Those of you who read my post last week know a little bit about a difficult experience I had a few years ago when I was dealing with migraines. For those of you who haven’t read it, I shared that I had been in the habit of taking on more and more until my body finally said “stop”. The chronic stress I’d been dealing with over the years, along with the acute stress of a difficult work situation, was too much for my body to handle, and it progressed to a point where I was dealing with high intensity pain on a daily basis. And that went on for a year.
I also talked about how I had to make some drastic shifts in my life in terms of what would actually be nurturing for my body. What I didn’t share is how vital self-compassion was to the healing I went through.
When I was struggling the most with migraines, I would say things to myself like “I should be able to handle this amount of stress without feeling pain” “I should be able to work more than 10 hours a week” – but I couldn’t.
It felt like my body was my enemy, and it was doing this terrible thing to me.
So each time I felt the early signs of a migraine coming on, I braced against it, thinking “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”. And what happens when you brace against something? Your muscles tense. And so the pain would get worse.
The other trap I got into is that when it came to self care options like working less, or go home early from social outings when I was in pain, I told myself “I should be able to do this” or “it’s not okay for me let anyone know that I’m struggling”, and I ended up avoiding the things that might have actually helped me.
This may seem all really obvious but when I finally admitted to myself “this is a chronic pain issue” I – first of all cried a lot – and then possibilities opened up. Healing possibilities that I literally did not see before.
But again – it took a real shift in perspective.
First I stopped seeing my body as the enemy, and starting seeing it as a PART of me that was in pain, and needed help. (Yes that’s right – your body is a part of you).
I also stopped with the constant barrage of what I should be capable of and accepted what IS – or what was, at least in that moment.
And I want to say that’s not the same as giving up on the possibility that things will change. Instead, it was about allowing the reality of the situation – and the grief of that – in. And from that place, I was able to start healing.
So I don’t know how many of you have seen a counselor, or if you ever wonder what goes on in the world of a psychologist OUTSIDE the therapy room (“do they really do all the meditating they’re telling me is so beneficial?”) but I’ve got a little bit of insight that I’d like to share with you. I have noticed that in psychology, self care gets talked about a lot… but similar to other helping fields, the actual practice of putting ourselves as a priority is not so good. There’s a lot of TALK about work-life balance, but the structural systems within the workplace – be it nonprofit or private practice – make it really hard to actually have balance. Now, in my early 20s, I was excited enough about the work, and energetic enough, that I could “buckle down and push through”. But by the time I turned 27 – not that old – the effect of “pushing through” was starting to wear on me.
Just to give you an idea, I have worked overnights, shift work, several jobs at once, and I often took on the hardest cases with the people facing the most barriers, with little or no structural support.
I was in the process of dealing with a particularly difficult situation when my body finally said “stop”. And I knew the signs of burnout, so I listened.
Unfortunately, the signs of stress I was noticing didn’t go away as soon as I exited stressful environment. The chronic stress I’d been dealing with over the years, along with the acute stress of the situation, was too much for my body to handle. I started getting migraines more and more often, even on days when I was trying to take care of myself. It progressed to a point where I was dealing with high intensity pain on a daily basis. And that went on for a year.
So for those of you who’ve ever had a migraine, I probably need to say no more, but for those of you who haven’t, I can tell you that the constant brace against and managing of chronic pain is so consuming that it doesn’t take long before despair and hopelessness start to flood in.
The only thing I could do at that point was drastically change my life. And I did. I significantly decreased my working hours, I changed the hours I was in the office, and I began a practice of ongoing health care including yoga, meditation, mindfulness, biofeedback, walking, and therapeutic massage. I was very selective about what I did take on, because I knew that I might only have a few hours each day to focus on something other than managing my pain.
Now, fast forward a couple years and my health is much better, but I know that I will never be able or willing to take on as much as I used to. And this is different than just tacking on a yoga class at the end of each hectic week. Life had to change.
One thing I've come to realize over the years is that, contrary to popular belief, everyone has boundaries. Stick with me - I know it's so common to feel that if you're a people pleaser, it means you have "no boundaries". So let's get really clear. Boundaries are your own unique sense of what’s okay for you and what isn’t. It’s your internal understanding of what nourishes you and what doesn’t. We all have that understanding inside of us. We all have limits. What commonly happens is that over the years that we lose touch with our boundaries, or we learn that they're not important. So, with that in mind, when you start working on your own boundaries, what you're really doing is learning to listen to and respect your own limits.
You may find as you work on boundaries that you've been acting out of sync with your internal sense of what's best for you. For example, if you find yourself acting very rigidly and walled off from situation to situation despite wanting closeness, or you find yourself unable to say no and put yourself as a priority in a way that's leading to burnout, this may be an indicator its time to work on your relationship with your own boundaries.
