The value of self-care hit me hard last weekend. It was front and centre in different ways. I had a conversation with a friend who is working her socks off. She was flat, realising during our conversation that she has no space to think, to reflect. Another friend was struggling with her relationship with one of her children and I was feeling pressured by a colleague to meet an artificially tight deadline. We all needed some good quality self-care.
My problem is self care is not my strength. Giving myself space and time to breath is not what I do best. But it matters. One of the ethical principles I work to as a psychotherapist is self-care because how can I offer my clients what they need if I am exhausted.
Self-care is about taking time to do things that will help us feel healthy, that will boost our wellbeing. But it doesn’t come easy to many of us. Time and again I hear people say it’s selfish or self-indulgent. It doesn’t feel right to spend the afternoon immersed in a good book, or to make a hot chocolate and nestle-up on the sofa in front of a good film. They believe it’s not okay to take time out in the midst of what might be a demanding day-to-day life. They believe the people they love, the people they look after should come first. Many people will say, and I’ve definitely said it myself, with all the pressures I face in life there’s no time for me to relax.
There’s another reason behind my historic approach to self-care, which is also pretty common. If I slow down and take time for myself, I am a little frightened of what I will encounter. Who will I be if I’m not working? Will people want to know me if I don’t always put them first? Essentially, there’s a fear in me that I might not be ‘good enough’ and if I ask for something ‘the other’ will say no. I’ll be abandoned. It goes back a long way and is a pretty powerful reason for putting my self care at the bottom of the list.
But if we don’t take the time to recharge how can we be there for anyone else? How can we perform at work, solve problems and come up with creative solutions? How can I be there for my family when they really need me, for my clients, if I have nothing left. How can I possibly live a fulfilled and rewarding life myself if I never take time out to immerse myself in and thoroughly relish what nourishes and boosts me?
I’m working hard to fundamentally imbue my life with self care. I’m definitely not all the way there yet – I suspect I’ll be on this journey until the day I die – but there is no doubt my attitude has changed. In my core I know and accept the importance of self care. I challenge people who neglect it and am a big admirer of people who are good at it.
Last weekend I stepped back from the brink and put myself first. I started with an early night on Saturday. It doesn’t sound very exciting I know but, getting good sleep is one of the single most important acts of self-care. Without enough we’re more erratic, find it harder to calm ourselves down and are likely to have problems with memory. By every measure, our resilience and wellbeing are harmed by sleep deprivation. My family might have laughed at me for going to bed at 9am on Saturday night but I woke on Sunday morning refreshed and ready to go.
Sunday was a rollercoaster of me stuff. I took my dog for a mindful walk. Instead of going over what I need to do as I often do on dog walks, I focused on him. I watched him as he roamed around sniffing the hedgerows, chasing distant pigeons and coming back with his tail in the air for a treat. Completely in the moment, he was having a great time and very quickly I was too. Next, I read. Most of my reading centres on professional development but on Sunday I spent a couple of hours reading a novel. Just an entertaining and engaging novel. After lunch I did some gardening. I’m planning a wildflower meadow at the bottom of the garden and cleared the area. It was satisfying and I’m really looking forward to next spring and summer when hopefully it will come into its own. Then I had a long bath and finished the day spending time chatting with my husband and daughter. It was a really great day and I don’t feel guilty about a moment of it! After another good night’s sleep Monday was a breeze!
Self care matters. Neglect it and we burn out. Our relationships suffer. Our creativity and problem solving abilities drop away. But give it the time and attention it deserves and we can flourish, with plenty of resources to do what we need to, engage with and care for the people we love and, really importantly, enjoy life!
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
So, presuming the vote in the House of Commons tomorrow backs it, we are going into lockdown in England again. The edges of this lockdown are a little more blurred than was the case so there are more questions than previously about exactly what it means for each of us. The questions can get out of control, running ahead at a million miles an hour. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Against this backdrop, it seems very apt that this is International Stress Awareness Week.
The first thing to recognise is it’s completely normal to feel stressed, or anxious, right now. It’s a very healthy reaction to the level of risk and uncertainty we are having to live with.
