"You're a stress guru right? So you must never get stressed!" he said. I smiled from ear to ear and laughed out loud. "No. I still get stressed. What's changed is my relationship to stress. Now I know what to do when I feel stressed."
I was leading a stress management training and this very insightful comment from a wondering participant got me wondering: what has us thinking that self care and stress management these days means we must be super human?
I know a thing or two about self care because guess what...I was notoriously horrible at it. What boundaries? What fun time? What days off? What vacations? What sleep? Come on, you're talking to the woman who in college thought 21 credit hours a semester, serving in leadership roles, starting new projects, training for my next karate belt test, running each day, having a social life, and a deep spiritual life amongst so much more was normal. I had a blast doing it. I've always had a blast for the most part in life. But I've always notoriously burned the candle at both ends times 50 which left me feeling depleted and like I needed a LONG vacation. VERY LONG VACATION. And then I'd start all over again. Of course.
Flash forward to me as a working adult, working in the leading international development aid agency for the US government. A culture where idealistic go getters, change makers, go to passionately help others and...burn out. Ok it's not that bleak, but for many it is! I was swimming in burn out culture. I was standing in overwhelm. I was hanging out with my tribe. And it was both a strangely comfortable familiar and destructive experience. Reinforcing my awesomely unhelpful habits. At some point along the way I became passionate about staff care as I saw the talented people around me struggling. Truth be told I felt angry, I felt resentful, about how much heart my colleagues put into their work and how little I felt the organization honored their commitment. The further truth be told is that I discovered later...I felt this too. I was angry and felt resentful for myself. I felt used, undervalued, and uncared for. So this bleeding heart activist got to work with some other bright colleagues to create language, conversation, and a space for staff care. When I was given the opportunity to help stand up a new office and be a part of the training effort, I knew the one thing we had to have for staff going out to crisis environments was stress management. Staff care. Something to keep them sane in an environment that sometimes felt insane. This is when I met self care for the first time as I worked with a doctor to develop an innovative stress management and resilience curriculum and comprehensive staff care program.
As I watched my colleagues work through stress management and self care challenges in the classroom I felt dips in my gut as I saw myself in their stories. I realized how physically tired I felt...all of the time. I realized how off my health was. How much guilt I felt around leaving the office at the end of the day because there was always more work to do. How work mentally followed me home. How I never had down time to turn off and feel relaxed. And how I only had two modes operandi...go (100 mph) or stop (sleep).
I knew something had to change so I did what I do best...I started a lot of experiments. I was excited to learn, experiment, and break the code of self care. I was looking for the magic formula. The perfect menu of practices. The exact way to manage my schedule and my time. I felt hopeful. I spent years trying on every shape, size, hybrid, and original version of self care ideas and practices that one could think of.
And in the search for self care, I became....exhausted. Ironic isn't it?
You know what's the two things I wish someone told me? First...you're human. I had this idea that if I found the perfect combo of self care and practiced well that I'd be free from stress. But the truth is I'm human. I'll still trip up. I will get triggered when I don't mean to. I will feel stressed even when I'm doing an awesome job keeping things in balance. Two...one of the greatest guarantees in life is that life changes. And we change. I've changed. And I'll continue to change. What constitutes good self care for me today, may be different than what self care means for me a year from now.
Transformative self care is transformative because it nourishes your soul in the present moment. Right here. Right now.
Here's where I think a lot of people get tripped up with self care...they become attached.
I did. To the perfect routine. To the exact combination of practices. To the no stress barometer as the measuring stick. And I discovered that my life...my being...is far more complex than the perfect secret code I was determined to break. That my middle way of creating balance today can be different than what it was five years ago. And most of all, that my middle way may look absolutely different than someone else's. Perhaps even stressful to them and that's perfectly ok. Because if it works for me, if it keeps me feeling joyful, happy, and balanced, that's what matters. How I feel is the key.
This is where some of my fellow coaches and self care gurus start cringing. No! She's opening the flood gates and going to say people don't need to commit to anything and can go by the seat of their pants and fall into old habits of zero routine, overwhelm, unhealthy erratic eating habits, strange unpredictable sleep patterns, and the list goes on. (Not like I know anything about that...ok just a little) Let's all just take a breathe and hold our horses. Hear me out.
Human beings are dynamic organisms. As a result, our self care must be both tailored and dynamic. True self care is grounded in one thing: self knowledge.
If we are focused on our wellness and health these are noble North Stars. But perhaps we can miss the very point underneath it all. The more I know myself, the more I know what I need. When I honor what I need, I'm practicing good self care. In my health. In my relationships. In my workplace. In my hobbies. Self care is possible when we know ourselves deeply in all areas of our life. What I need today may be different tomorrow. Some things change. Some things never change. And so my self care must be: individualized, dynamic, with a dash of predictability and a pinch of flexibility. And ultimately, is a journey into the deepest depths of my soul.
Let me show you what I mean. Through trial and error with an eye towards knowing myself deeply, I learned:
- Without a doubt I need sacred space in the morning and the evening. Without it I feel spacey, unfocused and sometimes grumpy and agitated.
- Sleep is paramount for me. I need to sleep early and wake up early. When I skimp on my sleep, it impacts EVERYTHING.
