What can we rely on when the only thing that feels certain about the world right now is uncertainty? Uncertainty is not something that our human brain tolerates well. Our brains much prefer predictable patterns, reliable ones that when things occasionally veer off course, can quickly be adjusted for and brought back to a calm routine. These patterns mostly serve us well. We can set ourselves to autopilot and cruise along comfortably, even enjoyably. It serves us well - until it doesn’t. Being plunged into uncertain turbulence can result in stress, anxiety, and the increasingly omnipresent overwhelm. How can we navigate uncertainty with a greater sense of control, confidence, and grace? By focusing on the one thing that we can rely on and the only thing that we ultimately have control over - ourselves. Practical self-reliance provides simple, sustainable practices that allow you to regain a belief in your abilities to meet your own needs and accomplish more than you believed possible. In this post, we will provide a broad overview of what practical self-reliance is, why it’s important, the potential downsides, and a few simple places to start practicing.
There is a comfort that comes from being able to meet your own needs. To know that no matter what happens, you will be able to survive and perhaps even thrive. When it comes to self-reliance, we often think about it in the extreme; survivalists who can take on the raw wilderness with nothing more than some lint from their pockets, floss, and a rusty knife. While that is undoubtedly an example of self-reliance, for most of us, it isn’t very practical. What does a more realistic version of self-reliance look like, and how can it help alleviate the stress, anxiety, and overwhelming feelings associated with uncertainty?
Self-reliance, in its most basic form, is having the skills required and confidence in your ability to meet your needs without dependence on others. It is the word dependence that is an essential differentiator between traditional self-reliance and practical self-reliance. As human beings, we thrive in community, and the majority of us do not do well in isolation. Being practically self-reliant does not mean that you are required to, nor should you do, everything on your own. It is the belief and confidence that you will be able to navigate the often complex human relationships necessary to satisfy particular needs. By doing this, we can come to work in community with others to support each other’s needs, but our fate is not controlled or determined by another.
From the outside, I am not a person that you would associate with traditional self-reliance. My natural state is one of awkward, often clumsy anxious energy, perfectly adapted to the comforts and conveniences of our modern life. The odds would not be in my favour if I suddenly found myself in a real survival situation. However, while they might not be in my favour - I would take those odds. Every. Single. Time. What the oddsmakers don’t know is that what I lack in the skills of traditional self-reliance I make up for in practical self-reliance. Mental and social skills that aren’t immediately apparent from the outside, but are essential components of practical self-reliance.
These internal skills come more naturally to me and have only become stronger with more life experience and the benefits of formal education in psychology and neuroscience. I started learning to be self-reliant when I was young. I remember being in elementary school and asking how to spell a particular word. Without even skipping a beat, my father directed me to a dictionary. He likely would have expended less effort spelling the word than arguing with me about if I could effectively use a dictionary without knowing how to first spell the word - but there I was pulling the giant book off the shelf. While this is a small common example - for me, it is an exemplar of learning practical self-reliance. In that simple lesson, my father planted seeds of self-efficacy, encouraged me to stretch beyond my own self-limiting beliefs, and taught me the importance of trying even after the frustration of the first roadblock. Small lessons like this added up and eventually moved into more difficult to navigate situations. As I grew I tested my limits more and more. I learned that I could change a flat in the middle of the night on a rural road, heal myself after heartbreak, and navigate into and out of potentially dangerous situations.
While the individual lessons on their own aren't ground-breaking or unique, the continuous reinforcement of these skills in varied arenas created a strong foundation to build on. For the mental skills of practical self-reliance it wasn’t so much what I was learning, but the underlying mechanisms of how I was learning it. By being allowed, encouraged, and occasionally forced to find my own solutions, pathways, and connections were being created that made them easier to access as the challenges became more and more complex.
It is these pathways and connections that inform one of the core features of the Loaf Farms method of teaching practical self-reliance - purposeful action. Our brains are masters of efficiency and when given the option of a previously worn pathway vs. a novel route, it will take the well-worn path each time. We use this to our advantage through the use of purposeful action. By pairing a tangible skill of practical self-reliance with the mental and social skills we provide an embodied learning experience. This way of layering the lessons helps to build and reinforce the pathways and connections resulting in deeper learning.
When Emerson famously wrote of Self-Reliance in 1841 - he encouraged his readers to embrace, appreciate, and amplify their individuality. This encouragement has been used to promote the idea of individualism over collectivism, but in the context of practical self-reliance it takes on a different meaning. Practical self-reliance also encourages individuality, uniqueness of thought, and belief in oneself to speak their truth, but it also emphasizes the understanding of how your individuality fits amongst other individuals. Examining the edges of your capabilities and natural strengths and challenges provides you with an understanding of when to seek assistance from another.
