Slowing down in the name of self-care

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning here in the Harmony House. The weather is cool but drizzly, which is a nice change after the heat of the previous week. I have had a lovely slow morning where I woke without an alarm and felt refreshed, I took my time having breakfast and making my West End Matcha tea and then I listened to a the latest episode of The Slow Home Podcast while I pottered about the house tidying up. Crinkle the cat was hanging around, my darling husband was sleeping in and then watching sport and then cooking bacon and there was absolutely no urgency or rushing. It’s got me feeling very reflective.

In short, it was my ideal morning. I feel very grateful to have realised that several days a week (usually 3 but sometimes more, sometimes less) I get to live a version of my ideal day. Mostly it involves being a homebody, lots of self-care, spending time with my little family, a phone conversation with one of my loved ones and learning about topics I love. Often it involves coaching of some sort, whether that be working with a client, participating in a webinar or doing some further study. All of these things, to me, represent a significant slowing down from the life I lead the other days of the week.

That life sees me rising very early (often before the sun), commuting for over an hour, functioning at work amidst the chaos and feelings of ‘never enough’ and ‘too busy for a toilet break’, followed by either a long commute home, dinner and bed, or staying overnight in the town where I work as it is too long of a commute to do both ways every day. There are many things I love about that life. I actually enjoy my commute because I get to listen to awesome podcasts and sometimes have long, meaningful conversations with my bestie via the magic of hands-free mobile technology. I really love the people who open their homes to me when I need a home-away-from-home and they feed me delicious food and we have many wonderful conversations. And I really enjoy many aspects of my job — especially the connections with lovely staff and students and the great music we get to enjoy and create.

But ultimately that life represents a lot of things that are not ideal for me. It’s frantic and exhausting for a start. Anyone who knows a teacher knows that it’s far from the 9 – 3 job some people think it is. The days really are chock-a-block full and lunch-times are not really a break but a chance to chase up students who you need to see and prepare for lessons and organise all manner of ensembles and rehearsals. The more days I have off in a week, the worse the busy-ness of the 9 – 3 hours gets. Since I’ve had the fit-bit it has become easier to see just how active these hours are for me. I regularly do 12,000 steps in a day at school. That’s without any attempt at setting aside time for exercise. On more than one occasion I’ve made it to 20,000 steps in a school day. There is also the emotional drain of a system that is never-ending in it’s quest for ‘perfection’ and where some of the clients and customers are really, really hard to get along with. As a highly sensitive person, I find it really draining to be interacting with such hostility so regularly. Plus, the constant improvement agenda and quest for more, more, more and better, better, better is quite a trigger to this recovering perfectionist. It’s also in stark contrast to my values, which is also emotionally draining.

The other problem is that this life also takes me away from my home and haven 4 days a week (sometimes more!). It’s an epiphany I’ve had before but I’m realising anew lately just how crucial this haven is for my health and happiness. It’s the reason I’m really not keen to have any guests stay over-night ever again, actually, although this is an ongoing conversation in our household at the moment. But being at home, either alone or with Stuart, gives me the chance to recharge my energy and block out the frantic noise of the world. It’s crucial for my self-care, it’s what reconnects me to my husband and to myself. So having to get up and rush to leave by 6.15am every work-day morning and either not get home until 6.15pm or, if I stay overnight in Esk, until the following day robs me of that re-charge time. As much as I love the dear friends I stay with in Esk, and as much as they look after me and give me everything I could possibly want in a home-away-from-home, it isn’t actually home. It’s not my space and staying there means I don’t get to see my husband or my cat for usually 36 hours minimum, sometimes closer to 72 hours depending on the week. Of course I know that is nothing compared to the separation that some couples deal with and I also know that I can choose to drive home any night that I like and I can even choose to work somewhere else. But neither of those options are really better options to me. In fact, this situation is the best that it could be right now. But that doesn’t mean it is the ideal. And it’s certainly not slow, which is what I’m craving right now.

So, next year, I am planning on dropping back to a 50% teaching load which will end up as 1 x full day and 2 x three-quarter days of teaching. At this stage, it will probably be Monday, Wednesday and Friday, which will mean three big days of commuting and busy-ness, but I’ll get to be home in my haven with my husband every night and I’ll get a day off in between every work day to recover and recharge and refocus. It’s more slowing down and another step towards my ideal life and I’m really looking forward to it.

