The term self-care is bandied about a lot and I feel like some people really have it down. I am not – historically – one of those people. I overbooked, over-volunteered, overcommitted, and it was all freakin’ exhausting. The side effect, beyond exhaustion, is that behavior left little time to care for myself. Little time to write, work on creative projects, or have a bed that wasn’t covered in clothes.
After years of this behavior, I realized my lack of self-care was really about avoiding myself — if I stayed busy enough I could avoid the discomfort of being with me. By being busy, I could avoid the pain I never worked through from losing my father, not being able to say good bye when I was barely eight. Busyness let me avoid grieving a dying marriage I felt responsible for not being able to make work. Being too busy allowed me to avoid the sense of helpless over the pain of our country’s dysfunction. By staying busy, I could help everyone else, thereby feeling useful and necessary. Busyness was a way to feel heard, except that I wasn’t listening to myself.
Upon another streak of overcommitting, a dear friend made me take time to go to lunch together. We were preparing for an upcoming, multi-day event and he asked me what my schedule looked like for the event. I told him and his reply was, “And when did you schedule time for yourself?” I tried to fudge that I’d put in time here or there, but he just looked me dead in the eye and said, “Mm-hmm … You should do that.” Honestly, it had never truly occurred to me – I had a few hours of blank time on the schedule, but it was just for resting or eating or (more likely) being filled at the last minute with something “I needed to do.” Making time for myself felt selfish. Time to just be: What the hell would I do with that? Why would I want to just hang out with me? He clearly had no idea what went on in my brain when I was left to my own, solitary devices. But his words gut punched me – they were so straightforward, without judgement, and coming from someone I deeply respected so I did it. I made time to be alone.
Over that event, I walked around alone in pre-dawn and after midnight. Occasionally, I walked alone in broad daylight. I felt pain in ways I hadn’t felt before. I also felt a different kind of joy. I have always been extremely independent, but I’d never been comfortable alone. Over that long weekend, I met myself again, maybe truly for the first time. I learned that there was a lot I enjoyed about me and I lot I needed to figure out. I realized, maybe most importantly, that for years I felt I couldn’t be heard – that my voice somehow didn’t really count the way I perceived others’ voices did – but the truth was: I hadn’t been listening to myself so there was no strength to my voice. My truth was silent because it hadn’t been given space to bloom.
That weekend was almost three years ago. When I look back, I hardly recognize the girl who pretended to be so strong, but was so constantly shaking from within. That girl who needed validation, far more than she had confidence, has been replaced … not replaced, but rebuilt into a stronger version of (her)self. A self that by no means has it all figured out, but a self who is comfortable in that unknowing.
In that unknowing, I find new energy and the quiet comfort in knowing I will never know so many things – and that is ok. I now love spending hours hiking only with my dog or going to a movie alone or just driving to nowhere because the sky is a lovely color and I want to chase it for the few minutes it breathes in that space. Now I work hard to not overcommit and I’ve learned to say, “No thank you.” I’ve learned the importance of boundaries and find comfort in knowing what mine are – and why I need them. I write more, I love more fearlessly, and I realize I don’t have to carry the world on my shoulders. Now, I do what I can with the resources I have – it seems that is elemental to self-care. When I feel myself getting to “Too Much,” I pause. I turn off the world. I give time to myself so I can keep giving back.