Boundaries seem to land on a continuum. On the one end there are boundaries that are open (meaning you let quite a lot in), and on the other end are boundaries that are closed (meaning not much gets in at all).
The more “open” side of the continuum is characterized by taking on other people’s opinions of you and allowing that to alter how you feel about yourself. It also involves taking on other people’s feelings, so that their anxiety becomes your anxiety, their disappointment becomes your disappointment, and so on. People on this side may have a harder time standing up for themselves even when they’re feeling uncomfortable. It also might mean sharing a lot of personal information without the foundation of a trusting relationship within which to do that.
The more “closed” side of the continuum involves being protected, but not influence-able –nothing comes in. Walls can protect you at times, but when overused, tend to keep you isolated from others and closed to the healing potential of vulnerability. There are several types of walls, including walls of anger, words, preoccupation, silence, worry, depression, humor, pleasantry, and seduction. This allows you to feel safer but the consequence is that you become cut off from yourself and ultimately cut off from life. Walls may be appropriate for everyday interactions at work or in new social situations. However, walls do not allow for self-awareness or intimacy, and so the barriers you initially put up to protect yourself, when overused, can start to feel like a prison.
Where you land on the continuum is likely to be different depending on context - for example, what's appropriate at work isn't going to be the same as what's appropriate within a loving, respectful relationship. Take a moment to think about where you land in the following categories: work, school, intimate relationship, close friends, acquaintances, strangers, volunteer work, and family. Once you've mapped out how open or closed your boundaries are in each situation, you can ask yourself if there's anything you'd like to change. You may want to invite more intimacy in certain situations, and you may want more of a protective barrier in others. It's up to you to choose what's best for you. Just remember - even nice people have limits.
Not only does this help with anxiety and depression, but it'll also provide a boost of willpower. I've been trying this myself and with clients, and surprised at how much it's actually working. I also like that it's do-able - most of us can manage 5 minutes. Another one I really like is the suggestion of mindfulness. That's already in line with how I operate as a therapist, and it's just affirming to see yet another benefit of slowing down and being present with ourselves.
The premise of the book is to choose a willpower challenge - which could be related to a behavior you want more of, a behavior you want less of, or a bigger goal you're trying to reach. Then, each week you're meant to try out one of the willpower boosting suggestions. These are research-based and have previously been tried out by students who took "The Science of Willpower" course (so you're getting the best of the best). My willpower challenge was to be less snappy in my relationship (a thing I've been struggling with for years). Probably the best help for this was setting the intention, and getting more exercise. Turns out I'm not as irritable once I've run around the block a few times!
Now, go read the book.
ps. I'd love to hear what's worked best for you in terms of motivation - whether it be something from the book or a trick you've stumbled across elsewhere. Just add it in the comments!
"I can be so caring to my friends, my family, to anyone who needs it... but me? I don't deserve it..."
I hear this kind of sentiment time and time again from clients. The idea of self-care is nice, and they agree with the theory of honoring our own needs... but as an actual practice? Well, that's for other people. I mean, who am I to take up space, to have a voice, to need a break sometimes? If I really allow myself that, isn't it indulgent? What if it takes support from someone else who needs it more?
Many of us are so adept at seeing the pain of those around us that we can start to "other" ourselves. "Yes, people need self-care... but not me... I'm different. I don't need care as much as other people do." Do you see the problem here? The most obvious issue is that we're all human, we all need care, and when we deny ourselves that kind of tending to, it can easily lead to burnout, resentment, and despair.
There's another, more insidious thing that happens as well. As soon as we start to other ourselves, we emotionally distance from those around us experiencing barriers, and this is the first step in losing empathy for our fellow humans. I don't think any of us want that. If we want to stay in connection, to continue being in community, we need to treat ourselves just as we would treat others - with care, and respect.
Now, don't get me wrong. I absolutely don't believe this difficulty with self care is something we as individuals have created. We live in a world that tells is (in a thousand different ways) NOT to care for ourselves - not in a way that's actually nourishing, anyway. We're told all sorts of things about pushing through, being tough, and the moral virtuosity of being a giver. So, from a feminist counselling perspective, it's important to recognize and acknowledge the many reasons we find ourselves feeling that self care is "not for us". It's also important to start to fight back - to do something different than we were taught, especially if it's no longer serving us or those around us.
I'm a psychologist, activist, and writer. I believe in sharing our stories and wisdom as a tool for our own healing as well as the healing of those around us. For this reason I've chosen to share what I'm learning, as well as guest posts from other people who've been there.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective.