Intro: We can give more deeply to our families, communities, work and missions, when we have first take care of ourselves. And yet, one of the hardest things for anyone to do in this day and age is to make time to give ourselves the nourishment, relaxation, support and reward that we need… and deserve. The problem is not so much the shortage of time, certain as that is, but that folks tend to feel somehow that we don’t really deserve the hammock hour or cuddle time, the walks in the woods, the slow sipping and savoring of homemade mead or hours given to a neglected craft or art. And even once we acknowledge that we need the nourishment and are worthy of it, we often need to relearn the forgotten tips and techniques of self-tending. Our friend Katja Swift (www.KatjaSwift.com) has written a series about this very subject for Plant Healer Magazine (www.PlantHealerMagazine.com), the final part of which will appearing in the next issue, and the first of which I’ve excerpted here for you non-subscribers. Katja will also be teaching both a kid’s class and an adult class on treating chronic illness, at the upcoming Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference (www.TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org) –Jesse Wolf
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Self-Care for the Cobbler
by Katja Swift
The old saying goes that the cobbler’s children have no shoes. I always wondered, what about the cobbler? As people who make it our business to take care of other people, we are the cobblers. As a group, we generally take very good care of our children, but we’re not always so good at taking care of ourselves. We regularly sit with clients (neighbors, friends, family…) explaining the many reasons they need to take some time to care for themselves, but of all the advice we give, this is often the hardest to apply to ourselves.
I am definitely on the Most Wanted list of Delinquent Self Nurturers. Or rather, I have been. Over the last year, very slowly, I’ve been reforming! If you had told me a year ago that I would be facilitating a Women’s Self Care Working Group, I would have scoffed, but now that’s exactly what I’m doing. Different than many classes I teach, this is a working group: a we’re-all-in-this-together group. I have material prepared ahead of time, but the work is born of the whole group sitting together. This series will be devoted to sharing this work with you, sharing the encouragement that we caregivers give to others but rarely give ourselves. I invite you – women, and men too! – to join us on our exploration of not only how to nurture and nourish ourselves, but how to fit it into a busy schedule as well!
Setting the Scene
You know you need to take care of yourself, but at the end of your day, there are still a handful of things left on the to-do list undone. Taking care of yourself gets pushed further and further down the list.
Most women spend a large portion of their day, if not the bulk of it, caring for other people: their children and spouse, their coworkers and boss, their clients or customers, their parents, people in the community… But what do we do to nurture and nourish ourselves on a deep level?
Does this sound familiar?:
“I’ve had a bad day, I’m going to Dunkin Donuts”
“What an awful week, I’m going shopping”
“I just want to take a bath and go to bed early, but…”
Instead of caring for ourselves, we turn to candy, coffee, or other treats as rewards to keep us going. Instead of caring for ourselves, we spend our time “doing” things – usually for others.
In order to be healthy, we have got to make time for ourselves, every day, to care for ourselves. When we fail to do this, we burn out – which can have serious consequences. Chronic fatigue, adrenal depletion, thyroid problems, and overall lack of energy means we’re no good to anyone.
What is Self-Care?
Let’s start with a discussion of what self-care is. What do we do to take care of ourselves – right now, today? This question wasn’t easy to answer! Some women said that they exercise, some women said they go out with friends, some said they didn’t think that anything they did really qualified. But when we asked what we each are expected to do to care for others – be it bosses, coworkers, customers, children, aging parents, friends, spouse – suddenly we were full of answers! I’m betting that this same thing is likely true for most women.
When we look at what society tells us is appropriate to do for ourselves, our answers come up short: “Retail Therapy”. Chocolate, treats, and to some extent working out went on the list as well. In general, our society doesn’t value self-care, in fact, self-care is often criticized as wasting time, or “unproductive”! When we set aside society’s guidelines and asked, what would we like to do to care for ourselves?, we realized this question wasn’t easy to answer either. Some women didn’t have any idea, and had never taken the time to think about it before. One woman said she sometimes thinks she’d like to do something for herself, but she doesn’t know what – she needs a recipe box with suggestion cards she can pull out when she needs them. Some women struggled with staying focused on the question, distracted by all the things they “should” be doing instead of the ideas they might come up with. For some of us, the question was emotional: in the attempt to find things to do that would nurture our selves, we felt doubt, anger, sadness, and criticism welling up inside us. All of these questions bring up larger issues to discuss in future meetings, like, why does the thought of self-care make us feel sad? feel critical? But for now we just accepted that these feelings exist, and let them sit with us.
So Why Aren’t You Doing It?
Next, we turn to the question: what keeps you from taking care of yourself? Right now, today, are we too busy? Almost everyone said yes to that! Which begs the question: what are we too busy doing? We started talking about the idea that we choose to do the things we do in a day. If we are too busy in a day to do something for ourselves, what that actually means is that we have chosen to prioritize other tasks above the care of self. Again we realized, wow: that brings up many different emotions. As a group, we accepted this behavior just as true – not as bad, or good, though there were proponents of both in the group! Some women felt angry that they continually push themselves to the bottom of the list, others took self-worth from it: a feeling of importance that there was so much to be done that there wasn’t time for themselves. Some women felt that they didn’t deserve to care for themselves until “the work was done”. This whole range of emotions went without judgement onto the list of Feelings That Exist, and joined us in the circle.