It’s worth noting each us will feel most stressed by different aspects of the world we’re living in. There will probably be some common themes but if I asked 1,000 people, I’d get a range of answers. It’s because everyone’s perception of a situation is governed by their own life experience. Accepting and understanding these differences between people matters. If I don’t, I’ll assume that what’s stressing me right now will stress you. What’s more, because of my physiological response to stress I am much less likely to notice or respond to you. Just as destructively, I might assume what doesn’t stress me won’t stress you. Seeing the world only through my own eyes in this way means I could shame you. Imagine the impact of someone saying to you ‘Don’t be silly; that’s not stressful.’
As a psychotherapist, I see people tackling stress and anxiety with coping strategies designed to distract them. In the moment these can be really effective. Mindfulness or distracting yourself with a jigsaw or painting by numbers, for example, can work really well in the here and now. One of my big distractors is work so on Sunday, while the uncertainty was buzzing around, I sat at my desk for a while and finished planning an online workshop. I also made leek and courgette soup, cleared a bed in the garden and had a bonfire. Getting things done makes a big difference for me. It soothes me.
The problem is all that activity didn’t get rid of the stressor. It never does. Sooner or later the stress always comes back. I was listening to a podcast this week – Relational Implicit – in which the interviewee, David Allen, made the point very neatly. He said: “If somebody’s following you around, stabbing you in the shoulder with a penknife, I can give you an opiate, so it doesn’t hurt that much. but I think we need to work on getting rid of the guy stabbing you with the penknife.”
In the interview David Allen argued it takes long term psychotherapy to get rid of the man with the penknife. I agree with him but what if the man with the penknife is coronavirus? I can’t deliver a vaccine. I can’t make life normal again. So, are coping strategies are all I have right now?
I don’t think so. I am someone who, despite appearances, can find people pretty scary. My go to strategy when I feel really stressed or overwhelmed has been to separate myself, often psychologically more than physically, from others. But humans are inherently relational, so the strategy doesn’t boost my wellbeing. In the long term it does the reverse. It’s taken me a lot of hard work, but I have learnt to reach out to people I trust.
But that takes time, so one of the most valuable things I can do for my wellbeing right now is slow right down and notice myself. ‘Leaning in’ to the stress or anxiety can seem really counterintuitive but it works. Observing my physical response is powerful. I gently explore the sensations and ask myself about my experience. What language would I use to describe my experience? What is really going on? Then with kindness, and I emphasise WITH KINDNESS, I give space to whatever feelings begin to emerge. It’s a deep-rooted fear of these feelings that often stops people from engaging with their stress, driving them instead to deploy all the coping strategies they can find. I regularly hear people say if they let the emotion in, it will never end. They ‘ll be consumed, overwhelmed. The truth though, is every emotion has a beginning middle and end and once the end comes, you’re very likely to feel calm.
Here, at the beginning of another lockdown, why not do something different. Don’t just cope with the stress. Take the first steps towards addressing the root cause. It could be the perfect opportunity to get rid of the man with the penknife.
It was husband’s birthday this week. Getting him a gift he’ll love is always a challenge. If I ask, he’ll give me a modest little list. He never wants very much. Each birthday and Christmas I say ‘I’ve got to give you something more than that!’ and he replies ‘But that’s all I want.’ Not to be put off, I head off to the shops or the Internet and trawl around for something I think he’ll like, or even love if I’m lucky. Nine times out of ten I come back with perfectly good clothes (but he’s not that into clothes) or books I later discover he’s already read. The question begging to be asked is who am I doing it for?
Obviously, I want to get my husband a gift that shows I care. But when I tell him that what he’s asked for doesn’t seem a good enough gift, the underlying message is: ‘Your choice is not okay. I’m going to get you something I think is better, because, after all, I know best.’ Put like that, it starts to sound more like a metaphorical slap in the face than an act of love. It sounds like my focus is on making sure I feel good about what I’m giving rather than making sure he gets a gift he’ll appreciate. It’s all about me making sure I feel okay with myself.
I’ve got a friend who loves chocolate. People make chocolate things for her. They tell her they’ve made it specially, then send her home with leftovers. More than once she’s told me she didn’t really want them but feels they would be disappointed if she said no thank you. The people giving her the cupcakes or brownies would say they do it for her, and of course, on the surface it’s a lovely thought, but they never ask her. Again, who’s it really for?
