Self-Care: A Hard Lesson Learned
Updated: Jan 4, 2020
Self-Care: A Hard Lesson Learned
If you are anything like me, self-care has always come in the form of distraction, denial, guilt, and the forced movement of my mind, body and spirit into anything and everything around me. My life has always been guided by fast-paced action and the conditioned need to do more, work harder, and achieve greater. Yet as I have been told by the many who have met me, “remember to make down time for yourself!”
The tricky thing about the normalization of always running forward, is that sitting in the present becomes abnormal, and thus incredibly difficult. As someone who also works in the helping profession, days are spent advocating for the needs of others and constantly projecting love, compassion, and energy outwards. Projecting love, compassion and energy is beautiful and necessary, but when you’re not also projecting it inwards, work and life becomes incredibly draining.
Around this exact time last year, I found myself at the bottom of a pit, completely and utterly burned out. The exertion of outward energy for the entire year prior left me physically sick and emotionally depleted. I went into crisis mode, bed-ridden, and seeing two different counsellors who were telling me the exact same thing: “you need to make time to do the things that make you feel whole”. It seemed so simple to hear, so I told myself I would agree and then set some lofty plans to do these things that included writing, exercising, and spending more time with close friends. Fast forward a year and I found myself at the exact same crisis point. Amazing and endless opportunities arose and life had gotten even busier than ever. I had let myself burnout again, becoming disconnected from friends, family, my partner, and myself in the process.
They say it takes something devastating to happen in order to realize the changes that need to be made. I have always been someone who pushes the limits: goals, dreams, comfort zones, relationships, and my own capability. It has always been a subconscious test of my own abilities and worth. But this time I had pushed a little too hard. I had not learned the lesson of the importance of self-care the first time around, so how was I supposed to learn the lesson the second time around? The answer: a broken heart.
Pushing the limits of my guilt, I decided to take an ENTIRE WEEK of vacation. I made the spontaneous effort to book a solo trip for myself as tears fell onto my laptop keyboard. Leading up to and during this week of reflection, there were a number of realizations and lessons that I have learned. One of these lessons is the importance of “processing” and “reflecting”, and for me that process and reflection is best done in the form of writing. So, I decided to create this blog as motivation to process and reflect, starting with the following Lessons of Self-Care:
1) Much of the Weight I Carry, Is Not Mine to Carry
As an Indigenous person and intergenerational residential school survivor, I carry both the trauma in my own blood and family, and the daily traumas and triggers that occur as a result of being queer and Indigenous in a hetero and colonial environment. From micro-aggressions to news stories of poverty, violence, abuse and death, I am surrounded by reminders of pain and oppression. In addition to experiencing these traumas at a personal level, as someone who works in helping and activism I am always listening to and supporting the struggles and lives of others. Without learning to actively separate ones own story, emotions, and energy from that of others, the two become indistinguishable. As a result, I have been carrying the loss, pain, anger, and sadness of those I work with. Acknowledging that much of what I, as a queer and Indigenous person carry, is not mine to carry, has been a first step in understanding the need to find ways of releasing what is not mine and preventing what is not mine from crossing my boundary.
2) It’s Time to Take Back Process and Reflection
Growing up, I wasn’t grounded in the traditional Indigenous belief system that centred ceremony, extended time on the land, or the practice of beading and other crafts that instil patience and stillness. Sure, we had a cabin and would spend weekends away from town, electricity and running water, but cabin time ended when we moved to the city. Since then it has been a constant sprint in the achievement of athletics, academics, and the pursuit of life goals. Unfortunately in the modern world we live in, goals rarely translate into stillness, quite time, or refection. I travel a lot in the work I do and sometimes don’t have set work hours, meaning I am rarely in routine and I am usually working into the evening and on weekends. This has been seemingly necessary in order to build and maintain the work I have created, but it is also, as I have learned, not sustainable.
Without giving myself space and time to process all of the ups and downs in life, school and work, all of those experiences started to build up and become internalized. After enough stuff was built up inside, that stuff started to get projected onto friends, family, and my relationship. I didn’t make time for process and reflection, so obviously there wasn’t enough time to spend time with friends. However, in the midst of a broken heart I was reaching out to all the friends who I hadn’t made time to reach out to as much as I would have liked, and they ended up being the best form of process and reflection. Friendships are so key to the act of processing and reflecting, as close friends are the ones who allow you space to set down what you’re carrying for a little while in comfort, tenderness, and fun.
During my busy year, I had also gotten to the point of constant exhaustion, which meant that when I did have time (usually right before bed), I was often too tired to even have a phone call with family members. Or, due to physical and emotional exhaustion, I wasn’t fully present for a Skype or phone call. In retrospect I realize that my own burnout also affected family, as they had been left out of much of what had been going in my life, and I theirs.
3) Without Putting 100% into Myself, I Can’t Put 100% into Anything
Exerting energy without replenishing energy is (no shit) unsustainable. I tested this lesson to the ultimate limit, and I guarantee it’s truth after running in denial for too long. I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given and love the hard and much needed work that I do, but after some time I began having a negative mindset, not wanting to do things that needed to get done. I wasn’t looking forward to travel, I was dreading work calls, and avoiding e-mails. Not because I didn’t like what I was doing, but because I was just so tired. The emotional exhaustion was the worst, and my relationship also started to bear the impact. In spending so much time giving energy, love, time, and compassion to others through my work, and none to myself in return, I had little left for my partner. Instead of communicating needs and emotions, I began to distance myself emotionally more and more. Needless to say, emotion and compassion fatigue played a huge part in the pushing away of someone I loved deeply. So in cliché yet totally realistic fashion: to love others is to love yourself.
4) Self-Care Is An Act of Resistance
The burden of social justice falls most on the backs of those who are impacted. The fight for equality, justice, and human rights has historically proven to be fought by marginalized groups. While the oppressors, or the majority, enjoy, the oppressed, or the marginalized, fight. I have had my own hardships in life, but I have also been privileged in my upbringing of a middle-class family. In this case and all that came with it, I have not been marginalized. But, in many other cases, as a queer Indigenous woman, I have felt the deep effects of marginalization. So, I have and continue to fight in the name of social justice, for myself, but mostly for and with the many communities and individuals I serve. If you look at the historical and present context of oppression and colonialism, marginalized groups have also been stripped of the right to be happy, experience love, and do things that bring joy. Self-care, than, is an act of resistance.
I have always felt guilty about doing things for myself, taking time for myself. If I were to take an afternoon off for myself, I would most often be too preoccupied and anxious about all of the things I could be getting done instead. I realize this is not healthy, and I have come to think about my grandmother who spent ten years in a residential school. She had no family, she was forced to neglect her culture and language, was not given the opportunity to receive or give love and affection, and I’m sure, experienced very little joy. As an intergenerational residential school survivor and a queer Indigenous woman, I am learning the resistant act that is giving love and compassion to myself in the form of time and care. After a week of solo vacation, process, and reflection time, I am one step closer to not feeling guilty about saying the words: “I deserve to relax and I deserve to do the things that bring me peace and joy”.
Self-care is a long and hard lesson to learn, and once learned, can be a powerful tool. I wish only love, compassion and joy for others, for you, and for myself.
Resist in action and resist in stillness.