Personal barriers to self-care

There are five main facets of self-care: physical, personal, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Most of us find one or two of the facets to be natural strengths. Similarly, for most of us, there are one or two areas that don’t come naturally to us. IMG_2715

I’m no different. Emotional self-care comes naturally to me. It always has. For as long as I can remember I have been very in tune with my emotions and I have found it like a default for me to consciously practice emotional self-care. I naturally, intentionally and consistently employ strategies to ‘tend and befriend’ my emotions, seeking extra care when I feel I need it in a timely and determined manner.

It’s partly a case of nurture also: simply be being female I have had more encouragement in our society to engage with my emotions than I would have had were I male. I also was fortunate in that my parents are both emotionally intelligent people with experience as counsellors, so that has definitely helped. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that I have developed a fascination with and strong desire to help others tend and befriend their own emotions.

I realise that’s not the case for everyone — many of the coaching clients I work with are looking for some support in the area of their emotional self-care. Simply reaching out to a coach and acknowledging that this is something you’d like to work on is an important step, because it requires both awareness and action. There are also many people for whom coaching or some other form of therapy would be of great help, who either ignore their emotional needs altogether or who are aware of their needs but do not intentionally care for them. Self-care of all types requires both conscious awareness and intentional action to be successful. The emotional side of things just happens to come naturally for me, and was then further encouraged through nurture.

Personal care, on the other hand, does not come naturally to me. Of the 5 facets of self-care, this is the area that I have consistently put last. It’s the area that I have to put the most conscious awareness and effort into. In all honesty, I’m a bit lazy. I have often been known to try to stretch my hair another day before being washed, my legs another week (or three!) before being waxed. I would frequently have either no polish on my nails, or it would be chipping off. It was not uncommon for me to get 3 haircuts a year, and still feel like that was too many! I just find personal care to be a big effort and it always ended up last on my list of priorities. (I feel I should mention here that personal care and hygiene, although overlapping, are slightly different. I brush my teeth and wash my hands and bathe every single day. I’m good at hygiene!)

As a high school teacher it doesn’t really matter what I look like (as long as I’m dressed modestly) and, in fact, in terms of behaviour management, I find the plainer I make myself the better. The longer I have been teaching, the more comfortable I have become with making less effort with my outfits, and easily settled into a boring, comfortable uniform of polo shirts, jeans or denim shorts and sensible black sandals. In a small country school, this is perfectly acceptable. On special occasions like ANZAC Ceremonies and Awards Nights, I dress up a bit. But after my first year I pretty much completely stopped wearing make up to those events and I never wear it on a normal school day. I have friends who won’t leave the house without a full face of make up on, which I’d like to point out that I have no problem with. It’s just that I’m the opposite — whether from laziness, defiance or lack of time, I rarely wear make up on special occasions let alone day to day. Even wearing make up to my own wedding was a big decision, and I wore hardly any.

Personal care just doesn’t come naturally to me. I have realised, though, that just because it doesn’t come naturally doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. I did have to examine what about it I do and don’t like, and what parts exactly were barriers for me, in order to put it higher on the priority list. For example, it makes me feel really nice when I have neatly manicured hands and pedicured feet. But, I prefer to do this myself  in the comfort of my own home than have others do it. Similarly, eye make up is just a no for me, but I’m learning to appreciate a good base and blush and lip gloss!

So these school holidays I’ve been consciously and consistently making personal care a top priority. I had a massage a fortnight ago. I had my hair cut (at a nice salon too!) last week, and I took the time to straighten it the day I took this picture. I have been making sure I get dressed in nice clothes every day (not “holiday clothes” a.k.a. track suits) and have put on some makeup and jewellery almost every day. I had my eyebrows waxed today and I booked my next appointment as well.

I know for some this would all seem terribly ordinary, but it’s a big thing for me. It has required conscious awareness of my weaknesses, the obstacles and how to overcome them. It has also required intentional, consistent action. In other words, it requires discipline, which doesn’t sound very sexy or exciting.

