How to Care For Ourselves When it's Hard
This piece was written in collaboration with my editor, Juanita Cox.
Self-care. These two little words stir up light to extreme negative emotions in many of us. It's not that we don't want to take care of ourselves, but it can feel like a real burden or complete mystery.
Before we go any further, we need to acknowledge three things:
1. Taking care of oneself is not possible for everyone. For some disabled people, those living in poverty, and many trauma survivors, finding ways to meet basic needs is all they can manage, and even that is often met with insurmountable financial and logistical barriers.
The playing field of self-care is nowhere near even. The privilege to engage in this discussion cannot be understated. For all people to access the right to caring for themselves in ways they prefer, we all need to look outside of ourselves to where we can uplift and advocate in our communities.
2. There are enormous systems of oppression that benefit from our being disconnected from ourselves. We are inundated with messages to disengage and outsource our trust to others. Self-trust and empowering people to know what they need is a threat to society.
Communities of color and people living in poverty are often the targets of these systems, making it increasingly difficult to develop self-trust and agency. This is a complex problem, but it's everybody's to grapple with and act on.
3. For those who can find the time, ability, and resources for self-care, it is still ripe with difficulty. Some days it feels impossible, it is not always enjoyable, and rarely feels simple enough. This is hard when your neurotype is interest-driven, like the ADHD brain.
What is self-care?
Taking care of yourself is doing anything that meets a need, supports your alignment with your values, or brings fulfillment, recovery, or joy to your life.
In The Enclave, we worked through the following sentence stems. If this is your first time doing these, the idea is to write down the first thing that comes to mind to complete the sentence without overthinking it. There's no judgment about what pops up.
If you'd like to share your responses in the comments, we'd love to hear them!
I can't take care of myself without...
I wish taking care of myself was...
I feel cared for when...
For self-care, I don't understand...
Any of these responses sound like yours?
I can't take care of myself without... overthinking, therapy, guilt, feeling safe, doing it all – getting everything else done first, meds, prompting or physical exhaustion, stress, permission.
I wish taking care of myself was... simple, fun, easier, less time consuming, quicker, not perceived as indulgent, happened earlier in life, natural, a priority, easily identifiable, obvious.
I feel cared for when... someone else cooks, acknowledges, listens, helps, or gives permission.
For self-care, I don't understand... why it's so hard, how to hold boundaries, how to communicate to others so I feel justified, how to start, how to juggle everything AND care for myself, why I avoid things I know work for me, when I need it and what I need.
Notice how the responses to how we feel cared for all rely on someone else's participation. What if we felt cared for without someone else involved? Is that possible?
I wonder if the difficulty of taking care of ourselves is because we don't know what it feels like to be satisfied and feel loved by the care we provide ourselves.
Do we need more than to nourish our bodies?
We create more work for ourselves when we worry about living the way we "should." What if we stopped worrying about taking care of ourselves? What if we did what we needed to do each day without measuring ourselves against a checklist someone else created?
The Enclave discussion on this topic gave me a lot to think about. Here are a few highlights from the member's insights to ponder.
How do you know when you're relaxed?
When I don't notice I'm relaxing – just being – when I'm caught up in a story.
I know it when I feel it but can't describe it.
When I don't have to watch or pay attention to anybody else.
When my mind isn't going all over the place at once.
Sometimes when I finally feel tired.
When I notice I'm being present at the moment – not worrying – experiencing what's happening.
When I'm busy working on something and finish - that wash of relief.
When coming down from an adrenaline high from intense emotions or a hard workout.
What do you think about relaxing in self-care?
Some of us see self-care as anything that prioritizes ourselves. Patricia Sung shared a metaphor that helps shift her perspective on self-care.
"Think about when you plug in a mobile phone because it needs to charge. While it is plugged to charge so that it functions for you, it loses its primary function, being mobile, but that's required to keep it going."
Patricia's focus for self-care is on anything that is energizing. She's making a list of things that make her feel better so she has a menu to choose from. If you want to hear more of her thoughts, check out her podcast, Motherhood in ADHD, where she recently dug into this topic further.