I’ve also been on the receiving end, in different ways. When I’ve been working away, at the end of a long and tiring day, a colleague has said “You’ve got to join us for dinner; you don’t want to be alone.” But I’m very happy in my own company. Sometimes it’s what I need to recharge. The problem is the others didn’t really care about that. I’ve also worked with people so busy trying to be ‘uber’ polite they have no idea what I need or want. It’s charming in small doses, but I find it suffocating in larger quantities.
The common theme in these examples is that the wishes and preferences of the individual being treated or taken care of are not very high on the agenda. They’re either not being asked or ignored when they are. The focus is on the person doing the giving. Their real goal, whether they recognise it or not, is to make sure they feel okay. That’s much more important than the other person being heard, or their needs and preferences being acknowledged and met.
If you’re caught up in this sort of behaviour, or even suspect you might be, my advice is to take a moment. Whatever the situation, there is always a benefit to slowing down and reflecting on what’s going on for you. What do you notice about yourself at the idea of going against your natural instinct? Register the thoughts and the physical response. What happens to your breathing, to your heart rate? What do you experience about yourself? There’s no right or wrong, but it can be very revealing.
Then try focusing your energies on listening to the other person. Ask about their experience and really tune into the answers. Put your expectations, preferences, ideas and ideologies to one side and focus your attention on them. Being truly heard is an incredibly powerful, beneficial experience. For my husband, it meant I got him a present he actually wanted!
“Don’t stress about it, it doesn’t really matter.” “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be okay.” “You’ll be fine.” “You’re over thinking it, it’s not a big issue.” “That’s not really a problem so I wouldn’t fret.” We’ve all said phrases like these when someone’s anxious about something. We’ve been trying to reassure, to boost the confidence of the other person, to stop them worrying. The problem is it doesn’t work. Instead of a little reassurance convincing you everything’s going to be okay, most people hear “I don’t really understand what you’re worried about – you’re on your own”.
Reassurance is about trying to help someone stop worrying by saying kind things. If one thing’s been made really clear this summer, it’s that getting exam results is stressful. Anxiety was a natural, healthy response. Saying to any young person struggling in the midst of the chaos over their GCSE, A’ Level and BTEC results “don’t worry, I’m sure it will all be okay” was never going to work. Afterall, how do you know it’s going to be okay. You don’t.
My husband is very security conscious. He’s focused on taking whatever steps he can to prevent our home being burgled. I’m not so fussed. It’s not that I don’t care, rather my mental risk assessment suggests it’s not likely. We’ve got an alarm. We’re covered by neighbourhood watch. We’ve got two big dogs with impressive barks – they might be more likely to wag their tails when they see a new person, but a burglar wouldn’t know that. But telling my husband all this gets us nowhere. All he hears is that I don’t understand his concerns and am missing the point.
Reassurance doesn’t just come from someone else. People often try and reassure themselves.
Working as a psychotherapist, time after time I hear people say, “I know it’s okay really.” “I tell myself there’s nothing to worry about.” Worse still, I hear them criticise themselves for worrying in the first place. “It’s ridiculous; I’ve got nothing to get upset about really.” “I’m just being silly; I know everything’s going to be okay.” “I’ve got to pull myself together; everyone says I have no reason to be stressed.” I’ve never seen this approach work and certainly not when they start cruelly criticising themselves for worrying or being anxious in the first place.
These anecdotes highlight the failure of reassurance. While at a conference hosted by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), I heard a speaker say our job as psychotherapists was to tolerate and hold the pain of the other. I agree. Reassurance does the opposite. Instead of acknowledging and accepting the distress, reassurance essentially deines it. The subliminal message is “I’m not interested in or can’t cope with your concerns so please don’t talk to me about it”. If this pattern gets embedded, the individual is likely to stop talking about what’s bothering them. It hasn’t gone away, they are just silent now, bottling it up and that’s when things can start to get really toxic.
What’s the alternative? Recognise and hold onto the perfectly natural desire to find a way to make everything okay. Accept you can’t. Then, with warmth and patience, genuinely and gently enquire about the experience of the other person. True reassurance comes from feeling heard and understood, from in your gut believing that the other person gets it.
