A couple of Christmases ago when I was still a footloose and carefree student, I was lucky to receive the most delightful, thoughtful gift.
Bear in mind this was a post-grad class Secret Santa and we know how they can turn out – a silly ‘joke’ gift that somehow misses the mark or even a straight out insult dressed up as “just for a laugh”.
So, having braced myself and prepared my face to make that “oh, thank you, it’s lovely” smile or the “oh how funny, you are a wag” laugh, I was surprised and a little taken-aback to unwrap what amounted to a mini care package. It included socks, sweets, and a small framed self-care guide.
The socks are still worn with cosy gratitude, the sweets are long gone and sad to say so has the guide, frame, and all. After graduating came the clearing out of the small room that had been my study, converting it into my counselling room, and somewhere along the way the guide has been put in ‘safe place’. You know that place: in a box, in the loft most likely.
However it remains with me still. Well not it exactly but the care and kindness that came with it. That has endured. You see I was finding it all rather difficult around that time and had been finding life rather more stressful than I was happy with.
And I am happy with stress. A certain amount. It’s motivating and I’ve always done my best work when surfing the stress waves. But I was wobbling, had fallen off my board a few times and was heading for a complete wipe-out.
To receive this care package meant so many things. It meant I had been seen, my stress had been noticed, cared about and met with thoughtful kindness; I was rather touched.
But I digress. The self-care guide was lovely. Little illustrations giving simple tips:
soak in the tub, enjoy some good food, listen to good music, buy yourself a treat, chat with a friend….
All great tips, all useful, all valid and all focussed on changing the way you feel right now. Which is important, really important.
But I have to ask myself, when I'm repeating the self-care activities, but I keep feeling bad about stuff and I’m too stressed and on the verge of overwhelmed, am I doing it right?
Am I really practicing self-care or am I papering over the cracks?
I've thought a lot about self-care and what it really means.
The OED says “The practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”
If it’s protecting, then I'm not practicing self-care because I'm continuing to get stressed and then trying address my symptoms with self-care activities.
So if self-care is more than hot chocolate and a bath bomb, what is it?
‘Expressing oneself is an essential form of self-care’ says the OED, and I have to say I agree.
Let me put it this way:
Have you ever found yourself saying yes when you meant no?
Have you ever resented your job because it clashed with your values?
Have you ever stayed silent instead of speaking up?
When we do these things, we find ourselves experiencing the stress created by the difference between what we’re saying and what we want to say, the conflict between who I’m having to be and who I am, the guilt that turns anger inward when we put aside our authentic self and acquiesce to those things that conflict with who we really are.
So why do we do it?
Why do we say yes to yet another colleague who just wants us to “help out a bit” with their project, when we don’t have the time and know it’s a cover for getting us to do it for them?
Why do we stay in the job that requires us to avoid being truthful with customers just so the bosses can increase their profit?
Why do we not speak up when we hear someone being hateful?
Because it’s uncomfortable and it’s scary. It feels awkward and we don’t want to make life difficult for them and we don’t want them to think less of us.
And we want to fit in.
So we sigh and turn away from our own work, building up pressure on that deadline, we smile at the customer knowing the goods aren’t worth their hard earned money and we pretend we’re not offended by horrible language.
The problem is we end up making our own life difficult; we get angry at the colleague, resentful of the job, ashamed of our silence. We feel excluded from the very group we want to fit into.
We feel stressed and unhappy and in need of self-care.
So we put on a record (showing my age), run a bubbly bath, read a good book.
And we’re distracted, we relax a bit and feel a bit better.
Until next time.
Papering over the cracks.
Lasting self-care isn't a treat, it’s a habit, and like all habits it takes practice to get going, but then it lasts, becomes part of how we are and who we are.
Lasting self-care is an attitude that says I am OK, I am enough, I can say what I need to and if it’s awkward and requires my courage then I’ll gather my courage and I will show up for myself.
Because I am worth the effort, I am worth the momentary discomfort, the awkward silence, the surprised double-take. Because when I am true to myself and I express myself honestly and with kindness I will be seen for who I am, accepted for who I am and appreciated for who I am.
Doing a favour requires us going out of our way for someone, going the extra mile, showing a bit more kindness.
Isn't it time we tried doing that for ourselves more often?
Making a habit of showing up for ourselves, going out of our way for ourselves, showing a bit more kindness to ourselves?
Isn't it time we started to practice real, lasting self-care?
Go on – do yourself a favour.
So how is your journey towards lasting self-care?
It’s not easy finding the right way for you. There can be many reasons why you don’t feel able to express yourself, to say what you need.
Counselling can help you to understand yourself, help you find your route to lasting self-care, an authentic way of being, a happier way of living.
If you’d like to talk about it, please do get in touch.