Before then, though, I still have 7 weeks of the term to get through. This coming week I’m working 5 days because we have our school Awards Night on Tuesday (usually my day off) so I’ll be working Tuesday and staying away from home 3 nights this week. After that, the marking and reporting cycle will begin in earnest, so things are about to ramp up in that regard. As a result, I’ve decided to take the pressure of myself with The Harmony Agenda for a while. I’ll be blogging still, but perhaps not as regularly. I had planned to re-launch the Self-Care Matters E-Course in November in the new 12-week format but I don’t think I will now. I think I’ll leave that until the New Year because it does need some re-working and I won’t be able to devote the time or energy to it that I’d like at this stage.

I also plan on focusing more of my energy into developing resources for other teachers to be able to prioritise self-care. As such, I’ll be putting as much of my knowledge into practice to get through this term in as slow and self-care-filled manner possible. I am starting a Facebook group for teachers to support each other in self-care because I see a real need for a safe space for this online. And I will continue with the coaching part-time as well.

I feel really grateful to have not only the opportunity to create a version of my ideal life on the weekends and the odd day off during the week, but also to have the perspective to realise that for now, although I’d really like more of the ideal life, I need to do what needs to be done to get there sustainably. At the moment that means slowing down on the business building because I have to focus on staying well and doing my job well too. I know this isn’t forever and that at some stage in the future I will miss this school and these students, so I will appreciate them while I can. And I’ll focus on the nice bits and try to let go of the not-so-nice bits. And I’ll remind myself that even when I have to slow down and change my plans, even when I make less progress in all areas of my life than I want and especially when I feel like I have let myself or others down, I am enough, already and always.

My health and happiness has to be my priority, and that’s ok. I want to help as many people as possible to realise that they can prioritise themselves too, but I want to do that in a way that is congruent and sustainable. No use burning myself out spreading the self-care message! So for now I will live my values as much as possible, slow down and practice self-care, and lead by example. That’s my harmony agenda. What’s yours?

Spring has sprung!

What a busy and exciting time September was, filled with many firsts for The Harmony Agenda. Of course it was the second annual Self-Care September and to go along with that I launched the first intake of my Self-Care Matters E-Course, which was initially meant to run for 30 days. But, as the month went on it became clear that the one-lesson-a-day-for-30-days format was not ideal. As such, I decided to stop the course after 21 days to re-think. The course was very well received and I had many people let me know how even in the short 3 weeks that they participated it had changed the way they thought about and practised self-care. As a first round, I think it has been a huge success and the valuable feedback I’ve gained will only make it better in the next round! The next incarnation of the course will begin in November and it will be a very different format — watch this space!
There were a number of other ‘firsts’ on the blog last month. I was featured as a guest blog on fellow Toowoomba coach Viki Thondley’s blog MindBodyFood which was very exciting! The Harmony Agenda also launched a guest post Friday Fitness column with Exercise Physiologist in residence, my husband Stuart! We plan to make this a regular part of the blog — once we coordinate our schedules!

September also held the first in the Choose Your Own Agenda Interview Series! Bek from West End Matcha shared how she and Adam, her partner in love, life and business, have spent the last 2 years travelling the world and prioritising their health and wellness. It’s a fantastic example of living life on your own terms, check it out here! I’m eagerly awaiting my first order of their organic green tea. Head to their website to find out about the benefits of matcha and order some for yourself!

October also sees me continuing on my decluttering projects. It’s such a cathartic process that many of us can benefit from. I encourage you to choose an area of your life (e.g. your wardrobe, your kitchen drawers, your email inbox) and declutter 25 items by the end of the month. It’s an often overlooked form of self-care and I hope you will find it as beneficial as I do.

Here’s to your health and happiness for the rest of October and beyond.

A powerful reminder of why it really is all in your head!

“It’s all in your head.”

Anyone who has ever had an invisible disease or health condition, or even simply a prolonged illness, knows the power these words have. In one sentence, a person can completely dismiss every painful and awful symptom and all the things you are doing to try to fix it. These words don’t just dismiss your illness and invalidate your feelings, they actually completely dismiss and invalidate YOU. It brings up a whole lot of shame and guilt about the condition for starters, and your trustworthiness on top of that.

If someone says ‘It’s all in your head’ what they are really saying is ‘I don’t believe you are really suffering from [insert condition here] and I think you are just trying to get attention’. This can be annoying when it comes from someone who isn’t important to you and really bloody frustrating when it comes from a health professional from whom you are seeking advice and treatment. But it’s completely devastating when it comes from someone close to you who is supposed to care about you…

…like that voice inside of you. In my almost-decade of invisible illnesses, I can count on one hand the number of times another person has actually said that to my face (although they may have thought it, who knows.) But at my worst, I said it to myself A LOT.

