Tag Archives: self-care

Knowing the Signs

A big part of the way we care for ourselves is to simply pay attention. One of the consequences of the frenzied pace that many of us run at is that we do a lot of things, but we don’t necessarily do those things in ways that allow us to be fully present.  Think about your typical day- how much of it is on autopilot? Probably a significant amount. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it might mean that we are less able to recognize when something is “off” with us. As a general practice, its important to check in with yourself on a regular basis. Doing this allows us to have awareness of how we are doing, and if we need to make some changes in order to be well. Maybe you find yourself “going through the motions” from time to time. If so, keep reading!

Take the time to do a full inventory. For some folks, the easiest place to start is the body. Take a moment and mentally scan your body from head to toe: does anything hurt, feel tight, tingly, or out of line? Have you recently been having an increase in headaches, stomach pains, digestive issues, or trouble sleeping? I often tell my clients that our bodies have a way of telling on us. While cognitively we might be able to push through, our bodies often reveal the stress we are carrying around and not managing. Why is this the case? It’s physiology. Our bodies respond to physical, interpersonal, and emotional stress by secreting a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol is GREAT for managing physical stressors: it temporarily grants us keener vision, greater strength, speed to run, and the ability to ignore typical human needs like hunger, thirst, and sleep. That’s why we see stories of parents lifting wrecked cars to save their children, and people not realizing they’ve been burned as they run from a burning building after saving someone. However, most of our stressors are not physical in nature. And the same chemical that helps us to respond most efficiently to physical threats poses great dangers to our internal organs and bodily processes when exposure is prolonged. As a consequence, our bodies simply “tell on us” when we are under a lot of stress.  So, don’t ignore physical symptoms– they might be a sign it’s time to make a change!

Mentally, have you been feeling lost, unorganized, or distracted? Do you have difficulty making decisions or keeping up with basic tasks? Do you find it takes you longer to complete things or that you are generally unproductive? Emotionally, have you had a short fuse lately? Do you feel sad, frustrated, or overwhelmed? Have you been worrying a lot, or feel like your thoughts are racing so fast it’s hard for you to keep up with them? Any one of these experiences could clue you in that something is off. When we are overwhelmed, we are less able to manage our emotions and there is less stability in our thought lives. Trying to juggle too many responsibilities at one time often leaves us unable to do anything well; you know the saying: “Jack of all trades, ace of none”.

Spiritually, people might feel unfocused and disconnected. There is a sense of dryness or a lack of excitement or energy. You might feel hopeless or helpless, wondering how to move forward. You might be feeling that God has forgotten about you or lack a sense of direction.

I have a simple message for you: don’t ignore the signs! When you start to feel off kilter, it is not simply a time to press through. Keep going, but you may need to do so with caution. A while ago, I provided some steps on how to manage crisis situations in the Stop, Drop, and Roll post. If you are feeling completely overwhelmed, check there first! If you don’t feel your situation is as dire, or if you’ve already read the post mentioned above, here are some suggestions.

First; prioritize and refocus your activities. This could be a process you complete with daily tasks, or with longer term goals in your life. Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower developed a simple system for making efficient decisions in wartime. He looked at tasks in terms of two intersecting dimensions: Importance and Urgency. Categorizing tasks in this way helps you to figure out how to make decisions between competing responsibilities and demands.

– task that are both important and urgent should go to the top of your list. You need to deal with these right away!

– tasks that are important but not urgent can become long term goals. You might be able to break these into some smaller tasks that can be more easily managed.

– tasks that are urgent, but not important require you to make a critical decision about whether this task is something that you need to complete at all. Is it your job to do? Will not doing it result in a crisis? Can the deadline pass, with the task left undone, without anything terrible happening?

– tasks that are neither urgent nor important……need I say more? Let it GO!

Second, develop a plan of action. Break large goals into smaller goals with clear deadlines. Ask for help if you need to. Do an inventory of the resources you need to be successful.

Third, pick one or two self-care practices to engage in. They can be simple: taking a walk every couple of hours, connecting with a friend you haven’t talked to in a while, spending some time reading a book or doing an activity you love, etc. Often, self-care is the first thing to go when we’re feeling overwhelmed. But it’s important to keep these practices going! If you don’t engage in self-care, eventually you will run out of steam and you won’t be able to get anything done. It’s important to take care of you.

Hopefully, this helps as all to pay attention to ourselves and take good care of US. Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

 

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Naming our Pain

In my clinical practice, I often see a lot of black adult women. I think a part of what draws them to me is that they can look me up and see that we have at least two things in common- I am black, and I am a woman, just like them. Black womanhood is a peculiar place of residence. Black women have a unique experience that bonds us together, but also makes us different from many of the other people we interact with. An academic term for this identity is “intersectionality.” This term, coined by scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, describes the reality of black women’s double minority status in the sociocultural world. Black women deal with the racism that all black folks deal with, AND they deal with the painful demeaning realities of the power of patriarchy. This distinguishes us from the journey that we work to support black men in, and it also separates us from the reality of prejudice and misogyny experienced by white women. Because our experience is unique, we have developed some unique strategies for surviving as black women. Many of us are familiar with the term “strong black woman.” I believe that this identity is our way of coping with the singular experience of black womanhood. Here are some characteristics I often see as components of this way of being for black women:

1. Taking care of EVERYBODY. In my conversations with my clients, friends, and colleagues, I notice a pattern of black women feeling responsible for so many people in their lives- parents, partners, kids, friends, etc. Some of these people, they really are responsible for. However, there might be times when they take on things that those people can do for themselves, perhaps to the detriment of their own needs and wants. We do it because we saw our mothers and grandmothers do it. Sometimes, the people in our lives are telling us to step back and do less, but we can’t hear it. Sometimes, the people in our lives love all the work we do, because it makes their lives easier. Either way, it seems that the implicit message for black women has been, put yourself last- make sure everyone else is OK first. While this is a noble way of being and taking responsibility for our community, it’s not sustainable when we don’t take any time for ourselves.

2. Pretending we are fine. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked a black woman how she is, she replied “fine” and I didn’t believe her. A part of this “strong black woman” syndrome has been a tendency to deny or ignore when we are struggling, even with people with whom we have very close relationships. I will never forget a session I had with a client who was visibly in pain, had been feeling the effects in her daily life, but simply could not find the words to explain to me what she was going through. It occurred to me how many of us have become so good at putting on a show that we don’t even have experience describing ourselves in authentic ways. We don’t even have language to name our pain because we have never taken the opportunity to do so. We can’t keep this up. Part of being of psychologically healthy is being able to acknowledge when you are well and when your are not well, being able to share your experiences with others, and being able to get what you need.

3. Not asking for help. I was having a conversation with a good friend and was stopped in my tracks with four simple words. “You are not superwoman.” We were talking about all the things I have going on, and the friend asked if I had people around me who would be willing to help me. My response was “Yes, but….” and then I named all the reasons I “needed” to do these things myself. I was so convinced about this, but it’s just wrong. It’s no good having people around you who offer to help you if you don’t take them up on it. In supportive relationships, you should not have to feel like superwoman. The reality is, you cannot do it all. When you admit that you cannot save the whole world, you make space for people to be in authentic relationship with you and offer you help and support. Be brave- ask for help!

If you are a black woman, I imagine that at least some of this feels familiar to you. If you love a black woman, you can probably help her by offering support and reminding her she doesn’t have to do it all. Think about ways that you can pay attention to your self in addition to all the people you love and care about. This is not about being selfish or choosing yourself OVER them (though some might decide to do that). It’s simply about putting yourself on your list. Just because we have been conditioned to do these things doesn’t mean we have to continue. Make a choice to live a happier, healthier life! Be honest about your experience, relinquish some of your responsibility in the lives of others, and use that energy to care for yourself! You can do it, sis. You deserve it.

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

How Much is Too Much?

I see a lot of people talking about pushing themselves to reach their ultimate potential, and the lengths to which they will go in order to reach their goals. To this end, it seems that there is a message that working with a dogged intensity that leaves you running constantly is the only way to get where you want to be. It’s admirable to push yourself beyond the bounds of your current situation. It’s brave to move out of your comfort zone, and it’s exciting to make real steps toward making your dreams come true. Ambitious dreams make it necessary for us to sacrifice and work long hours. You know the saying: blood, sweat, and tears.

The ambitious professional in me loves this spirit- the sense that sleep is for those who aren’t ready for the challenge. Maybe, in our dog-eat-dog world, that’s accurate. However, there’s another part of me, the therapist in me, who is worried about a world where #teamnosleep is a badge of honor. It feels disrespectful of our hummanness, our natural need for down time and rest. I worry that we run the risk of killing ourselves and calling it living. I think a lot about striking the balance between ambition and self sacrifice. There are goals I have that I haven’t achieved yet and am working toward. But honestly, I struggle with figuring out how much to push myself. I am a hard worker. I don’t mind going above and beyond. I don’t mind some late nights or long hours. But I don’t want to slave myself away for the sake of achieving a goal. I don’t desire to beat myself into submission in service of calling myself a hustler. I have not yet figured this out. I don’t know if I will. But, I do have some ideas about how I can continue to answer this question.

I think it’s important to ask ourselves the purpose of our striving. Why am I working so hard for this goal? There are lots of valid reasons- a sense of call or passion, a desire to give back to the community, a feeling that there is no other option, financial stability, the list goes on. Whatever the answer to that question is, it needs to make sense for you based on your values. Hustle without passion is empty and exhausting. I do what I do because I feel called to do it. It is a part of what brings meaning to my life and it is worth losing some sleep over.

