Caring for the worst person in the world: self-knowledge, self-care, self-empathy and self-compassion

Hey strangers! How are we all? I know, I know, worst blogger ever. I admit it, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for blogging recently. I’m working full time, commuting 3 hours a day several times a week, this is the worst time of year for me and I am tired. Actually, that’s I want to talk to you about. I know my triggers. This time last year, I was not in a good place for a variety of reasons. I have a lot on at work right now, I truly truly hate stupid Christmas, I’m getting hate-ier by the day and I feel like I’m constantly bouncing from one thing to another. It is time for some serious self care. If you follow me on twitter or instagram, you might have noticed that every so often I post about how I self care, using #exploreselfcare (shout out to my lovely pal Elle over at Science of Voices who started this hashtag). Over this weekend, I’ll be posting about the strategies I use to look after myself when I need to. Feel free to check it out, or to join me if you fancy it!

This isn’t going to be a how-to guide on how to self care. I can’t write that. The self is the most integral part of this process and I can’t tell you what is going to work for you. This is more about  the process of learning to care for myself. It’s also super long with loads of photos because I got a bit carried away.

Exploring self care

Self care is the practice of recognising when you need to take some time to look after yourself , knowing the kinds of things that are helpful in promoting your mental wellbeing and the things that are not and using that knowledge to help you stay well.  It takes work and concentration and above all, time and patience with yourself. Self care is a strategy. It is one strategy among others. One strategy is not right for everyone, in the same way that medication is not right for everyone and CBT is not right for everyone. Self care happens to be a really helpful strategy for me. It might be helpful for you.

While self care might help you to stay well, or to deal with the symptoms of mental illness, it is not a magical cure-all. It will not stop bad things from happening or the planet being a crappy place sometimes. Mental illness is the result of a really complex combination of genetics, brain chemicals, life experiences, all sorts of things. You can’t just make all that go away through willpower and doing all the right things. If you could, nobody would be mentally ill. It just doesn’t work like that. You can do all of the super healthy things and still experience periods of depression, bouts of anxiety or times when you feel overwhelmed. That is not, absolutely NOT, the result of a failure to do the right things. It has taken me a long time to work out what is helpful for me and the things that I find helpful will not be the same as anyone else’s. This is not a check list of things that you can do to help yourself stay well but rather an exploration of the path that led me to where I am.

I know that there are mixed opinions out there about self care and the terminology connected with it. Some of you might think that it sounds like “something that gives you hairs on the palms of your hands” (yes, this was a real conversation). Each to their own. If it sounds like something that you might be interested in, stay with me.

 

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Believing that you deserve to be cared for is one of the hardest things to do. Depression lies to you. All of the time. It tells you that you are the most worthless, pointless, laziest, crappiest person in existence. It will tell you that you are not ill. It will tell you that you are just not trying hard enough. Everyone else can get out of bed and dress themselves and clean their house and make nutritional food and go to work without crying in the street and that your failure to do these things is further proof of how utterly useless you are. When you are feeling like this, how do you even begin to believe that you are worth caring for? It’s one of the hardest things you will ever do. I remember, four or five years ago at one of my worst times, sitting in the kitchen of our old house with my mum and trying to make a list of things that I could do which would make me feel better. I found the process incredibly upsetting because I believed, heart and soup, that I didn’t deserve to feel better. I’ve moved on from there so much but it is still hard and I often have to remind myself that taking the time I need to look after myself is important.

There are a couple of things that helped me to break through that belief that I wasn’t worth helping. One has been, and continues to be, the amazing support that I get from other people who have experienced the same sort of thing. I have a theory that one of the most important consequences of contact with other people who have experienced mental health problems is that you develop empathy with them and I think that this applies to anyone, whether they have experienced mental health problems themselves or not. More importantly, I think that through building relationships with mental health pals, through supporting them, making cups of tea, passing them tissues and not getting annoyed  when they cancel at the last minute, you build empathy for yourself as another human being who experiences mental health problems. Bear with me, I think self empathy is definitely a thing. I’ve lost count of the times that people have heard me berating myself for failing to get better  said “would you say this to someone else in this situation?” I genuinely think that my real life and particularly my mental health twitter pals have been massively important in helping me to see myself as a flawed human in the greater expanse of flawed humanity and to practice forgiveness towards myself.

Some of my thoughts about self empathy through contact link really closely to Dr Kristin Neff’s work on self compassion, which involves extending the compassion that would feel for others to yourself in the face of failure, difficulty, pain or suffering. She suggests that the three elements of self compassion are self kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Well…mindfulness is something that I have a few issues with given the way that I see it being rolled out almost entirely uncritically as an alternative to solving people’s actual real problems but I think that’s a discussion for anther time. Anyway, the important element of mindfulness in self co passion is the practice of noticing and accepting emotions without being overwhelmed by them, which is fair enough. I’ve just bought Neff’s book off Amazon so I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it in the future!

I floated the idea of self empathy on Twitter and some of you lovely people got back to me with some really interesting ideas. One of my favourites, which I have thought about a lot since then, is the idea of trying to be the best custodian of your corporeal body despite how you might feel about the person who inhabits it. I cannot remember for the life of me who it was that I chatted about this with. If it was you, let me know and I’ll give you credit. This is a really helpful idea for me as it separates the idea of nourishing your body from doing nice things for yourself that you might feel that you don’t deserve.