While I may not fit the image of traditional self-reliance, my husband does. Given lint, floss, and a rusty knife he’d likely chortle at how easy you’ve made it. I’ve watched him go from knowing nothing about solar energy - to completely rewiring our 1970’s RV to be primarily solar-powered. Something that came in remarkably handy when stuck with a dead battery and no possibility for a boost. Where I am a thinker (and rethinker, and rethinker) he is a doer. Separately we are each capable and self-reliant in our own ways and while there are things that we do for each other that make our lives easier, we don’t need each other. However, by coming together and supporting each other’s practical self-reliance, we are able to achieve more and chase loftier goals than what we would be able to do separately.
Being a practically self-reliant individual among other individuals requires social skills that aren’t necessarily associated with traditional self-reliance. The ability to live in a community means understanding how to adapt and mold your unique individuality in ways that benefit not only yourself but could potentially benefit those within your community. Conflict resolution, communication, listening, how and when to ask for help, how to offer assistance, and how to make and maintain healthy positive relationships are all social skills of practical self-reliance. These skills help us to live within a community with other individuals and can allow us to thrive both as an individual and as a collective.
One of the most challenging skills to master when learning practical self-reliance is knowing, accepting, and communicating your limits and boundaries. When you believe that you are capable, and you have skills that allow you to be as self-reliant as possible, it can become difficult not to feel like you HAVE to do it all. The line between being practically self-reliant and foolishly self-reliant can often be incredibly hard to see. It is the difference between fixing a loose wire yourself and rewiring your entire house. Foolish self-reliance can push you beyond your growth limits, lead to greater isolation, and feelings of resentment.
Humans are imperfect, try as we might there will be times in our lives when we are wholly dependent on another. Whether we fall ill in mind, body, or spirit, there may be times when we lean more heavily on our relationships or community than we would like or expect from someone who is self-reliant. Being able to accept a change in one's limitations can be extremely difficult. Whether it is a permanent shift or a temporary state there is a readjustment phase that comes with grief, anger, anxiety, and sadness.
Being practically self-reliant is a constant practice one of continuous evaluating, learning, and growing. Contrary to the popular idiom, practice does not make perfect, because perfect is not the goal of practice. The goal of practice is to be able to develop skills, habits, and experience so that you can masterfully apply them when the unexpected strikes - and give the illusion of perfection. Practice allows for mistakes, experimentation, and changes in course. In fact, good practice depends on all of those. Remembering this when faced with the more challenging skills of practical self-reliance provides yet another opportunity to experiment with failure.
The great thing about practical self-reliance is that you can start whenever or wherever you are.
Download Worksheets HERE or use your preferred method to capture your thoughts.
The first step in getting to where you want to be is understanding where you are. By reflecting and taking stock of what strengths and resources that we already have we can start to get an understanding of how we can achieve our goal.
Over the next week set aside 30 minutes each evening to reflect on the following 5 questions:
Once you know where you are starting you can start to dream about where you would like to be. What would your ideal be? What would it look like and what skills would you be using most often?
Use the worksheet here (or your preferred method) to free write what your ideal future looks like. There are no rules so feel free to dream.
Now that you have a rough idea of what you want your future to look like you can start to see where the gaps or areas for growth are. Do you want to learn more physical skills? Or do you need to focus on identifying your strengths?
Take some time to reflect on your present and your ideal. Think about the following questions (Use your own preferred method or use the worksheets here):
It is one thing to think, dream, and plan about a shift or a change - it is an entirely different thing to get out and DO IT!
Use the worksheets here or your preferred method to answer the following questions and then commit to a day and time to start. Keep yourself accountable by telling a trusted friend or family member - or better yet get them doing it too!
By focusing on developing the mental, social, and physical skills of practical self-reliance, we can regain a sense of control despite not being able to change any external circumstances. This sense of control can prevent your brain from sliding into its more reactive state when faced with uncertainty, and alleviate the fear and anxiety that comes with it. Instead of being overwhelmed, you can enter into a controlled sense of flow - where your skills, strengths, and competencies align with the challenge you are faced with.
In a world filled with uncertainty, it is possible to develop the skills you need to navigate it with confidence and grace. You don’t have to plunge yourself into extreme isolation or wilderness to understand and test your ability to be self-reliant. You can start whenever and wherever you are. Allow yourself to regain control of the one thing you can rely on when all things seem uncertain - yourself.