Next, consider the cost of your sacrifice. Is it worth it? There are only 24 hours in a day. Every day. You can’t make time appear out of no where, and inevitably dedicating more time to one venture means dedicating less time to another. There is a cost associated with your striving, and it’s important to consider whether you feel the cost matches the reward. For me, there are certain things that are not negotiable: my marriage, my mental health, my faith, to name a few. I want to be successful, but those things will not be casualties- I’m unwilling to make those sacrifices. So, that means that some days instead of staying up to read or write or whatever the next task is, I let it sit. Perhaps this means my business doesn’t take off as quickly as I would like- I’m ok with that consequence. For each of us, that reasoning is different.

Finally, ask yourself: what happens if I fail? What happens if I succeed? We can work really hard for something, and it simply doesn’t work out. And, we can work really hard for something and it completely takes off. If you succeed, will you be ready for the fruits of your labor? If it fails, will you feel that your time was well spent? I know it may seem like the “wrong attitude” to consider a possible failure, but failure is a reality in life. Too often we try to make failure a taboo, but failure can also help us to learn a lot. If you can look back on a failure and feel that the time and energy you spent was still worth it, it was absolutely the right thing to do!

It’s a hard balance to find. Success (however you define it) is intoxicating. We all want to say we have made something of our lives. But, my hope is that we can have much flexibility in defining what that success looks like. What good is reaching a goal if you are too exhausted to enjoy it?  I don’t know what the right answer is for you. Only you can answer that. I will say that understanding how much is too much is dependent upon you knowing and listening to yourself. Our bodies and spirits often tell us when we are pushing too hard. It’s important to drown out the din of a demanding world in order to hear it. One of my favorite quotes is one from Maya Angelou:

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.

I love this definition because it is both individualized and comprehensive. I think about it often, and try to make decisions about how hard to push myself based on this. Narrow definitions of success can often lead to self-criticism and disappointment. So, whatever your definition of success, don’t forget to take care of yourself in the process! Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices.

Right Relationships- You Choose.

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I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about relationships (my own and those of others) and I’ve been thinking about some ways we can make choices that support the health of our relationships instead of causing us to feel unfulfilled. This was really sparked when I was having a conversation with some folks about self care and people kept saying that others in their lives won’t “let” them take time for themselves. Let them? That is too much power for someone else to have over your life! We have to take responsibility for our part in any relationship. Most things aren’t actually one-sided, although they may feel that way. So, here are some choices you can make that support healthy relationships:

1. Ask for what you need. Remember that time you got frustrated because your friend or significant other didn’t do that thing you really wanted them to do? Think back: did you ask? Or did you just assume that they should know because you were dropping hints? People aren’t mind readers (even though we sometimes want them to be). When we actually express what we need, then we can hold people accountable for meeting our expectations. Now, this doesn’t mean you will always get what you need. People are imperfect, and sometimes, they are not willing to give you what you ask. But, if you ask, at least you know that you have made your request known rather than carrying secret resentment because your secret needs aren’t met. It’s just unfair! Let’s say you are meeting some friends after work and you’ve had a long day. During the meal, you sit quietly, pouting, while the others carry on a conversation cheerfully. You leave feeling resentful because you believe they should noticed that you were upset and asked you what’s wrong. Maybe. But you also could have just said “Hey- I’m having a bad day. I need to vent.” In one scenario your leave feeling frustrated, and in the other you potentially leave feeling better. You choose.

2. Have reasonable expectations.  Before you make those expectations known, do a little reflection. Is what you are asking reasonable based on the relationship you have with the person? Is what you are asking reasonable of a human being? How would you react if someone asked this of you? Here’s where compromise comes in. We can’t get 100% of what we want all the time, but we can recognize and be grateful for a loved one’s attempts to give you what you need. Imagine how you would feel if you tried to give someone something they needed and they responded in a way that made you feel it was not enough. Relationships are dynamic, whether they are familial, platonic, or romantic. Most situations are best resolved when people can find a way to meet in the middle. All or nothing thinking when it comes to negotiating needs in a relationship can cause resentment on both parts! You can choose to focus on the small percentage that doesn’t meet your expectation, or the large percentage that does. Relationships are a negotiation between imperfect people- we don’t always get it right. If you feel your expectations are appropriate, and it seems the person can’t or won’t work toward meeting you halfway, then there’s a conversation there too.

