It’s taken so long to figure out what “self-care” is. And I’m still working on it.
In some serious ways, I was neglected as a child. Not in the casual sense, but the clinical sense. Kids learn to care for themselves by being cared for, and seeing other people take care of themselves. In many basic and important ways, I wasn’t cared for. And my parents weren’t great at caring for themselves, either, so I didn’t have people to model it, either.
It’s been a slow process. Some of this was motivation: not having been cared for in my early years, I didn’t think I deserved it. It’s like this for so many kids who are abused or neglected: you think it happened because it was what you deserved. I think, in my case, this made it somehow more bearable: the painfulness wasn’t amplified by a sense of injustice. It was also, I think, a way of maintaining hope: if I can be good enough, I can get the love I need.
It was unfair. And there was nothing I could have done to have gotten the love and care I needed from my parents.
One of the problems, too, was that abuse–“Neglect is really serious abuse,” Joel told me once–meant I had a lot of pain. And so asking therapist about what to do when I feel terrible, and getting lists like, “Read a book! Take a bath!” was like telling me to put neosporin on my ripped open chest. Naturally, I think, I needed ways of coping that could sooth traumatic pain, and the shame that came from that abuse. I cut myself. I starved myself. I ate until it hurt, and then made myself sick. I distracted myself with obsession with weight. I had an affair with needles. Used sex as a compulsion.
And other, better things: lost myself in being useful to other people. On a few occasions, been able to throw myself into workaholism and avoid my emotions.
Taking care of myself and caring about myself were work that I did concurrently. Learning to care about myself happened mainly through meditation. I did metta meditations. I’d start with someone easy, usually Leah or Matt: “May Leah be happy. May Leah be healthy. May Leah be at ease.” I’d say it in my head over and over, lying down on my sleeping bag in that Boston apartment where I never had a bed, working up warmth by thinking of her and wishing her well. And then I’d move on to myself: “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be at ease.”, hoping the warmth would carry over. For months, it felt like it went cold the moment I switched to myself. But it did change something. I remember a moment of shock, in that same apartment, making some stupid mistake and saying to myself, “It’s okay, baby”, and being stunned with my spontaneous affection for myself.
There was also cognitive work. There were big shame hurdles in learning to care about myself. Again, this sense that I didn’t deserve it. One American Buddhist maxim helped a lot: “No one is more or less deserving of your love than you.” This appealed to my reason, and to my innate sense that people as equally deserving.
The taking care of myself had cognitive hurdles, too. Reminding myself that I’d be better prepared to take care of others if I took care of myself was part of it. There was also a big emotional hurdle of shame–doing things for myself I felt I didn’t deserve. I had to work with shame to learn to take care of myself. This consisted of being with my shame, feeling it, and comforting myself when I was in it. I had to feel it. I had to stop running away from it, abandoning myself when I felt it. And I had to do the cognitive work–remind myself why it was okay to take care of myself. It took daily awareness and effort, which was greatly aided by mindfulness meditation practice. It helped me slow my thoughts and feelings down enough to see them individually, and address them individually.
Mindfulness also helped me know myself well enough to trust myself. It helped me see my motivations, and see that while I am neurotic, anxious, procrastinating, and flawed in a million other ways, I’m fundamentally good. There wasn’t something fundamentally wrong with me that meant I wasn’t worth caring about.
And then the practicalities: what does it actually look like? Here, I had to consciously think of what I would say to or do for a friend, and then do it for myself. Sometimes I thought of what a friend would say or do for me. I watched how other people took care of themselves. Along with work on trusting myself and feeling my emotions, I started to be able to feel what I needed. And experiment with trying to meet those needs. This was only possible by doing the work to dissolve shame so I could actually see and feel what was under it.
I’m still working on it. And still making progress. Last year, Max bought me rainboots because I couldn’t buy them for myself–weather-appropriate gear was one of those things my parents didn’t bother with, and I’ve seen as frivolous or self-spoiling. Not when other people do it, but for myself.
A few weeks ago, I bought myself sandals. Nice ones; $140 Birkenstocks I’ll wear for the next three years. And without shame, or hesitation.