Many of us take care of everyone and everything before we take care of ourselves, even our most basic needs for food, hydration, and rest. We push it off and suddenly hours turn into days into years.
When we're working on something for someone else and time passes without progress, the clock makes us panic and we're more likely to strike our needs off the list. The most critical thing is to care for and please others at all costs. This thinking is deeply problematic and toxic to our health. When will it be our turn to feel settled in our bones? How can we INSIST on filling our bellies and souls first so that we can work for others?
We do not need to earn the right to take care of ourselves.
Other times, we're doing things that qualify as bona fide self-care, but we're thinking of other things or multi-tasking, so we tell ourselves it doesn't count. As one Enclave member reminded us, "It still counts! If we're waiting for our brains to be clear and calm, then self-care may never be reachable."
You get to define what it means for you to take care of yourself. There is no mystery door with the answers just beyond reach. You get to decide for yourself.
Self-care is truly what you make of it, it might look like the typical face masks and pampering, but it might also look like saying no to an activity so you have time and energy for yourself. Take this as an opportunity to re-imagine self-care for yourself.
As long as you are caring for yourself, it is self-care. Full stop. Embrace it for what it looks like right now at this moment.
Remember at the beginning of this essay we talked about how self-care is especially challenging to those in oppressed communities? You may not have the privilege or ability to take a 3-month sabbatical from work, but what you always have is the ability to listen to yourself and your needs.
Do what you can to listen and honor your inner voice, even if it is as simple as drinking water and taking some deep breaths, taking these moments of rest is vital to our existence. This is true for all of us, but especially when we are part of oppressed communities, as the Nap Bishop, Tricia Heresy says:
"Rest is a beautiful interruption in a world that has no pause button." - Tricia Heresy
It is hard to escape the pull and demand of our white supremacist capitalist state, but every moment of rest is a radical act against oppression. It reminds us we do not have to always grind and push to have worth.
We do not even need to do anything to have worth. The work will still be there, all will not fall apart, but we only have our bodies for a short time and they need self-care, whether we do so or not.
Self-Care still applies when you're neurodivergent
I keep hearing ADHD folks confess they need so much more time to relax than others as if this is a shameful secret. It's a fact, friends. Our brains work harder to do the same tasks, and before you throw up your hands in frustration at your brain ---remember there are tasks we do MUCH faster than others. We catch mistakes, notice important things, call to attention the elephant in the room. All of this takes energy.
The shame we feel about our lack of self-care is based on unfair expectations placed on us by a world that didn't give us a second thought when they designed public education and the job market.
If we had all the time in the world (and money), we'd spend our entire day doing what feels good to us. Things like gardening, reading, learning, volunteering, decorating, connecting, or creating, etc.
To identify the things on your unique list of ways to recharge, you'll need to get clear about your values. Our needs and values are the guideposts for making decisions in every area of life.
Self-care does not always feel good and is not always enjoyable, but it is necessary.
We can sometimes use a 'hack' to make it less unpleasant, but the reality, as Mara Glatzel presses, we live in human bodies that require care.
Another gem from an Enclave member:
"Anything in the category of self-care is susceptible to us getting bored with it. It doesn't mean we're not interested in self-care, but we can feel like we failed. How we take care of ourselves is the one area of life we truly get to play and experiment on our terms."
A lot of us miss big trips or spontaneous adventures, some of us need and value them. If you're one of them, that's been really hard in a pandemic. There is no substitute for meeting that need right now.
This Pandemic life will not last forever.
Take these reflection questions and use them as journal prompts or share an answer in the comments below. It's important to give yourself permission to consider your relationship to self-care, even if you take no action. It is part of being human.
Feel free to share reactions or reflections in the comments!
What is something you do to take care of yourself that feels so easy you don't think of it as self-care?
What do you enjoy?
What if we felt cared for without someone else involved? Is that possible?
What values does your care need to align with?
What is 'good enough' self-care for you, for now?