- I hate working out in the early morning. But when I work out in the afternoon I feel energized at a time I'd otherwise feel sleep. Working out works best for me as a break between tasks or chunks of my day. And without a regular routine of movement, I get cabin fever BIG TIME.
- I dislike cleaning, but when my space is super messy, my brain is super messy. It's harder for me to concentrate. So I break up cleaning and organizing into little bits and do it as a transition between to do's or tasks. Or at times when my brain is foggy and can't do concentrated sitting down tasks.
- I recharge alone.
- Leaving my e-mail or social media open all of the time sucks my attention away and makes me feel like the work is never done.
- I need play. When I don't have fun and playful time, I start to feel resentful. Ultimately towards myself. I get FAR too serious and I loose the lighthearted nature of my essence.
- There is such a thing as too much spiritual practice. When I seep into the hermit mode of a TON of spiritual practice, while I love it...it starts to disconnect me from other parts of myself. The joyful, playful part of me. The one who loves to laugh and be goofy with friends. Again. I get too serious.
During trial and error I planned out all the hours, all the activities. I redid my calendar fifty million times. I made sure it had the perfect combination of play, social, sacred, work, etc. God it became a chore to find the perfect schedule, work life balance. The reality is that I am a dash of predictable and unpredictable and therefore, my schedule, my understanding of work life balance, my whole self care package absolutely must reflect me. Like a mirror pairing back what it sees. Here's what I know to be true about my own self care:
Lifetime Love affair with the Divine: Must have time to commune with the Divine am and pm. First conversation and last conversation of the day starts with One and ends with One.
Avid believer and practioner of meditation and mindfulness: Must have daily meditation, morning works best. A theme of the week guides a new pattern of behavior or thought I'm watching with curiosity just because I find the mind absolutely the most fascinating thing on earth and it helps me with my joy. Journaling at night and sometimes in the morning helps me understand what I'm noticing throughout the day.
Fiercely independent freedom flyer: Must have "blank spaces" to play and do whatever I want. When my schedule is too blocked out, I feel like rebelling and self sabotaging habits come up. I need time to dilly dally. Time to take a walk around the block. Time to keep working. Time to drink tea on the couch. Time to go meet friends. Time to go salsa dancing (I went for the first time this weekend and got hooked). It's time to just do whatever is calling me at the moment.
Lives for connecting with people: Must have meaningful connection time with people I care about, students in the classroom, clients in my coaching practice. I live for deep, heart drenched, fascinating conversation, connection and conversation. People fascinate me...big time.
Recharges energy alone: Must include both ample alone time reading, tea drinking, coloring in mindfulness coloring book, listening to new music, or doing anything quiet and alone. Includes regular retreating either at home for a day, a few hours, or going away on retreat.
Muse oriented creative soul fire: As a creative at heart, I need creative time to write, make things with my hands like painting or drawing, music, moving, dancing, anything creative. But the creative muse visits me at unpredictable times. So this includes both scheduling creative moments and space through my buffer times to follow the muse. If the muse visits me when I have something else on my to do list first, I flip and change my to do list and follow the muse.
How did I come up with is combination of routine and flexibility? I started paying attention deeply to myself. Paying attention to what led me to feeling stressed. What brought me back to center. What drained me. What recharged me. What mattered most. What mattered the least. What was essential. What was an "extra." What was a throw away. And ultimately, what makes me feel most truly like myself.
Now it's time for your self care story! This week's Joy Tip Wednesday is to get clear about your own self care story:
- What's your current self care story? Do you believe that you must find the perfect routine to free yourself from stress? What do the words "self care" mean to you personally? What do you imagine self care brings to your life? What is it's purpose in your life? Less stress? More joy? More steadiness? More focus? Mine is totally oriented around joy, ease, authenticity, and creativity.
- List 3-5 truths you know to be true about yourself when you are feeling balanced, most true, most yourself. My truths stemmed from the observations I learned about myself in how sleep impacted me. How I recharged and discharged energy. And how different combinations of experiences impacted my way of being.
- Get clear on the barebones you already know. What do you currently know is essential for your middle way? What's extra nice to have, but not needed? What do you do that's actually...not necessary at all?
- Pair your truths with the barebones and check out if they line up. Are your truths reflecting your barebones? What's missing? What do you not know?
- Experiment with the knowledge you've uncovered. Try some changes in your schedule. Loosen routine if you see too much routine doesn't serve you. Create more structure if you see that its what you crave.
- My favorite combo for any practice, notice how you feel, adapt, repeat. :)
Understanding what self care means for you is a journey rather than a destination.
Each step you take enables you to uncover the unfolding of your deepest being, your deepest knowing, your deepest self more than ever before. If you thrive with fits and spurts of 14 hour days. Go for it. If the idea of a 14 hour day exhausts you just thinking about it, leave it.
When you leave the idea of what you think self care should look like for the reality of what it feels like for you, you honor your deepest wisdom. And when you honor your deepest wisdom, you finally practice the deepest act of self love.
In sum self care = self knowledge. Self knowledge comes from paying attention, trial and error, and adjustment. Have fun experimenting and drop any shackles of how you think self care should be to once and for all to honor how you want self care to feel.