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Self-Care and Immigrant Children (Part 1: Why Self-Care is So Hard) (#45)
Kepler-16b, the Buteyko Breathing Technique, and Why We Suck at Resting
In this week's LWH🏡:
💫— Self-Care and Immigrant Children (Part 1: Why Self-Care is So Hard) by Vandan Jhaveri
📚— Breath by James Nestor: I’ve been interested in the powerful benefits of healthy breathing for a while. James Nestor does a beautiful job detailing the ancient and modern history of breath and how learning how to breath properly (guided instructions included in the book) can transform our health for the better. Definitely recommend. (Amazon)
🎥—What we found when we went looking for another Earth by Vox: Featuring Sara Seager, an astrophysicist from MIT, and Adam Cole, a video producer at Vox, this video delves into the variety of exoplanets in the universe and the odd planetary arrangements we’ve discovered. This video really makes me feel like we really could discover a planet with some form of life in my lifetime. (YouTube)
Self-Care and Immigrant Children (Part 1: Why Self-Care is So Hard)
In the classic immigrant child trope, children apply themselves academically from an early age, eventually graduating into a competitive post-secondary program and ultimately a high-paying career. They are driven by a need for financial security and financial freedom unattainable by their parents due to precarious working conditions and fragmented social support.
In my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been around dozens of immigrant children who fit neatly into this trope. My social network is almost exclusively doctors, engineers, lawyers, investment bankers, and management consultants, by absolutely no cause of my own. Where I’ve grown up, there happens to be a high density of immigrant families, the children of which have gone on to achieve great academic and professional success through sheer hard work and industriousness.
Now that my limited sample of immigrant children is in their mid-to-late twenties, I can draw some extremely general conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses of the stereotypical immigrant child archetype. Of course, there’s much to praise and celebrate in the massive upward class mobility realized in just a single generation for most immigrant families able to nurture and provide growth opportunities to their children, but that’s not the full story.
There is an undeniable cost to the young people who dedicate their lives to progress and achievement that is not easy to evaluate until we’re in the tail-end of our long, arduous academic journeys or early in our careers. The general lack of self-knowledge and utter cluelessness in regard to our unique self-care mechanics is staggering. By “unique self-care mechanics”, I mean a thorough and tested understanding of which activities energize, relax, and fulfill us.
These activities allow us to step away from day-to-day demands, recalibrate, reassess our calculated approaches to problems, and return to the demands of our high-octane lives with a refreshed sense of purpose. I hypothesize that decades of focusing on outward goals and incessant preparation to pass the next impending milestone on a winding and competitive journey has left little space and energy for introspection, self-experimentation and deep personal insight.
For many people, these self-care activities are called “hobbies”. Almost by definition, any material advantage from engaging with our hobby is a bonus since the act of doing the hobby is the reward in and of itself. For many immigrant children, a hobby is a foreign concept altogether.
Further, most of our parents have a relentless work ethic that has afforded us so many crucial opportunities, but leaves little to no room for self-care. Partially due to a lack of role models, we don’t consider the role of hobbies or self-care in our own life until we already feel the strain of over-exhaustion and some damage has been done.
Over the next two newsletter issues, I will discuss why I think immigrant children struggle with the idea of self-care and what the solution might potentially look like for many people. Again, these are generalizations—many immigrant children have developed their own comprehensive self-care toolkits, even aligning different forms of self-care to different types of stress they may feel in their lives, but I’ve grown to believe those individuals are the exception, not the rule.
Why Self-Care is So Hard for High-Achieving Immigrant Children
The Productivity Premium
For immigrant children in higher education and competitive professional environments, there is always a major upcoming assessment that requires extensive focus and preparation. This conditions us to place a premium on productive activities that have a material impact on our ability to perform well. Activities purely for ourselves and without obvious connection to academic or professional progress are easily relegated further down the to-do list.
There is the pervasive belief that fun and relaxation must be earned and is therefore only given a thought once all the preparation is completed. Amidst exams, performance reviews, and deadlines for submitting academic papers, however, there is always something for which to prepare. There is always a good reason to feel behind.
This breeds dejection and exhaustion. It’s easy to overlook the importance of taking a step away. We convince ourselves to push for another hour, ignoring the slowly crescendoing knock of hunger, isolation and overwhelm until we can’t ignore it any longer. Of the myriad of things we juggle, our health is the first to be dropped. We are quick to tolerate more battering and neglect if we feel like it will make any difference at all once the assessment arrives.
Instinctively, we focus on the task at hand and tell ourselves we can deal with the damaging consequences later. It’s second-nature to tolerate more pain and discomfort than to jeopardize material progress. We climb onto ladders and unhook our body’s fire detectors, willfully ignorant of our body’s blaring alarms, then have the nerve to grow frustrated with the smouldering pile of rubble our bodies become through burnout.
