I have a love/hate relationship with the term “self-care.” I attribute this to my experience being raised by a single mom and seeing how much she worked. Seeing her indefatigable spirit and her work ethic left a strong impression and I saw this as a strength. I also think it has to do with coming from a poor background, equating “hard work” with something you had to do if you wanted to get anywhere in life. As a result, I never saw any sort of “self-care” examples growing up. To me, “taking a break” or doing things to take “care” of yourself as you navigate work and responsibilities meant the opposite of getting the work done. I used to think of “self-care” as something that was detrimental to the qualities and strengths that shaped me into who and where I am today. Why would you need any form of “Self-care?” If I can keep going, if I can handle this (multiple jobs, multiple responsibilities, things that are demanding & onerous) without taking any time to take “care” of myself then so should you. That’s how I used to think.
My mom and I were homeless for long periods of time. We would move in and out of people’s living rooms, sleeping on the floor, going from place to place, from school to school. Being in one place for a moment then having to move again.
When your life revolves around the uncertainty and preoccupation that comes from not having a stable place to stay or enough food to eat, “self-care” just doesn’t even register. Your priority is to survive, not taking care of your well-being or mental health. Remembering the times when we would go hungry and my mom would take me to an “Albertson’s” bathroom, lifting me up to the sink so I could drink water from the tap so that my stomach would stop growling with hunger gave me more strength in life than anything else. So why should I care about “self-care” stuff when adversity had given me the kind of fuel I needed to carry on?
The reason for me is because even if things like instability and chaos can give you strength, they can also leave you running on empty and drained. I lived through this by working hard at school, putting myself through university and later on navigating life at work without “stopping” or “taking a break” or paying much attention to my mental health because it was just “go, go, go” all the time.
I’ve been on my own since I was 14. When I talk about that, people will say things like “wow, you are so brave”, but really I think it was more an act of survival because I believed there could be more for me if I left. In retrospect, I would consider leaving my family at that age as my first act of “self-care,” I just had no idea at the time. No one in my family graduated from university and this was always my goal. I wanted to study and I wanted to go to school and I was going to do anything to make it happen. I believe that subconsciously I knew it was time to go because I had enough of constantly hearing about our money problems. I had enough of “no, there’s no money” or “no, it's too expensive” etc. and I didn’t want to be in a dysfunctional home anymore, so I left. Without knowing anyone, without really speaking English or knowing where I would go or how in the world I was going to make it to a university, I believed there could be a way, so I left to find out.
Being on my own from a young age made me an efficient person with a solid work ethic but it also made me very stubborn, impatient and made it hard for me to ask for help. You become so resourceful and independent that you inadvertently send a message that says “I don’t need you.” This has been challenging for me because we all need others to learn and grow. When you’re running around taking care of everything in your life to the best of your ability without asking for help, then others kind of...don’t know how to be part of your world. I would get so convinced that I can do more and I can do better, so I would just keep going. From staying up late, not drinking enough water or entertaining negative thoughts, little by little all these things have had the ability to make me feel drained.
This is one of the reasons why I decided to pay attention, take action and make changes.
Not knowing how to take better care of myself and my body has made me feel a bit distanced from others in a way that I’m not proud of. It got to a point where I came to expect everyone else to deal with things the way I deal with things: without needing help, without wasting time, without making excuses, just get up and keep going. This is not because I don’t have empathy for others but because it’s what I’ve been most familiar with.
On one occasion, I was with a friend and we were coming home from a party, it had snowed that day and it was around 1:30 am or so. We were going to take an uber home and as we were walking to the car, my friend slipped on the icy sidewalk and fell on her back. It happened so fast but I remember standing there for what felt like three seconds waiting for her to get up on her own. I won’t bother telling you the rest of the story because it’s besides the point but the fact that I stood there waiting for her to get up without instinctively rushing to help her tells me that I don’t really show myself that much compassion, so how could I show or have it for others.?
When I was still involved with the Jehovahs Witnesses, there were many times when I felt like being in that religion made me feel unhappy and trapped and yet I kept going. I didn’t make my well-being a priority and I didn’t know how to stop.
When I was involved with someone and our relationship ended, I filled every hour of my free time with work, with studying for the GRE, with applying to school, with moving to a new city, etc. I didn’t have a single day off in about three months because I hadn’t realized yet I was strong enough to deal with the pain in healthier ways. It was unfamiliar to me to just take it easy as I grieved. It’s as if I was hiding from the pain through overworking. This was the time when I was working as a nanny for 5 different families, working as a barista, working at two different museums in Seattle and working as a writer at non-profit AT THE SAME TIME. It was overwhelming but I used it to my advantage.
For example, if you’ve ever worked with kids you know how PRESENT you need to be. They don’t care if your heart is broken, if you are going through difficult things or if you had a bad day. They want you to be present through their playing, their mad question asking and their curiosity. The kids I worked with at that time were some of my biggest teachers and I had fun getting to know them. In fact, to this day I still work as a nanny here in Chicago in my free time because I enjoy it so much.
That time in my life also helped me get selected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to work in the museum’s education department in New York City, so it wasn’t all bad. I discovered that I’m really good at giving tours because it makes me excited and I have so many beautiful memories and stories as a result of giving tours.
