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.