Often people say the reasons they don’t practise more self-care is that they don’t have enough time and/or they don’t have enough money. Except, it’s not actually about the time or the money. It’s about what you value, and your priorities. People find time and money for things they really value. But, it’s also about discipline. Self-care requires discipline to be consistent, which is the only way to make it effective. It also is about having an understanding of yourself and your own personal strengths and weaknesses, and applying that discipline accordingly. What requires a lot of discipline to me (like putting on make up every day) is a piece of cake to someone else. That’s the thing about barriers to self-care: some of them are individual to us. A facet that comes naturally to one person is a conscious acquired skill to someone else.

So, which facets of self-care come naturally to you? And which require some more discipline? I’d love to know, so let me know in the comments below!

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!

Self-Care with Samuel L Jackson

Tonight it’s Friday night and I’m hanging out on the couch with my husband watching my favourite lifestyle tv and The Graham Norton Show. Tonight, Samuel L Jackson is on and he just gave some really excellent life advice. Warning: this advice comes with the usual Samuel L Jackson explicit language!

While discussing excessive Hollywood diets and ‘celebrity personal trainers’ he says:

“You know what you always tell trainers? “Motherf*cker, you work for ME!”

And I felt like cheering at the TV! This is EXACTLY the attitude more of us need to take in our lives, especially when it comes to our health. This is a lesson that it took me a long time (half a decade!) to learn, and in some cases learn the hard way. And since I realised that my doctor, coach and other practitioners work for me I have had such a different experience of not only my appointments but also my body and health altogether.

I often hear women frustrated that their doctor isn’t listening to them, that they are being dismissed and handed prescriptions that they don’t want. It isn’t just restricted to doctors but all types of practitioners that this happens with. I’m in no way anti-doctor, however I am against being a passive patient who hands over all control to the man or woman in a white coat. Or the psychologist, coach or counsellor whose office you walk out of feeling worse. Or the celebrity diet guru telling you that their meal plan and their meal plan only is what will work for you. Or, in Samuel L Jackson’s case, the personal trainer telling you to go harder when your body is saying no.

In a former life, this was me. I overtrained because I followed the advice of a well-intentioned PT giving advice to me that completely ignored the fact that I had chronic fatigue syndrome. I continued seeing a psychologist for a few sessions who, short of making me worse, certainly wasn’t helping me get better. And I spent an awful lot of my time in doctors offices having my symptoms dismissed and being given prescriptions for drugs or surgery which, if I had my time again, I’m not sure I would repeat.

It’s really only been in the last 18 months that I’ve truly started to stand up to practitioners when they are giving me advice that just does not sit right with me. Last year, in my gynaecologists office, I had to justify to her why I didn’t want to be on hormonal contraceptives anymore and why I wouldn’t let her perform an unnecessary and ‘maybe it will work, maybe it won’t’ procedure on my cervix. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was so scary to speak up and say ‘Actually, no, I don’t want that. Maybe it works for many other people, but my instinct is telling me it isn’t right for me right now.’ Now, my gyno was a nice lady and I’m sure she meant well, but I’m also pretty sure that she felt she knew better than me what was right for my body. (Amazingly, the condition cleared up on its own when I went off the hormones, no scary cervix scarring needed. Funny that!) It was really, really hard to stick to my convictions when put on the spot by her, but I’m so glad I did.

Since then, I’ve been faced with a few more opportunities to stand up for myself with health professionals, and also with other kinds of people I’ve hired. And it has required a bit of a self-pep-talk each time and I always end up sounding way more tongue tied and far less articulate than I hope. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because it’s MY body and MY choice how I take care of it. My agenda for my life and body may not always align with that of the practitioner or other person that I’m speaking to, and that’s ok.

So from now on in these situations my new mantra will be courtesy of Samuel L Jackson:

“Motherf*cker, you work for ME!”