This whole “Self care” thing is not always easy and involves a big unlearning process for me, but I want to tell you about a few areas where I’ve been exploring what self care looks like recently.
- Every time I feel overwhelmed at work, I take some time to work on my tumblr. Who uses tumblr anymore, right? well I do and it helps so I’ll keep doing it. I love seeing how the visuals change depending on what I am inspired by or thinking about which is so nice, like a visual journal.
-I leave the office and go to a dark/quiet area where I can work alone and blast Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged.
-I don’t really work from home but if I need to I’ll take a mental health day and go try something new. Last time I did it, I tried floating in a sensory deprivation tank, because I’ve never tried it before.
-I have a folder designated to “special” things like nice e-mails or nice things that people have sent my way. I keep them as a reminder that there are things to be grateful for when things feel shitty.
-I’ve been putting my phone on airplane mode on weekends and I will not answer any work related emails after 5pm or before 9am M-F.
My biggest fear is losing my mom and I have often wondered if I’ll be strong enough to carry on if/when she is no longer here. When I was little I would stay up until my mom came home from work, she would be so tired she would fall asleep right away. I would stay up and I would put my finger under her nose to make sure she was still alive and breathing and only then I could fall asleep. That sort of preoccupation for my mom as she ages and as her health begins to weaken has lingered throughout my life and has been the biggest source of anxiety for me. This is an ongoing struggle but there are a few things that have helped:
-Taking deep breaths and surrounding my space with smells that calm me down: burning palo santo or lavender oil.
-Writing. I got my first journal in 1997, I still have it and it’s falling apart now. I’ve kept a journal since because writing has helped me work through heavy emotions during times when I could not find the words to talk about difficult things. When I need to be honest with myself, I turn to writing and ask myself difficult questions to find what’s going on, like a friend would.
-Entertaining silence: being alone when I need to, traveling alone, and not being afraid of being alone has helped me tremendously because I get to clarify what matters to me.
-Movement: anything movement-related has been a big help whenever I am feeling or going through something intense. Running, walking, dancing and swimming are the things I gravitate to the most when I need to turn pain/hurt/anger into action.
In this order:
Then I think about the best moments of our friendship.
I doubt myself as a good friend.
Then I remember that distance, time and life transitions often lead to drastic changes in friendships and I welcome this as natural.
I remember the less than great things I/they did.
I forgive them for those things.
I forgive myself for those things.
I doubt myself again. (This is called “one step forward, two steps back”)
I have to write about it.
Now I have to make a decision: what kind of attitude do I want to have as I let go of them?
I choose gratitude and forgiveness (for my own well-being).
I let go and put boundaries. This means I won’t call them, talk to them, look them up on social media, invest any time in a friendship that is no longer helping me/them grow.
Now I have to surrender (the most difficult part for me) This means trusting and believing with your entire being that you will find someone else who will be a friend and you will welcome more people in your life who you will connect with in similar/better ways as the friend you lost.
Leave them alone.
It's not like you're giving up,
and it's not like you shouldn't try.
It's just that you have to draw the line of determination from desperation.
-I’ve had to change my attitude about rejection so I could more easily get past it and use the experience as a lesson to make me grow and then try again .
-I’ve kept all the rejection emails I’ve received: from schools, from jobs, from past relationships. I save them because I’m hoping to use them one day as a compilation for a “failure resume.” In this way, I can turn all those “No’s” into something fun, a reminder that rejection is not something that will make me stop going after what I want.
-I avoid obsessing about it by not entertaining any thought, feeling or mood that makes me feel guilty about being rejected.
- If something doesn't go as planned, I will just remember the best parts of the experience even if just it's the initial intention that made me want to try.
-Remember that even rejection and the pain that comes with it can be a powerful source of inspiration.
Things like face masks and going out to cute restaurants on weekends and taking pics of crystals are not things I subscribe to because I don’t feel like I would get much from that. But I would consider anything that makes me feel like I am killing two birds with one stone as “Self-care.” Anything that contributes to learning something, or being inspired, or t takes me out of my comfort zone but is still fun and challenging. I want that and I’ll try to keep finding that. I want to wrestle with whatever feeling, whatever demon I need to fight with until I know its name. This is what I want so I can give my best as a friend, a partner, a daughter and as an individual.
Right now “self-care” involves a lot of trial and error as I learn to work with my thoughts, imagination and feelings. I will continue to celebrate my failures and mistakes so I won’t have to be so hard on myself. In regards to work, I’ll take it one day at a time by managing stress with more ease and keep those boundaries in place. When facing rejection or losing friends, I will take a pause and cry if I need to, being grateful for what I learned with them. Then it will be time to let go and let that chapter end. I’ll try again and be ready to make all kinds of new mistakes, new friends, new enemies and new revelations as to why it’s good to be alive. I know it is easier said than done, but I think it’s possible.
i went for my words
the i can’ts. i won’ts. i am not good enough’s.
i lined them up and shot them dead
then i went for my thoughts
invisible and everywhere
there was no time to gather them one by one
i had to wash them out
down on my knees i began to wipe my mind clean
it took twenty-one days
my knees bruised but
i did not care
i was not given the breath
in my lungs to choke it out
i would scrub the self-hate off the bone
till it exposed love
– self-love, Rupi Kaur