The problem is, I was right, but in completely the wrong way.

What I said to myself that it was all in my head, what I meant was that my physical and emotional symptoms and sensations were invisible to others, nigh on impossible to prove and therefore I must be imagining it.

WRONG! This wasn’t just false, it also kept me treating my body in ways that perpetuated the very symptoms I was hoping to alleviate. By denying my experiences and the messages my body was sending, I continued with the patterns of behaviour and thinking that got me there in the first place.

The truth is that the problem was all in my head, but not because I made it up to get attention (or for any other reason), but because my thoughts and beliefs were what led me to the point of chronic, invisible illness to begin with. And if the problem was in my mind, so was the solution. I just didn’t know it yet.

Massive disclaimer, just in case it isn’t already clear: I am NOT saying that I could ‘think myself better’ and take no practical action to actually treat the very real conditions I was suffering from. I believe people who push that kind of solution are only delaying a person’s actual recovery and in some cases are spreading a very dangerous message. That is IN NO WAY what I am saying here.

Did I have definite infections and physical symptoms that needed clearly defined medical treatment? Yes! Did I avail myself of everything modern medicine could do for me in order to get better? Absolutely yes!

And did I need to step up and take responsibility for my health instead of hoping for a quick fix and expecting the solution to be completely external to myself?

Yes I did. And there-in lies the gold: I had actual medical conditions that required medicine and in some cases surgery and supervision by proper health professionals, but I also needed to actually change my attitude altogether.

Only when I began to accept my health challenges instead of denying them did my journey of recovery begin. Only when I began to ask that little voice inside me to actually validate instead of dismiss my physical and emotional symptoms did I begin to trust myself. Only when I allowed myself to actually believe that I was truly sick, did I begin to treat myself in a way that would ultimately lead to wellness.

The irony is that the old “it’s all in your head” thinking was based on the idea that if I believed myself to actually be unwell, then I would get worse. But actually, the opposite happened! I stayed locked in denial for far too long. I was continuously abdicating responsibility for my health and wellbeing to external people and things, quick fixes and magic pills. I resented the fact that I continued to be unwell, despite the fact that I was working so hard to ‘think positive’ and ‘soldier on’.

IMG_2044Facebook has a new ‘memories’ feature that allows you to look back on what you posted on this day in years gone by. Today, one of my memories was of a status from 2009 which is the epitome of everything that was working against me in my mindset back then.

It reads: “Ellen…wants an upgrade, this body is definitely faulty and surely it’s still under warranty.

I would never write or say or even think anything like this now, not because I don’t still have health conditions (I do) and not because I no longer get sick and tired of feeling sick and tired (I do) but because I no longer believe the core message. The girl who wrote this believed that her body was not her responsibility. She made a joke about a body being like a kitchen appliance that you can replace when it malfunctions. Of course she knew this wasn’t physically possible with a human body (well…outside the realms of science fiction and things like organ transplants, neither of which really apply here). But her underlying belief was that her body wasn’t connected to her consciousness and that neither were really within her control. She didn’t take responsibility for enough of her choices regarding her health. She believed there was an inherent problem with her body, that it was faulty and therefore unable to be fixed.

But that was all in her head! I now know that my body is not faulty. I truly and deeply know this, it’s not even in the realm of belief anymore. My body is infinitely wise and tries in every way it knows how to get my attention. It knows what it needs and if I continue to ignore its whispers, its cries get louder and louder and much harder to ignore. That’s actually pretty much exactly what happened the year after I wrote this status. No longer did I have the whispers of ‘chronic fatigue’ and ‘recurrent tonsillitis’, but instead the shouts of whooping cough and thyroid cancer. Thankfully, the absolute awful illness that is whooping cough and the truly scary thing that is the big C shocked me into change. Slowly at first and then with increasing speed and accuracy.

There is no warranty and nor would I want one, these days. I don’t recall exactly what ailment I was suffering at the time I wrote that status, although my guess is it was yet another bout of tonsillitis. What I do know is that there were some very major health crises on the way so things were about to get worse before they got better.

The funny thing is, I did get the upgrade I asked for, just not in the way I wanted. I still have the same body (if you ignore the idea that all our cells regenerate and every 7 years we are a completely new being) but I have completely changed the way I think and feel about it. More importantly, I have taken responsibility for the way I interact with it on a daily basis. I am in no way perfect at it, but I really listen to the messages it is sending me now and I actually do a damn good job of heeding its warnings and following its instructions. I honour it and care for it because I love and care for it, truly, madly and deeply.

