Close your eyes and visualize the flight attendant who is demonstrating how to put on the oxygen mask to save and your traveling companions in case of a possible airplane crash. The flight attendant instructs passengers to secure their mask FIRST, before securing the masks of others. The point being, you cannot help anyone to breathe freely until you are breathing optimally yourself…Self Care…
Recently after having a conversation with a friend about “Self-Care”, I began to wonder how many people really understand the concept and what it truly means. I’d like to begin with the most common misconception about Self Care: it’s not just a day at the spa, a night out with friends, or getting a mani-pedi. Those things can be part of a routine for relaxation, but fall squarely under the heading of pampering. Let’s break it down to the most basic parts of the phrase itself. Caring for ourselves means creating and maintaining a healthy, functional relationship with ourselves.
Beyond typical activities of adult daily living such as eating, bathing and grooming – Self-Care is nurturing our emotional and spiritual health. The degree to which we engage in Self Care can be – bellwether of our self-esteem, and signal issues or concerns that beg our immediate attention. Beyond the constant barrage of external challenges, taking care of ourselves is vital to the most sacred responsibility we have – that of identifying our needs, and actively tending to them. Most people are taught that thinking of ourselves is indulgent or selfish. Let me assure you that neither of these things are true. Becoming aware of our needs can help build the storehouse of resilience we need to cope with the outside world, and re-engage with ourselves in a positive, self-affirming way.
To be honest, a deep feeling of being stuck nearly halted my forward progress while writing this blog entry. I wanted to feel noble, sound brilliant and turn in something helpful and relevant, but my chosen topic had me in a tailspin. So much so, that I dove head first into research. I’d told myself that it was necessary. The truth however, is much simpler; it was avoidance. I had dropped right down into the snugly cocoon of one of the classic high functioning post-traumatic stress (PTS) self-defense reactions. Know what? Reading pages and pages of compassionate yet, stiff upper lip self-help, and jargon filled dissertations did not give me what I needed to move forward. I felt like a phony. I was struggling. Nahhh, who the hell am I foolin’? I. Am. Struggling…
There… I’ve said it aloud, written it, and I’m not taking it back. Isn’t it interesting that one of the hallmarks of self-help is defining our problems and failings? Too often, we seek answers to questions based on our limited understanding of who we are. Therefore, we are constantly being defined by information that may not be suited to our situation or needs. And social media doesn’t help much in the search for self-awareness or actualization. We’ve all seen countless memes with such wit as “You can’t pour from an empty cup”, and the like. Heck, what if the one thing that gives us wings to fly is reaching out to help others? What if acts of service recharge our batteries? Of course, you’ll also find information warning us that such people are only seeking ego enrichment by controlling others while pretending to be benevolent. Confused yet? Yeah, me too. I was left to my own devices to figure out what resources I need to feel like myself again; to feel as if I’m adulting in a functional mode.
As a self-admitted fixer, it is extraordinarily frustrating to feel unable to help anyone on any level So, I was in a tailspin. My usual inspirational pep talks and shared musings had begun to fall flat, even eliciting tears in a recent chat with a fellow writer about story ideas. We had unknowingly touched upon something that was extraordinarily sensitive for them, which left both of us dazed. The aftermath was equally as jarring, and left me drained.
After that particularly stressful episode, several people tried their level headed best to reassure me, but it didn’t help. What I know now is it was the beginning of a huge shame spiral. It felt more like a giant Jenga tower that was on the verge of toppling over. My sleep/wake rhythm was off, I was losing interest in the things I was most passionate about, and the process of retreating from my friends and fellow writers had begun in earnest. Caring for our own wellbeing is not a one-off occurrence during times of stress or difficulty. It’s constant, and intentional. Speaking strictly from my own lived experience, self-care starts with the most basic question of all: “What do you need to feel better, right now?”
Self-Care varies from individual to individual, because we draw strength, healing and joy from different sources and process that energy and in widely varying ways.
As a society, we tend to be woefully uneducated about such things; tending toward identifying desires primarily. I’m no exception to this way of thought or behavior which usually manifests itself in over-thinking, trying to make things right or soothing others because I’ve convinced myself that this person or that is happy, not angry, or at least stable – then, I’d be okay too. Nothing could be further from the truth. While puzzling through the aftermath of repeated emotionally intense situations, my chief takeaway has been that I wasn’t ready to experience or extend compassion to anyone until I was able to treat myself with equal mercy and tenderness. Redirecting my focus inward in a healthy way continues to be a work in progress. Our inner dialogue is only as helpful as we are kind to ourselves.
Once we decide on a new course of action or way of being, no matter how enthusiastically it’s important to remind ourselves that we didn’t arrive at our downturn overnight even if it feels as if we had. And, we won’t make effective shifts in our way of thinking or being suddenly either.
What do you need to feel better right now? Do you need to feel understood? Appreciated? Do you speak those things into existence with your own self talk? Think back to the last thing you said to yourself. Was it constructive? When we engage in negative self-talk, we are abusing ourselves emotionally. You know that feeling you get when you’re tickled with yourself for doing something good? That’s your moment! It belongs to you to enjoy.
Despite my best advocacy for being more inwardly compassionate and thoughtful to ourselves, there will be times when we feel drained, emotionally exhausted, and just too done to deal. That’s life, welcome to it. Making busywork for our hands might provide us lots of well-meaning temporary distractions, but our internal dialogue is only on pause, ready to resume right where we’ve left off. And remember to always secure your own mask FIRST ?
Dominique is a Mental Health Advocate, who has served on the board of directors of a NAMI affiliate. She continues her work as a support group facilitator, and resource advisor for a local Family to Family class. She is a trauma and abuse survivor who struggles with and survives the ebb and flow of having PTS. (She is adamant about dropping the “D” – feeling that it is unnecessarily stigmatizing)
Her journey to advocacy began at a tipping point in her marriage when she asked her husband about his diagnosis – Bipolar Depression. When he could not answer her very pointed questions, she was led to NAMI, where she found fellowship in a support group, and a family education course that changed the way she viewed her role as a caregiver, her diagnosis and that of her husband and mother-in-law.
Dominique revels in the art of cooking and paper crafting. She makes handmade cards for special occasions. Dominique states, “I feel grace and oddly peaceful when I make cards or cook. And I won’t do either for people I don’t like because it is a gift from my heat.” She is also an avid photographer.
In her spare time, Dominique is very active on social media, having created and posting on Facebook and Twitter accounts for her local NAMI affiliate. She also co-moderates a Facebook support group about Mental Wellness, and is a writer of short stories based on her favorite television shows and movies.