To feel satisfied, we must know we have given our goals our all, even at the expense of our internal equilibriums, even if we would have been able to win a passing grade either way. There is an unconditionality to the premium we place on productivity. Insidiously, after progressing past a major milestone and receiving the respective flood of dopamine, we grow evermore conditioned to engage in the same self-injurious behaviours all over again and evermore justified in doing so.
Forward progress, at all costs. Even if that cost is ourselves.
The high-achieving immigrant child has extremely limited practice doing something they’re not very quickly good at. The abstract concept of failure is a constant threat and not performing well at something feels instantaneously akin to failing, even if the reason for the poor performance (e.g., trying something new for the first time) is entirely justified. Even if we engage in activities that we may intrinsically enjoy, we are quickly reminded that we’re not as good as we “should” be. We disengage and refocus our energies on what we know we’re good at, which is studying, preparing, and planning for the future, even subconsciously.
When we observe ourselves struggling with the basics of a new pursuit our hurtful self-talk dissolves our interest as quickly as it was piqued. We feel childish in the wake of our child-like curiosity, painfully aware that if someone were to assess our performance, we’d most certainly do poorly. This evokes a panic response and scares us back into our zone of comfort where we are studying, preparing, and planning, contorting ourselves into machines for progress the best way we know how.
It may be more painful, but it’s a familiar pain we have grown to associate with a deep and reliable sense of accomplishment—the same pain we have grown addicted to through years of conditioning.
For a lot of high-achieving immigrant children, progress is determined by how successfully we perform in relation to our peers. As a result, how our peers perform has a strong emotional sway on how we interpret and assess our own performance.
In the context of self-care, it’s almost impossible to engage in self-care activities for which our peers demonstrate a higher affinity. We might reassure ourselves by telling ourselves others may have been bowling more often, playing chess for longer, or been taking watercolour paint classes for years, but the idea of engaging in those activities for us very quickly loses its luster.
To briefly highlight with an example: Ashish loves to sew. Although he isn’t phenomenal, he enjoys the feeling of making something completely from scratch. At a professional event, Ashish meets Kunal, whom he learns, coincidentally, also sews for fun. Kunal, Ashish quickly realizes, sews much more complex and intricate pieces than Ashish.
Ashish can’t resist the perils of comparison and immediately feels like sewing, in the way he does it, is childish and a waste of time, despite it being a source of confidence for Ashish before meeting Kunal. Appraising the value of engaging in an activity based on how well one performs it in relation to others is too deeply ingrained a mentality to escape in this non-academic, non-professional domain. For Ashish, sewing will never be the same.
In another example, Ashish’s good friend Tushar observes how much fun Ashish has sewing, and thus asks Ashish to spend an evening with him to teach him the basics. Tushar turns out to be a natural and within a few weeks, surpasses Ashish’s skill level. Tushar ends up loving sewing and begins exploring new skills on his own.
Ashish is happy for Tushar but also, admittedly, feels frustrated and a tinge of resentment. In Ashish’s worldview, skill is highly correlated with time and energy invested. For Tushar to surpass his skill level with much less time invested, Ashish feels like something is inherently wrong with him for not developing at the same pace as Tushar.
Now, sitting at his sewing machine reminds Ashish of his own incompetence instead of inspiring him to create like it once did. What was once a fun and nurturing self-care activity has become just another task to practice and get better at on Ashish’s to-do list.
Too Far Behind
Given how long high-achieving immigrant children dedicate themselves to learning and practicing a trade, many of us reach our mid-to-late twenties without a clear understanding of what we “do for fun”, despite feeling like adults. Adults, as we naively believe, have strong senses of identity, know who they are, and know how best to spend their downtime. By the time we feel we have earned the freedom to explore, we feel behind for not having a hobby or self-care routine to call our own.
By default, we resort to doing what we feel should be relaxing, to little avail. Many of us frequently get our nails done, read leisurely, go out to fun restaurants, and engage in a host of other stereotypical self-care behaviours, but feel as burnt-out as ever.
We also all have a few people in our lives who have undergone the same strenuous academic or professional track, yet still have a unique handful of activities they know brings them joy, energy, and relaxation. Observing these peers, we can’t help but feel like if we were going to find something similar, it would have happened already. We feel too far behind to begin.
Transforming Our Relationship with Self-Care
Those of us who struggle to identify high-yield self-care behaviours may need a more proactive and intentional approach to uncover what makes us feel rejuvenated and primed to do our best work. A high-pressure, high-performance life led with no outlet to recuperate will undoubtedly be short-lived. We’re organic, biological beings that implode without rest. For all the thought we put into maximizing our output, we put abysmally little thought into how to optimize rest and regeneration.
Next issue, I’ll be exploring some useful strategies high-achieving immigrant children (and others, of course) can use to begin the process of identifying which activities might fit our own unique definition of self-care.