And that change in attitude, that newfound send of love and commitment, that total and complete transformation: that, ladies and gentleman, really IS all in your head!

Welcome to the Self-Care Matters Program

Congratulations! You have chosen to take some time out of your busy life to invest in self-care. This is important and valuable work and you will not regret it. Welcome to the Self-Care Matters course.

So how does it work? The idea is that for 30 days in a row you set aside about 10 minutes per day that is for you to focus on yourself. That’s a minimum, by the way, if you want to do more then go for it! The aim of this course is to help you build a daily self-care practice, examine your ideas and beliefs about self-care including the sabotages that are holding you back from caring for yourself as much as you’d like, and exploring and experimenting with what self-care practices feel good for you. There is no one size fits all here. I will be guiding you and teaching some general principles, but the ultimate goal is for you to know yourself better and to truly know what actions support you to live your best life, and then to incorporate more of those so that you can feel your best.
Every week you will receive access to a new lesson from me with some information about self-care and an activity or exercise to complete. Often these will be journalling questions or some type of emotional exploration. Additionally, I encourage each of you to participate in the ’30 days of Self-Care’ challenge which involves taking at least one action every day that is kind to yourself. It could be a small thing, like painting your nails or reading a book, or a larger activity that requires a bit more time and planning, like booking a massage or decluttering a room in your home. Ideally, the 30 day challenge would be in addition to the 10 minutes you will already be spending working through the course. The idea is that these daily actions are a practical affirmation of your love for yourself and the fact that you deserve to be cared for and devote time to yourself.
However, the last thing I want to do is create stress and more pressure in your already busy life. I do encourage you to put your daily self-care action as well as your 10 minutes ‘study’ time on your to-do list, but only if that works for you. Although this is an educational course, it isn’t school. There are no tests and you won’t get in trouble if you miss a week or take longer than 30 days to complete the challenge. I have structured the starter challenge in the 30 day time-frame because that is enough time to build a habit. It will require some discipline to commit to 10 minutes for yourself every single day, plus the weekly lesson action. But there are no hard and fast rules and absolutely no shame in participating in the program however it best fits in with your life.
There is a private Facebook group for participants to share the answers to their journalling questions if they choose to. It will also be used to provide some gentle accountability for the 30 day challenge. I say gentle because it is a motivational tool to help you build some momentum, not a stick for me to beat you with if you do not post every day. I encourage each of you to post in the group every day the action you took that was kind to yourself. A sense of being accountable to the others in the group can help build your discipline muscles and it’s also a lovely experience to be able to hold that space for others too. It can be really interesting to see how others define self-care actions too, so the Facebook group can be a great place to draw inspiration from as well. A general principle of ‘what is said in the group stays in the group’ applies so that every one can feel safe in sharing, knowing that what they share will be kept confidential.
So a little bit about me. Why am I teaching you all this? Well, in short, self-care has changed my life, and possibly saved it too. Nine years ago I was a very sick and unhappy young lady. During my university years I suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, had chronic infections and was clinically depressed. Eventually I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and endometriosis. I have had surgery to treat both, and a number of therapies, both medical and alternative, to get well. But underneath it all was a lack of belief in and love for myself that led me to treat myself and allow others to treat me poorly. My journey with self-care has helped me recover from and manage my conditions, as well as be a better daughter, sister, wife, friend, patient, teacher and coach. I am far from perfect and I still have ongoing management of my health conditions. Like the laundry, you don’t do it once and then expect your clothes to stay clean forever — self-care is an ongoing thing! It’s a monthly, weekly and daily process that I have grown to love because I’ve seen what a difference it makes (the self-care I mean, not the laundry!).
Disciplined and ongoing self-care has truly changed my life. Not all that many years ago I couldn’t walk over a hill without suffering post-exertional malaise for over a week, but in 2013 I climbed Mount Fuji in Japan and on a recent trip to Iceland I walked on a glacier! In 2008 I had to leave my part-time job and drop back to part-time university study because I was unwell. These days I’m working, studying and building a business. I have been not just practicing and experimenting with various forms of self-care, but I’ve also been studying it for the better part of the last decade. It is all of this information that I’m excited to share with you in this course.
Which brings me to the next point: What exactly is self-care? Check it out in the next article!