I recently heard this theory of self care (boring word therapists use to describe the relationship to the self) that made a lot of sense to me and expanded my understanding of its importance. It goes something like this:
We start out in the womb, our every need met instantaneously, shielded from discomfort and continuously soothed by the rhythm of mother’s heartbeat. Then suddenly, we are thrust into the cold, bright, loud world, separated from the soothing sounds of the womb, and for the first time, we experience what it feels like to want, and can do nothing about it or convey the pain save for to scream. Little by little, the rhythm of mother’s heartbeat is replaced by the rhythm of caregivers’ response to our attempts to communicate our needs, and a rhythmic bond of trust and security develops. As we grow from baby to child, then teen and adult, the rhythm of caring for our needs is gradually transferred from the caregiver to us, and the healthy adult maintains this rhythm for him or her self ever after.
This would be fine in a perfect world composed of flawless human beings, right? Who gives a crap anyway…I’m alive and I manage to stay that way, right? Well, there’s a difference between surviving and thriving, but we might not have noticed. We take this rhythm for granted and barely realize anything is missing when it’s not there. Which is normal if it was unreliable to begin with, or we think our value lies in doing rather than being, or both. This is the reason that people look at me the way I used to look at therapists who said it to me – cross-eyed with something between disgust and exasperation – when I suggest that everything begins with taking care of themselves, and that it is the foundation for everything else they want.
It is essentially self-compassion that I am pushing, because it IS the foundation. Every spiritual and self-help book worth its salt suggests self-compassion in some way. This is because until we change the relationship with ourselves, essentially, no good can follow. Violence toward self becomes violence toward others, in ways both subtle and also big and obvious. Even our well-meaning help to others can be violence, because it isn’t informed by awareness, mindfulness, and compassion. Rather, it becomes a sort of “idiot compassion” that meddles and is foolish and hurtful.
We all have varying degrees of responsiveness to our own needs, much of which we learned either directly or as a reaction to something in the past. My experience, plenty of research, and my clients, all point to improved quality of life when shifting the relationship with self to one that is gentler, kinder, and more based in reality. We may be feeling anxious and depressed because we aren’t even responding to our own basic needs, let alone our emotional and spiritual selves. What if we knew we could rely on ourselves to witness our own experience with kindness and support? What would that feel like? Society doesn’t generally support such a relationship, though, and in fact usually opposes it, so you have to put out some effort at first to get to this place of sanity. I recommend starting small.
So, if you make lists you can never complete, need coffee everyday to get going, or don’t eat regular meals, you could probably be more self-compassionate. Here’s your simple challenge and the one I’ve returned to myself and given my clients:
Begin to rebuild the rhythm for your own life by responding as much as possible to 4 simple needs without delay:
- Hunger (true hunger, not feeding emotions)
- Thirst (true thirst, not guzzling water or coffee all day out of habit)
- Bathroom urges (yes, you just put the hot food on the plate, but stop and go anyway)
- Rest (if you stop and think about it, you know damn well when you need to sit down and take a break from physical or mental labor, and I’m not talking about doing it in front of the tv!)
Give those a go, and notice what happens, what objections the mind raises, and also how easy it is to get in the habit of responding to your own needs with a bit of practice. When you’ve mastered these, let me know and I’ll give you the next assignment!