It’s interesting to find myself writing an article about Self-care, because frankly I loathe articles about Self-care. This is because I have deplorable Self-care practices, and even the most well-intentioned article leaves me feeling worse than when I started. Not only do I feel lousy because I’m not taking care of myself, I now have one more reason to beat myself up in my head: Why can’t I just meditate every once and a while, or do yoga, or manage to keep a regular exercise routine, or eat a balanced diet full of whole foods? The irony of the fact that I regularly harangue myself – for not taking better care of myself – does not escape me.
In reality, I figure I’m doing pretty good if it’s been less than five days since I last took a shower, or if I’ve slept more than six hours consecutively any night in the last week.
A child of our productivity-centric culture, I have always prioritized what I can achieve over maintaining the self that makes the achievements. Since becoming a single parent, my priorities schema has transformed into something more like a triage situation. I can only tend to the part of my life that is [most] gushing blood. This metaphor took on so much weight that recently when I explained the feeling to a friend, he responded with Yeah, I get the feeling. You know there’s whole different theories of triage out there. And I thought, Theories of Triage? Gee, I should really look into that. As though I could find valuable life maintenance advice in Triage Theory [and maybe you can, but I decided against pursuing that research].
So it wasn’t until a few days ago, when I came down with a stomach bug (the equivalent of myself being the [most] gushing blood), and was forced to sleep for a night and a day- calling in Grandparent-support to get Joseph to school in the morning – that I realized it was time to think about Self-care.
Recently a friend shared a great article with me dealing with Self-care after trauma called Kaleidoscopes of Chaos – How Traumatic Boundary Violations Destroy The Capacity for Self-Care by Heidi Hanson on her site The Art of Healing Trauma.
The most helpful part of this article was her metaphor of the swimming pool.
“It’s like this. Imagine you set up a nice swimming pool in your yard, the kind with the tall circular wall and blue lining. Then suddenly a car runs into your swimming pool and the walls break and all the water falls out all over the lawn. Then someone comes up to you and asks, ‘Do you want this swimming pool lining patch? It’s a really nice one. When my rose bush dropped a branch into my pool and it scratched the lining, I patched it right up with this! It’s a great way to take care of yourself. It feels so nice to take a little time for self-care. And the pool lining will be so beautiful, too!’
The problem is, at that level of boundary violation there really is no swimming pool lining anymore. It’s irrelevant. The car needs to be towed. And that life needs rebuilding.”
In this metaphor, the water is the self, and the pool lining is your boundaries. As a Nice Southern Woman who likes to take care of people and generally doesn’t say No, my swimming pool has been like one big pool party for most of my life. Every once and a while someone else will saunter up and ask to get in, and I’ll think Well, gee, there’s not much more space, but they look like they could use a nice swim. And so they climb in too, and pretty soon the water is splashing over the edge and the lining is bulging at the seams. I might feel a little scattered and a little worn thin, but mostly it feels okay because this is how it’s always been.
In this way, my understanding of Self has been me + everyone I’m taking care of. Which explains why, when my counselor says “You need to work on saying No (and get people out of your swimming pool),” it’s hard to understand. But that’s my Self. Who will I be? Won’t I be lonely?
This metaphor also helps me understand how it can be easy for someone dangerous to slip in and start poking little holes. They might throw everyone else out and it might feel good for a time to just have that one person floating around – you might even feel grateful to them. And then after a time all it takes is one good kick and your swimming pool lining goes out and the water spills all over the lawn in one big gush. This is when normalized boundary violations become traumatic boundary violations and loss of Self. Sometimes the trauma might be external and out of your control, like Hanson’s car crashing into the swimming pool.
Self-care Post Trauma means building a new swimming pool liner, and filling it up with new water. It might look exactly the same, and be in the same place, but it’s a different swimming pool. When I came home pregnant from Idaho, the first thing I did was start making a quilt. I didn’t exactly want to make a quilt – my Self was so destroyed that I couldn’t access any active interests – but I remembered that I used to like making quilts, and so I made a quilt: following the process like a map back to who I am.
It’s been two years since that winter that I came home, and I’m starting to feel impatient about this whole building a new swimming pool thing. But when I’m honest with myself I’m still far from finished with this work. The thing is, I want to build myself up with something sturdier this time. I’ve never done this before, and I am needing to do a lot of experimenting with new materials. I’m collecting drops of rainfall as I can, but I am continually unsatisfied – moving what water I have to temporary holding pools while I begin construction again and again – this time with clay, the next with brick and again with river stones.
I am getting closer and closer, but until that time when I have a safe and strong place for my waters to be held, I need realistic Self-care goals. I need Not One More Thing to Feel Discouraged Because I Can’t Accomplish It Self-care goals, I need Not One More Thing On My To-Do List Self-care goals.
Knowing that I need to start small and because it is sometimes still difficult for me to remember what makes me feel good, I wrote a list of things I can do in less than ten minutes when I realize I need some Self-care. Here are some of the things I wrote:
– Call a friend to say hi
– Put on clothes that feel good
– Take a dance break
– Mark one thing off your To-Do list, even if you don’t finish it
– Choose one room and tidy it
– Write a list of 10 things you enjoy doing
– Write a list of 10 things you are proud of yourself for
– Put on clean socks
– Make the bed
The list goes on. If this idea sounds like it might help you, please borrow it. If you’re killing it at Self-care, I’m so happy for you. If you have a similar story, or this resonates with you in some other way, I’d love to hear it. As they say, we walk this path together, and I am buoyed by your tales of struggle and reclamation.