Thanks to Tim Mossholder for sharing their work on Unsplash.
I have been a fan of The Archers for about 30 years. Like every good, long-standing soap, it mixes funny story lines with both hard hitting and gentle ones. One of the harder ones right now is Alice’s alcoholism. There is history between Alice and her sister-in-law, Emma, so the latter’s motives may not have been that pure, but when she went to share her concerns with her brother, Alice’s husband, and Alice herself, things did not go well. The conversation quickly deteriorated into anger and accusation. For all of us who sometimes have to communicate a difficult message, there are valuable lessons in their exchange.
For a while, Alice has been drinking to excess. Now she’s started hiding it from the people closest to her. She’s definitely got a problem. A part of her knows it. Another part is probably too frightened to admit it to herself yet, let alone anyone else. So, when Emma told her straight that she’s got a problem, that she’s an alcoholic, Alice attacked to defend herself. Knowing each other’s vulnerabilities, the resulting slanging match left them both aggrieved and angry and their relationship in tatters.
What went wrong and how could they do it differently?
The first thing Emma could have done was to stop and take a moment to reflect. Why did she want to say anything? What was her real motivation? I have an over-developed sense of responsibility. More than once people have told me about someone else’s misdemeanour and before I’ve blinked, I’ve taken on board the responsibility to sort it out. I remember an employee reporting a colleague’s behaviour. With hindsight, I can see the behaviour might have been a little irritating but not really problematic and the hiccups around her performance were just that, hiccups. But instantly I felt like I had been handed something I had to fix. I acted and had a word. Probably feeling hurt and alienated, the person in question quickly started looking for another job. Not the outcome I wanted. A better plan would have been to stop and reflect. Why had the employee raised the behaviour in the first place? What was their motivation? What was driving my need to act? What did I believe the real issue was, or even if there was one? What was my goal? Even just a few minutes answering these questions would have achieved a very different approach and probably a better result. And imagine how important it is to get it right if the discussion is about concerns over someone’s mental wellbeing.
Next, Emma visited at a moment that suited her and started the conversation straightaway. She wanted to talk to her brother alone, but Alice was home too. Feeling blind-sided the couple instantly went on the defensive. “There’s nothing you can say to me that Alice can’t hear too.” The conversation has barely started and already the barriers are up on both sides. How much better to slow down and wait for the right moment.
Not able to get her brother alone, Emma waded in and said she thought Alice had a drink problem. Any care and concern she may have been feeling at the outset vapourised in the face of the aggressively defensive response. Then the slanging match kicked off and accusations and insults from their history were thrown by both sides. Alice’s problem with alcohol got completely lost and no one cared about the experience of the other.
If Emma had been really concerned about Alice’s wellbeing, she might have begun by just asking how she was. Listening attentively while giving her the space to talk might well have given her a better opening to express her concerns and show care for Alice. I’ve learnt two really important things as a psychotherapist. First, however certain I think I am, I am not inside the other person’s head. Instead of making assumptions about what’s going on for them, I need to take the time to enquire and really listen. Second, the client is on their own path. If they are not yet ready, pushing hard won’t work. It will simply trigger their defences. Instead I need to focus my energies on making it a safe space for them, one in which they feel there is a genuine desire to understand their experience. If Alice isn’t ready to recognise her problem, throwing it at her as an accusation is not going to get anyone anywhere and her angry response is a very understandable reaction to what must have felt like a threatening and judgemental environment.
So how could Emma have tackled it better. Based on their history, I’m not convinced Emma’s motivation for talking to Alice or her husband was pure. But assuming it was, a more constructive approach might have been simply to have found a mutually convenient moment to spend time together and listen. With genuine interest, Emma could have gently drawn out Alice’s experience. Without accusation or forcing her own opinions and perceptions on Alice, Emma could have shared her own experience of Alice at the moment. With this approach, whether she takes it on board in the moment or not, the chances of Alice reflecting later are much greater.
Getting tricky conversations wrong can have a devastating effect on relationships. Of course, no one is going to get it all right all the time. The example at the start is by no means the only mistake I’ve made! But if I slow down, take the time to listen and engage with the experiences of the other person, the chances of a good outcome go up.
Photo by cloudvisual.co.uk on Unsplash