus promoting everything as being rosy, that’s not helping. There are ways to help people understand where the quality of their work stands without putting them down. You don’t have to be negative to be honest. Learn how to communicate in a way that allows you to empower people without feeding them a bunch of BS.

And for those who feel they can say whatever they want and if the person can’t take it then they’re not cut out for whatever: shame on you, really. Learn some skills on how to communicate effectively. Just because you’re bitter about being beat down when you were growing up and learning doesn’t mean you need to perpetuate the behavior that you yourself hated. That just shows you desperately needed mental health days and never took them.

Millennials also have a responsibility in this. And to those of you from this generation: self-care *is* important. Most of your mentors could learn a thing or two about it. Just make sure it’s not an excuse to do a half-ass job. People tend to “need a break” when things are not easy. Learn to work smarter, not harder. You can’t always do all the things, either.

You also don’t get to use the excuse that no one ever taught you something. You grew up with Google, and I’ve found that a search using “How do I” + whatever you want to figure out solves about 80% of problems. Don’t listen to people who put you down OR to people who tell you everything you’re doing is great all the time. Learn to assess yourself fairly without judgment, and do the same of others. Be honest with yourself. Learn to honor when you need to take care of yourself and when you need to motivate yourself to work on things that are difficult.

Of course, those thoughts for millennials also go for the rest of us.

Just as in other parts of life, when the pendulum swings all the way to one side or the other, things are usually a mess. Balance is critical for a lot of things, and it’s rarely mentioned as something that should be applied to just about everything. All too often we move through life in all-or-nothing modes. I don’t recall balance in life being talked about when I was growing up; maybe it would have been helpful for people my age and older if it had been an important part of discussion. Now it’s a hot topic: work-life balance…

Self-care is just another word for balance. And it’s something in which we should all have a vested interest. Things are typically at their best when they’re balanced, and that goes for people, too.

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