Imperfect Self-Care

Note:  I wrote this in 2012 at the request of Tamarisk Saunders-Davies and Mara Glatzel – two women I adore individually – who teamed up to do a Self-Care Blog Hop and invited me to contribute my messy, mega-human take on self-care to the storyline.  It still pertains... but I'm adding the date so you know I don't *still* have a newborn!

Ahem.  Here is what I, being possessed of breastfeeding body and sleep-deprived mind, a coach of 15 years and meditator for 26, should-know-better-by-now, my-best-my-friends-are-experts-in-this-shit, am still wrestling with regarding self-care.

I group these understandings – and misunderstandings – into a small series of distinctions.

Earning Merit vs. Cultivating Self-intimacy

We’re both blessed and cursed to live in a time when yoga is a household word and the notion of taking time to ground and center yourself is not only accepted but encouraged.  Cursed, because the ego will use ANYTHING to its own wily devices.  So my relationship to self-care includes an ice-cream-bowl-sized helping of “should.”  Every instinct I have to take good care of myself, to return to center, to exercise and eat well and floss and meditate and clear off my disaster of a desk?  Morty (that’s what I call my inner critic) co-opts those instincts. He turns ’em into instruments of torture.  I’m shit for not having done them yet, and doing those things now will not redeem me.

All of which is a distraction, Morty.  A diversion from the real point of self-care. It’s not to make my ass smaller or my teeth whiter.  None of that matters, in truth.  Not even whether I meditated.  There is no scoreboard on which I earn points for practicing yoga or lighting a candle or taking a bath.  Those do not enlighten me and they do not make me better.  Even when I believe they do.  They don’t really matter.

What matters is whether we’re meeting ourselves.  Whether, when we suit up and work out or sit down and bliss out, we are getting closer to or further from the self we are in the moment.  Warts and all, are we coming home?  My husband Kurt says, “You are the final product.”  And he doesn’t mean whether my toenails are painted or my bikini line is tidy.

Which brings me to another area of confusion I have, along with many women, suffered…

Grooming vs. Heart-Tending

My darling friend Dara once wrote this beautiful post: Self-love is not a pedi

It’s awesome to take care of your body and your environment. Feels good.  And when we feel better we do better.  That’s why every month includes a pedi.  And some love on my brows and lashes from the incomparable Liberte.  And yeah, she tidies up that wilderness downtown, too.  But that’s all tending to my body.  Tending to my heart is much more difficult, and the part I tend to skip.

Even massage, which profoundly invites us to come into our bodies, to be with their sensations, can be another box we check.  How many hours have I whiled away on the massage table, making to-do lists in my head or rehearsing future conversations or rehashing old ones?  My favorite pedicure is from Jimmy, the mailman who opened Lavish Nails with his partner Amy to build their future after immigrating from Viet Nam.  Jimmy just ABUSES my calves with his massage!  But that’s only half the equation.  The other half is my receiving.

In my Elements of Feminine Power retreats, I include a massage, and very precise instruction to help each woman turn that massage into a lesson in not just pampering but truly receiving.  It’s vulnerable to really feel the intimacy of being touched with such devoted service.  It’s intense to be present to your own body and the sensations of both physical and emotional release that come with a skilled massage.  It’s a discipline and an invitation.  And a challenge to do consistently.

That brings me to the next distinction:

Doing self-care vs. Receiving self-care

The doing is the vehicle.  The receiving is the journey.  You show up for your bath or your yoga class or your massage or your run and that’s the place you have a new chance to be present to yourself.  Or not.  But — no matter what Morty says — there’s no verdict on your worth if you don’t really receive.  You can just try again.

I used to hate myself for spending so much time and money and energy doing things that were supposedly self-caring, while I continued to be mean to myself and not really receive them.  That’s how Morty rolls.  He has me hate on me for hatin’ on me.  Great gig, right?

But the other piece that’s really helped break this open is recognizing that the SELF part of self-care can reinforce the abuse.  I’ve learned to just receive CARE and not think I have to “get it” or provide it or make it happen for myself.  Kurt has shown me so much about how my tanks are refilled by him.  How receiving what he has to offer me – love, tending-to, pleasure, pragmatic support – is my greatest learning edge.  I need not seek new opportunities to tend to myself.  All there is to learn about receiving and heart-tending and self-intimacy is right here for the learning, just between him and me.

Indulging vs. Luxuriating

For the final distinction, I don’t have a tidy segue.  It’s really about what happens when my needs for self-regulation overwhelm my capacities and skills in the moment.  Tamarisk wrote beautifully about how a break-up initially swamped her in this way.  For me, the flood happens in smaller but more frequent ways, amid the challenges of self-employment, giving mountains of intimacy, care and presence to my clients, and giving seemingly endless nurturing – emotionally and practically – to my two small children.

When it’s 9pm and I’ve worked for an hour to get both kids to sleep, but the baby keeps waking and wailing and my last nerve is shredded…

When my son refuses to get dressed and I help him do it, and then he takes his clothes off all over again in defiance and we’re late for school, which is going to make me late for a meeting…

When I realize I haven’t replied to a message that really mattered to me, and Morty’s mean voice pipes in and tells me this is the last piece of evidence:  I really do, completely, suck…

At those times, my instincts can trump my wisdom. My self-love falls to its knees, struggling under the burden of physical weariness, emotional fatigue, and the drone of Morty’s insults and threats.  If you’ve been in this place, you’ll remember it well because at these times, we don’t even know what would help.  We can imagine neither feeling better nor what would help us get there.  And at those times, the best self-care I can give is some form of escape:

A cookie or six.  I don’t know whether I’m hungry or not.

20 minutes with a gossipy tabloid.  I’m sure I’ve got friends I could call, but I can’t think who… or what I’d say.

Reading or cooking or shopping, mindlessly, hungrily.  These same things might smooth my feathers at other times, but that requires more self-connection than I have in the darkest moments.

Self-care is self-care when we’re building intimacy with ourselves, when we’re meeting ourselves where we are, and when we’re deepening our receiving.  When we’re in that spirit, the same trashy magazine or cookie might be a way of communing with our hearts.  But when we reach fumblingly for ourselves and simply can’t connect?  We wind up indulging… Wallowing in so-called pleasures for the escape of it, not really feeling their sensations.

I want to end by saying that’s okay too.  The worst thing we can do when we’re struggling so much that self-care is out of our reach is to beat ourselves up even more for indulging, for numbing, for soothing in the clumsiest of ways.  

When indulgence, numbness, and distraction are the best I can do, I use them and pray that they’re like an incoming tide that will soon wash me back onto the shore where I can find my feet and (soon, soon, I hope!) step forward in ways that are actually nourishing.