Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Self-Care As A Way Of Life

"The ultimate source of a happy life is the attention we pay to our inner values" - Dalai Lama
“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”  ― C.G. Jung 

Self-Care as a Way of Life

K. returned home from an enjoyable trip where she had fun and did not have to rush to get anywhere. She felt rejuvenated for about a day, until responsibility and daily obligation returned. Many of us can relate to yo-yoing between high intensity work and then play, with what feels like a constant urge to escape and get away from it all. Self-care as a way of life is a paradigm shift away from temporary relief into long lasting satisfaction. 
Key pillars for self-care as a way of life include self-reflection, self-acceptance, and setting boundaries.
A daily routine of asking, “What do I need?” and, “What helps me?” each morning brings attention to what is in your control and what will feel empowering if pursued. For example if the answer to what I need is rest, and you pull down the shades, and close your eyes for a few minutes, your perspective and energy levels change. Positive psychology research shows that by writing down 3 things that went well and why these things matter to you, preferably at the end of the day, your mood will improve. This act of self-care shifts your focus onto what in your life is working, and helps you stay focused on the present.
Offering loving understanding to oneself is another act of self-care. It is important to allow and befriend all the parts of yourself; the fun-loving, silly, professional, strong parts as well as the needy, embarrassing, sad, and scared parts. Even the parts that keep you feeling stuck. If we understand that our emotions serve a function, and see how our behaviors make sense given our history, hopefully we can forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. When we keep our attention on what is meaningful to us, and bring all the parts of us along, we move our life in that direction and we are not beholden to external events.
J. grew up in a household in which children were expected to be quiet most of the time. Expressions of anger and fear were not tolerated. In fact, when expressed, the grown ups would say things like “Why are you crying? Oh, I'll give you something to cry about.” While dad lived at home with J. and their family, he was mostly absent from family life besides for the occasional question as to why her grades were not higher or yelling at the kids when mom was overwhelmed. J. was not unique to her peers in this situation growing up at a time when most dads were not involved with raising children. J.'s mom often expressed feeling overwhelmed, and was prone to depression. The pain J. grew up with was mostly invisible. She had a home, lived with her parents, no worries about having enough to eat, and did not experience physical abuse or violence. These factors contributed to what made understanding and accepting J.'s low sense of self-worth confusing and troubling. J. did not believe she had the right to not be happy considering how so many people in the world lived in worse situations. J. experienced shame and felt like a complainer, a quitter, and somehow defective for never feeling like she belonged or feeling she was wanted although she had a sizable social circle. J. wondered if people genuinely liked her, or just put up with her. Recognizing parenting advice and cultural norms have changed, J. does not blame her parents for how she was raised. Yet, she continues to struggle with self-doubt and negative self-talk, she minimizes her successes, and feels devastated if someone is upset with her when she is misunderstood or when she makes even the smallest of mistakes. She adheres to a not so hidden rule that unless everything is perfect, as defined by her, she is a failure. A classic all-or-nothing distortion. Because her sense of self stands on shaky ground, rather than on a solid foundation, it doesn't take much for her to feel she is toppling over. Even as she is loved by friends and most family members, and is competent at her work, J. walks around feeling like a fraud, endlessly comparing herself to others and not in a way that makes her feel good about herself. J. often experiences physical pains, anxiety, and occasionally is completely wiped out for a day or two when anything unexpected is added to an already full day.
When discussing self-love, J. balks, and says it sounds cringy and that she has no idea how she would go about doing it. While intellectually, she understands the idea and value of such a practice, emotionally it feels strange and maybe a little wrong. J. is able to accept the shortcomings of others, such as when her best friend is unavailable, the limiting beliefs of her parents, and even her own child's whining, which drives her up a wall. However, she does not offer herself the same standard of understanding. Once J. can see herself as no worse and no better, but as an equal human being, she works towards allowing herself to express her wants and needs. She has always had them, but until recently felt guilty and resentful about them. J. would say things like, “Everyone else can just do whatever they want, but I can’t get away with that. I have to be responsible and understanding.” She dreamed of caring less about what others would think of her. It is when J. treats herself as a beloved friend that she experiences glimmers of self-love, which at first are accompanied by grief and loss; the realization of the valid yearning she has had all this time. It also feels unfamiliar, and a little unsettling. J. had to be ready and willing to give to herself as a grown-up what she never had before, and didn't know was hers for the taking.
For many of us, the unintended consequence of hearing things like, "I’ll give you something to cry about," or, "Stop being a baby," as a response to our pain, is that we learn it is not okay to share when we are hurting, and worst of all, we question the validity of our own feelings. Children’s emotions can be just as intense as adult’s, although their bodies and cognitive functioning are not as developed. We can understand how people feel disconnected and distrustful of their feelings when early experiences denied their reality of pain, fear, and sadness, inadvertently teaching these individuals to doubt the validity of their experience. Some of us also hear, and may believe, there is something wrong with us for expressing or feeling emotions deeply. For others, who had the courage to ask for what they needed or wanted, and then had their wishes fall on deaf ears, they may conclude that they can only depend on themselves to take care of their own needs. In some areas of life, this may turn out to be a great source of strength. However, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, this belief may contribute to difficulties. The objection to trusting others, and sharing needs and vulnerabilities, leaves many people feeling confused, dissatisfied, and even resentful about their relationships. They are operating from what they learned in terms of how to cope and survive, but because it is a natural drive to want deep connections with others, they remain unsatisfied.
What is not intuitive, until a person zooms out to reflect and explore the impact of emotional neglect, are the remnants and false interpretations conjured up in a young person’s mind who was trying to make sense of and move away from pain. Yet a young developing mind is unable to consider and understand fully the context the hurtful experience happened in.  J.’s no-show dad and depressed mom both prioritized raising their children to be solid citizens, enforcing social norms over emotional attunement and kindness. Perhaps they operated out of the same playbook they were raised out of. Nowadays, we know so much more about the function of our emotions, the importance of connection, and our tricky brains trying to keep us safe and alive, even if the cost is happiness and peace of mind.
Lastly, self-care as a way of life prioritizes setting boundaries. We sometimes overlook or minimize the impact of dismissing our boundaries because of expectations to let things go, be accommodating, or not make a big deal out of things. Self-care means honoring your boundaries, which are personal. Everyone’s boundaries are different. Surrendering one’s boundaries consistently leads to resentment, lack of self trust, and exhaustion. With all that is going on in the world, the actions we take to recharge our energy, rather than deplete energy, boost self-care. Figure out what your line in the sand is; anything from a toxic relationship, to a pattern of not getting enough sleep, to impulse purchases, and notice how you feel when you regularly stick up for what matters to you.
When your actions match your values, you are living self-care. Even while living through extremely difficult situations you are developing internal strength by taking care of yourself. Many of us are waiting for something or someone to fix things for us. Remember there is a capable, nurturing person, with a call to action in your vicinity, and it’s you.