Many women expressed fears about taking time for themselves. If I make the time for me, they reasoned, I’m not making time for someone else. Will they be angry? Will they still love me? Will they know I still love them? Will I lose them? This rang true for most of the women. Most had had an experience of wanting to have a break at some time, but being too afraid of the consequences of taking time for themselves. Other women had tried it, only to have the other party ask for “just one more thing”, or complain that they couldn’t get along without her. We added “strength for setting appropriate boundaries” to our list of things we want to deal with in the future.
Some women felt they still weren’t sure what it meant to take care of themselves. One said that she often does “fun” things: going to shows or museums with friends, and while she felt that she should be satisfied with that, she wasn’t. But “fun” things, especially in our culture, are often quite stimulating, and with how stimulating our lives already are, self-care often needs to be time that is exactly the opposite – a chance for quiet. Quiet presents its own problems though: when we take time to be still and quiet, the mind races forward – the grocery list wants writing, the emails want responses, there is always some distraction to come and interrupt us from that quiet.
So how can we start to learn to sit in a quiet moment for ourselves? The first exercise in the series is to have a cup of tea. Which sounds easy, but what I mean is, have a cup of tea, and that’s all. Just have a cup of tea. Every day, at some point in the day, make a cup of tea and sit down to drink it. Just drink it, don’t write your grocery list, don’t read your emails, don’t return a phone call. Just drink the tea.
You can drink any tea you like, but to help yourself along the way, why not choose an ally? Think about what part of this exercise will be the most difficult – finding the time? Sitting still? Setting aside the distractions in your brain? Then choose a plant that can help you with that. In our group, one woman noted that most of her problems come around setting boundaries, so we made her a tea of Motherwort and Peppermint. Another woman felt that sitting still for 15 minutes was going to be nearly impossible: her mind will keep reminding her of all the other things she ought to be doing! Her tea was Skullcap and Wood Betony, with Ginger, Peppermint, and Rosehips for deliciousness. My blend was Skullcap to help me put down my to-do list, Tulsi for a pick-me-up, and Peppermint.
Mindfulness is a big part of this exercise. It’s hard to be mindful all day, but you can be mindful for one cup of tea. Or for just one sip of tea! Your mind might wander, but each time you have a sip of tea, let it pull you back. Your thoughts will come, and that’s ok: the key is to let them pass you by, without engaging them. Each time you sip, let go of whatever thought came, and just drink tea.
If you need to think of something – if you feel you’re awash in an avalanche of thoughts and you need the support of a structure, think about the tea: how does it taste? How does it feel in your mouth? In your body? What is happening in your body: are you tense? Did your back just relax against your chair? Are your shoulders hunched up, or, did you just notice them become un-hunched? Does the flavor of the tea change from the first sip to later sips? Is the temperature of the tea changing?
Mindfulness is a primary tool in this journey: it will eventually help us to see the difference between the things we MUST do and the things we make ourselves do. It will allow us to be aware of the times that we’re choosing to do other things instead of caring for ourselves. But for right now, the goal is to just stay with that cup, once a day.
The other purpose of this exercise is of course to begin, with a small step, to create the habit of planning time into each day to do something to nurture yourself.
This all sounds great, you say! Boy, I really enjoyed this article, I never really thought this stuff through before… And off you go back into your day. Maybe you’re thinking, I’ll try that, with the tea, sometime. But the problem is, we forget. We go right back into our habits, because we’re bad! No! because that’s what we do. But because we know this, it’s not enough to say, boy, that was great! We need to make sure we can succeed.
So we look at: What will get in the way of me mindfully drinking my cup of tea this month? Each has a different answer to the question: I won’t make the time, I’ll get too busy, I don’t have a tea strainer, my kids/dog/spouse/boss will interrupt me… Each of us looked seriously at our own habits to identify the ones that will trip us up. Then we worked together to remove those obstacles. Here are some suggestions you might like:
If you work in an office, you probably use some kind of calendaring system to manage meetings. So schedule yourself a meeting! Set it to remind you every day when it’s tea-time! Better yet, go ahead and book yourself a conference room too – then you can be sure you won’t be interrupted!
Choose a special tea-cup for this exercise. This tea-cup is only for use for this exercise, so that it will serve as a trigger to your mind to stay present.
Tell your kids this is your task – you are always reminding your kids to do their tasks, they LOVE to remind you to do yours. As long as they understand clearly that the task is 15 minutes that you have to sit quietly and not be interrupted, you can use them as a force to keep you on track, instead of as a force of distraction!
Alternately, have your tea-time when kids are in bed or at school, and the house is quieter.
When we make commitments, many of us tend to feel all-or-nothing. But this is a journey: it doesn’t stop if today you don’t manage to drink your tea. If you fail for a day, you fail for a day. Tomorrow is a new day. Each day you’re starting from scratch, so don’t let what did or didn’t happen yesterday stop you from working on it today. You CAN, however, let what didn’t happen yesterday be a learning experience. Why didn’t it happen yesterday? Did you get too busy? Did you choose to prioritize other things above yourself? Did you forget your tea strainer? The answer to the question is not an invitation to chastise yourself, but an opportunity for you to change your behaviors and your environment to promote success!
Of course, the other possibility is that you read through this whole article and thought “Oh, I should send this to so-and-so, she could really use it!”. And probably she could, so do that. But the key here is that as practitioners, we are particularly vulnerable to Self-Care Neglect. There is always something more that must be done, another person who is asking for help: the temptation to put ourselves aside is huge. But if we are empty, if we are depleted, the care that we offer to others is limp.
So have a cup of tea. If not for yourself, then for someone who depends on you being at your best!
To read the complete series of articles, subscribe to: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com
To attend Katja’s TWHC Class this September, go to: www.TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org
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