 

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Getting to know yourself

One of the trickiest bits of self care is recognising the signs that you need to take some time to look after yourself. Yoga is my greatest ally in this. You guys might not was noticed this about me but I love yoga. My teacher often talks about the practice of svadhyaya, or self knowledge. For me, that means checking in with the way my body feels every time I hop onto my mat and noticing how my body moves and where it holds tension. Despite having been practicing yoga at least four or five times a week for the last two years, I still manage to completely ignore the little clues that my body gives me to tell me that I  am stressed or not coping. It’s often not until I stretch into my first downward dog of the day that I realise that my jaw is clenched, my shoulders are up around my ears and I am knackered from holding myself together so tightly in the fear that I will fall apart.

Again, knowing yourself takes time and work. If yoga is not your thing, setting a moment to scan through your body and notice how it feels every day while doing a familiar activity like standing in the shower or sitting on the sofa can help you to build that awareness. Some people find that mindfulness meditation helps them with this. I don’t. I find that I need the moving medication of yoga or I get all up in my own brain. Give it a go for yourself though if you feel so inclined.

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Knowing what is right for you right now

Sometimes you might realise that things aren’t going right and that your body is screaming warnings at you and you need some self care STAT. This was me on Friday. It was the end of a long week, my forth commuting day in a row, I was tired and grumpy and hungry and desperately in need of some looking after. Sometimes self care isn’t the most 100% healthiest, nutritious, organic raw food thing that you can do. Sometimes it is simply the right thing for you right now. For me, it was a glass of wine, children’s food (that’s beans and potato waffles in case you can’t tell), a couple of episodes of Warehouse 13 and a long sleep in the knowledge that I would be better set up to look after myself tomorrow.

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Learning what works

Knowing what works for you and when is a process of trial and error and checking in with yourself to notice the effect that is has. If you fancy trying an experiment, try doing sometime that you love (like painting your nails or dancing about the kitchen to heat radio), something that you know will probably make you feel better but you can’t be arsed with (like going for a run or taking a shower) and something that you really hate (like hoovering or flossing. Flossing is disgusting. Dental floss is the devil’s spaghetti.) checking in with yourself to see the effect that it has on your body and mood. I’m my worst, hate-iest moods, doing things that usually make me happy make me feel nothing and doing things that I know should make me feel better just make feel super resentful. That’s ok, and it’s interesting in itself. Stay curious.

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Doing what works for you

There’s a difference between knowing what works for you, and actually getting off your ass and doing it. One of the things that I sometimes struggle with is knowing the difference between self care, self pity and self indulgence. It’s a difficult distinction. Sometimes self care is giving youself a bit of a kick and making yourself do things that you know will help, being that best custodian of the body you’re stuck with. I particularly struggle with things which are sometimes a treat and sometimes a symptom of not doing so well. For example, sometimes my body needs rest and so a long lie is great but at other times hiding in my bed and not being able to face the world is a sure sign that my mental health is not good. It’s something that I’m still learning how to do.

I know that I feel better when I exercise regularly, when I get enough sleep, when I eat healthy food and when I don’t get in a panic in the morning trying to find something to wear to works. Setting things up so that I can do these things during the week when I’m tired and have no time are a really important part of my self care routine. You don’t need me to tell you to cook big pots of things and plan your meals and do your ironing. That’s kind of patronising but, silly as it may seem, it has taken me a while to realise that these things really help me.

 

Anyhow, that’s all I’ve got to say on this subject for just now. Don’t forget to join me on #exploreselfcare if you fancy sharing your adventures in self care. 

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4 responses to “Caring for the worst person in the world: self-knowledge, self-care, self-empathy and self-compassion

  1. Great post Jess! Self-care is something that has been on my mind a lot in the final few months of my thesis write-up, partly because I’ve been trying to extend my yoga practice by doing a ‘Yoga for the mind’ course (which was really eye-opening just in terms of yoga and mindfulness itself as well as themes of personal well-being and mental health problems). One of the themes which has come out of that for me is this idea of self-care as the necessary maintenance of the self and body, for the good of all the other people and things who depend on you. I sometimes find it easier to justify doing something apparently self-indulgent if I frame it this way and think that it will also help me to be nicer to my partner, more supportive to my colleagues etc.

    As ever, you write beautifully and argue persuasively, and I’ve been really enjoying your twitter and IG posts on this topic. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for writing this!

    I’ve found it hard to navigate self-care vs. laziness/self-indulgence/being OK doing nice things for myself. I am trying to exercise regularly, but I also still feel burnt out, needing change, and just otherwise needing to get out of the funk I’ve been in lately…a return of depressive thinking that has been gone for a good portion of this year.

    thanks again for writing this!

  3. Love this post. I like to make 3 lists, one for routine, one for tasks and chores and another for creative & nurturing things. Reminds me that basics like getting up, eating breakfast etc, come before *anything* else, then that I *need* to do the fun things as much as I *need* to do the worky things.

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