As someone who harmed herself extensively with what society commonly purports as being ‘self-care’, I consider myself to have the authority to distinguish between what is commonly understood and accepted to be self-care and the true definition of self-care.
From about the age of thirty to well into my forties, I saw myself as a bastion of good health. I went to the gym three times a week and for a coastal power walk on the days that I didn’t work out at the gym. I was a vegetarian and I had a slim, fit body and stable weight. I didn’t drink alcohol and had given up cigarettes years before. I believed my stress to be minimal and overall I thought myself to be a calm person. I was rarely sick and if I needed medical support then I had no problem in seeking it. I looked after my teeth with regular checkups and overall I felt that my level of self-care was high, particularly in contrast to the way that many others were choosing to live.
It therefore came as quite a shock when, at the age of about forty-three, my rather ‘buzzy’ vitality started to dwindle. Similar in some ways to someone who has had a long-term addiction, my exercise regime no longer provided me with the high that it once had. I was stumped; not only was I not getting a buzz from my exercise routine, but I was now more drained afterwards, so much so that I was forced to stop exercising altogether.
I had no idea what was happening, I had gone from feeling energised to feeling decidedly shabby; my body was racked with pain, and I hurt all over.
I was forced to rest, and during that time I had no choice other than to start to listen to what my body was saying to me, because in truth it felt more of an urgent cry for help than a leisurely chat. My muscles ached in pain from the years of relentless exercise; my bloated belly groaned that it was fed up with the copious amount of salads and juices that I had shoved its way. Every part of my body complained of being utterly exhausted from my long-held belief that ‘the more I did as a woman, the stronger I was’.
I couldn’t help but ask myself, “how had I not heard all this before? How had I got to the point that my body had to literally grind to a halt before it was able to get my undivided attention?” There were a few answers but the main culprits were the ‘beliefs’ and ‘pictures’ that I held around diet and exercise; those ‘beliefs and pictures’ prevented me from being able to feel what my body was saying.
The ‘belief’ that strenuous exercise was good for me had kept me exercising relentlessly, ignoring the pain and at times the injuries that I incurred. The picture that I held of what a ‘healthy’ person looked like ensured that I maintained my rigorous exercise regime, even though my body was rock hard and muscly. The belief that a vegetarian diet was healthier than a diet that included meat locked me into a way of eating that completely ignored my regularly distended stomach and excessive wind! The belief that the ‘more that I crammed into my day, the stronger I was as a woman’ guaranteed that I kept motoring through my days at breakneck speed, oblivious to the fact that I was so exhausted that I used to fall asleep whilst sitting in my parked car, with my head resting uncomfortably on the steering wheel. Each of these individual beliefs were part of the overall ‘illusion’ that I was living in a way that was self-caring.
However, it had become clear to me that I was not; what I was living was a life of perpetual self-harm.
What I now know, from my lived experience, is that true self-care comes from the body and not towards it: this means that true self care is about making choices for the body based on what the body is communicating, rather than imposing on the body from the outside, based on images, ideals and beliefs. As a result of having these understandings, the changes in my life and in my health have been transformational. Now when I go for a walk, rather than deciding the pace and distance before I set off, I stay constantly tuned to my body and allow it to decide how fast and how far it will go; if I feel that my body wants to return home, then I take it home. To the best of my ability I allow myself to feel what food would genuinely support my body at any particular time – if my body wants to eat lamb and vegetables for breakfast then that’s what it gets… if it doesn’t want to eat at dinner time then I don’t force it to eat. The same with sleep – long gone are the days of my powering through until I collapse in an exhausted heap at the end of the day because I ‘believed’ that people who took a nap during the day were somehow weak; in fact, I have become a regular daytime napper!
I am now living in a way that is truly self-caring, a way that deeply honours my body and a way that is in stark contrast to my previous beliefs about self-care. I now understand that true self-care is founded on listening to the constant communication that is coming from the body and then to the best of our ability, honouring what it is that the body is communicating.
Slowly, slowly, over time, by listening and honouring our bodies, our bodies will support us and lead us back to true health. In using the term ‘true health’, I am referring not just to diet and exercise, but to health in all aspects of our lives, because in truth there is no one area that is more important than another.
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