Self Care? Yeah, Right...

The following is based on a talk I gave on October 8th at ACAC fitness center in West Chester...

When you hear the phrase, 'self-care', what comes to mind? Do you have a list? An ideal?

Let me ask you this. Would you consider your life hectic? Is self-care a priority? In theory only? In practice?

Is meeting your ideal self-care standard a challenge? (raising my own hand...)

I'll admit this is a phrase I've thrown around.. how could I not in my line of work?

"You have to take care of yourself .. if you're a mother, wife, caretaker, human being, you'll be of no use to anyone if you don't take care of yourself first.. blah blah blah ..."

And everyone has an opinion about this - me, the holistic world, well-meaning friends and family, Dr Oz, Oprah.. all with a litany of advice, suggestions, and 'simple tips' for how to do this.

This is not another (not so) simple list for what I think you should be doing.

My story, in short.

I contacted a friend/therapist a bit ago, for some help getting though this, ahem, transitional period. I'd been going it alone for awhile, and ran into some snags. And I though, lookit me! Taking care of myself! How very adult. And mature.

In the process of our talks, she asked me the Question: "How do I show up for my self-care?" I immediately thought, 'okay, no prob. I got this.'

Several days later, while in the shower, mentally going down the to-do list for the day/month/year/life... which started out manageable, quickly gained weight ... and then, some arbitrary item tipped the scales into utter overwhelm.

Then her question appeared. How do I show up for my self-care?


The tears began. And the attendant discouragement.

Self-care ... this phrase, I soon realized, had an unconscious railway of thoughts attached to it. Another whole to-do list, which not only seemed impossible but made me hate her just a little for even assigning me that homework. It was like a little box with one of those prank snakes coiled up.

And then a brief moment of self-reflective questioning.

Maybe my ideals are are too high. Maybe too many things on the to-do list. Maybe I can let a few things go for now.

But wait? What's this under the snake? Oh.. a tiny little phrase that I hadn't quite noticed, just under the "You really have to do this..."

It read, '...because if you don't..."

Remember what I preach to my clients? 90% of what they bring to me I attribute to some form of self-neglect. So logic says surely I will fall to the same... breakdown, headaches, back surgery, hip replacements, heart attacks, cancer ... if I don't deal with my stuff and take care of myself.

I could immediately see that this unexamined line of thinking wasn't helping me to feel less stress.

Was this true that all this would happen? I really don't know. Was it helping me to try to manage the rest of my living days with concern in this moment that I can't yet maintain a meditation practice? Not really.

Do I believe self care is necessary? Yes. But if these thoughts are causing me pain right now, then maybe I should look at them a little more closely.

Insight One. One of genuine, authentic do-able-in-the-moment self-care. Examine my current thoughts. Derail the thought trolley that only goes in circles.

What I will dub as 'Anti-Self-Care Thoughts' that usually begin with:

    "I really should...", "If only.....", "I just wish...." " I just gotta...." "What's wrong with me that I can't.....",      "Why can't they just....?"

How many of those suggestions are mine, are pop-culture's, are the holistic community's? How many are things that are not only not true for me, but are unpractical and unrealistic given where I am right now?

The Ah-ha.

Maybe self-care is not about taking on an exercise regimen, overhauling my diet, wishing I could have a vacation, anything to do with 'pampering' (my pet peeve word). Maybe it's a moment-to-moment decision. Starting with, where are my thoughts going right now, and what concerns can I jettison. What items on my list are tipping the scales into overwhelm? And why?

Insight Two.  Self-care may mean not just taking care of the body, but taking care of the mind, and the quality of the moment.

I did feel a little better in challenging the fear that was underlying my 'shoulds'. I felt space and a little peace, and a temporary sense of 'okay, I think I can handle this'.

The joy of a few days of peace around this whole 'self-care' thing.

The Irony. Coming down with a bad cold.

But even then, I was forced to really choose carefully. I did not (in my mind, 'could not' ) drop certain commitments, and did not deeply explore why until later. Even now, I'm wondering if that should have been a great opportunity to examine the other side, the 'why I couldn't give myself a break'.

But I digress.

Point is, I've been really examining this whole self-care idea.. what it really means, what forms it can take. And they can be deeply personal and unique... not generic prescriptions or external standards. And certainly, keeping them within reasonable expectations helps.

For example, here's my generic, 'new year's resolution' list:

- cook three healthy meals a day, including food to bring to work
- bake bread
- daily qigong or yoga practice
- any kind of daily exercise practice
- bike rides in the summer
- daily meditation
- shiatsu once a week
- take vacations twice a year
- regular juicing and seasonal cleanses
- keep my house really neat and organized
- regular journal writing
- delegate the housework to my perfectly able-bodied sons with grace and ease and calm authority

Yeah, right.

Here some forms I've realized it actually takes for me:

- letting myself off the hook (letting others off the hook... expectations of others can be stressful    too)
- questioning thoughts that cause me stress
- refraining from eating cereal for lunch
- noticing when my energy flags ... and asking what's really causing it
- being honest with myself
- being honest with others
- standing in wu chi position (a relaxed, but alert and grounded stance)
- turning the music on really loud
- walking to the mailbox
- weeding or mowing the lawn
- admitting I'm angry
- admitting i'm being petty or judgmental or any number of other qualities I hate owning up to, at least to myself
- saying no
- saying yes
- getting to bed when I'm tired
- making peace with what I can't change in this moment, or ever
- throwing a private temper tantrum
- taking deep breaths
- drawing from my Source
- cleaning up my space, my desk, keeping my bedroom clean
- throwing things out
- knowing where my limits are and when to ask for help
- tapping into my own core when faced with difficult people or stressful situations
- exploring fear
- getting my coffee pot ready to go the night before
- rereading letters of appreciation
- washing my bed clothes

Lots of little things, as you can see.

I've found that my ability to go on for long periods of chaos is not because I can take two week vacations to recharge (or even weekends off, because I don't yet feel comfortable doing that), or get regular massages, or delegate with ease... but because I've learned to tune in to the moments of need and ask what is it I need in this moment? And why?

Why self-care?

Well. we've identified the long-term health implications.

But we also do these things so our day-to-day experiences are better, more manageable, more joyful.

I have to accept that my life is what it is right now.

\Wishing it were otherwise, or that I had more discipline, or more hours in the day doesn't help me feel those qualities of peace and energy and presence. Two week vacations are great, but they wear off, and anyway, are damn near impossible right now.

Finding ways to experience those qualities right now, or when I need them, are what keep me chugging. But also, there are certain practices I engage in by default that have helped me tune in to my emotions and my body so I can discern what I need. Teaching qigong makes me practice it. Giving shiatsu makes me mindful of where my energy is, or isn't, and what I need to do so I don't deplete myself. Wanting harmonious relationships with my children reminds me to breathe. A lot.

*Another self-care practice is recognizing that what I need may not be possible right now, and exploring whether I'm strong enough to absorb the hit without resentment. Usually I am if I do it consciously. *

But those are my answers.

So, how do you know what you need, when you're in need of self-care? 

What happens when you neglect yourself?

What qualities are you longing for when you feel overwhelmed?

What glimpses of those qualities can you bring to situations that are less than the ideal?

I hope this gave you some things to think about, if the idea of self-care is a challenge for you, or aspects of it feel stressful. I hope that you can open up your ideas around what it means, allow it to take a different shape for you that meets your needs and the uniqueness of who you are and your situation.

Here are some more questions to help you further explore this topic...