3. Take care of yourself. If you are an adult, you are responsible for making sure you are ok. Always. This doesn’t mean we don’t want or need others in our lives, because we do. It does mean that we shouldn’t place our physical, emotional, or spiritual wellness in the hands of anyone but ourselves. Sometimes, we depend on other people too much to make us happy, to the extent that we don’t have any resources when we are alone. Then, we get mad when that person wasn’t there for us in our time of need. We can’t expect one person to be there for us at any time day or night- that’s not the way human relationships work. Not to mention, this kind of dynamic can begin to have a parasitic feel, where one person drains the other. Not only does the person getting drained become more and more exhausted form the relationship, but the one doing the draining becomes more dependent and less self-sufficient. We can make our relationships healthier by attending to our own needs by setting boundaries as needed, understanding and preparing for the things that most stress and overwhelm us, and learning how to be content with ourselves when we are alone. This is something I have learned in my brief years being married. If I have a horrible day at work, I am responsible for taking some time to get myself together before I get home. I might go to the gym first, take a longer way home, or stop by a store to get myself in check a little bit. This doesn’t mean I don’t seek out support from my husband when I get home- I will if I need to. But it ensures that I don’t come home every day in a funk- that would impact our ability to connect after a long day. Sometimes this means saying the dreaded “n” word- NO! People will ask us to do things (especially those of use who are naturally caretakers) but it doesn’t mean you have to say yes! (imagine you are the recipient in point 2). “No” doesn’t mean you don’t care about your loved ones or that you don’t want the best for them. It means you are human and you can’t do everything all the time. It’s a way for you to take care of yourself and a way for those you are in relationship to understand that you have human limitations.

So, if you’re feeling unfulfilled, try making some adjustments and see what happens! More next week on negotiating boundaries.

What are some other reasons you think we can be left unfulfilled in relationships?

Black Women’s Fight for their Lives

I came across a HuffPost article that described the discrepancy between rates of depression in black women and their access of mental health treatment. A CDC study quoted in the article leads to the conclusion that while black women are more likely than both their male and white counterparts to suffer from depression, they are less likely to see mental health services and remain in treatment. The article notes several factors that might contribute to this phenomenon: lack of or not enough insurance, shame, lack of knowledge about what depression is, stigma, and the idealized “strong black woman.

The article includes this poignant quote from Melissa Harris- Perry:

Through the ideal of the strong black woman, African-American women are subject not only to historically rooted racist and sexist characterizations of black women as a group but also a matrix of unrealistic interracial expectations that construct black women as unshakeable, unassailable and naturally strong.

I have to tell you, those words hit me like a ton of bricks. Even though I have spent my whole adult life thinking and learning about mental health, this sounded like me. I have struggled with what it would mean to seek help for myself, even as I spent my days providing that help to others. How many of us have felt the pressure to be “unshakeable, unassailable, and naturally strong”? How many of us have been screaming on the inside and smiling on the outside? We pride ourselves on being superwomen, and get pats on the back when we never have to ask anyone for help. I know it isn’t all of us, but I also know it’s far too many. It might not be you, but it might be that girlfriend that you see every once in a while, and you keep thinking, something just isn’t right. It might be your sister, who always looks run down and tired, but always says she’s “ok.”  This post isn’t just about mental health. This is about us taking care of ourselves, and each other. If you know something isn’t right, ask about it. If you see that a friend looks down, don’t look the other way. You might be the help she needs. Maybe it is depression and maybe she needs a therapist. Maybe she needs a sista-friend that she can’t be honest with when everything isn’t peachy. Maybe she needs a sounding board where she can say “This is hard sometimes!”

What I know, is that as long as we try to be 24/7 superwomen, we are in the fight of our lives. Despite our greatest efforts, we are human beings. Human beings get worn out when they don’t care for themselves. Human beings get depressed when they spend all their energy caring for others ,and have none left to care for themselves. A while ago I taught a class on self-care for ministers, and I used these two images to show the difference between pouring out endlessly into others (left), and the health of caring for yourself while you care for others (right). In the left picture, you can see that eventually, the pitcher will be empty. In the right picture, you can see that because they flow into each other, none of the vessels will run dry. Which one of these is you?

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This issue is not just for black women, it’s for all of us! For me, this is a daily battle. I feel the pressure of needing to be a professional woman, take care of my household, be active in my church, and all the other things that I do. I love to do these things, and if I do those things that I love without caring for myself, eventually I will end up empty and do nothing well. So for me, this means I owe it to myself and the people I care about to take intentional time to look inward and take care of me. It makes me a better wife, daughter, therapist, friend, teacher, and community member. What I do for me depends on what I need- sometimes it’s just a girls’ night, or making myself go to the gym because I know afterward I’ll feel like I new woman. Sometimes it’s letting myself be cared for without guilt, and sometimes it’s going to see a therapist.  Let’s stop wearing fatigue like a medal of honor. Let’s stop cursing our humanness as weakness. Let’s strive for wholeness, wellness, and peace!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices.