The Dangers of Self-Care
Last night I was on a panel about self-care, talking about therapeutic writing. Luckily two other smart, insightful people with useful things to say were on the panel too, because the idea of self-care seems like a big load of nonsense to me. I am not against self-care, per se. What I am against is the floaty, pastel-colored, widely-marketed version of self-care that we (especially women) are offered. The message is that, done properly, "self-care" is supposed to make you happier, calmer, more comfortable, and in some magical way, a better person.
The petty, small-minded reason I don't like this message is that I already feel like I should be a better, or at least happier, person; I don't need a book on baths with essential oils reinforcing this message. The second, petty reason self-care bothers me is because I am not good at it and it scares me. Activities like meditation that quiet the external chaos of your life only serve, at least initially, to heighten the internal chaos, and well, who wants that? Not me, so much so that I spent a long time doing many things to drown out that internal chaos, and the results weren't good.
The bigger, and more worthwhile reason that the prettified notion of self-care bugs me is that real self-care, the kind that means that you refuse to abandon yourself regardless of how disappointing you are to yourself, is hard, often uncomfortable, and requires a lot of patience and committment. And no amount of wind-chimes, smooth, artfully arranged stones, or those annoying indoor water fountains is going to change that.
Writing is the practice that gives me a fighting chance at living my real life, not the life some parts of me think I should be living; for you that might be gardening, meditating, praying, running, or just about any discipline that creates a path to the you that you feel at home with. When I was decorating the room I have all my writing stuff in, I was very careful about making it look a certain way with the right paint colors, all the right desk accoutrements, and even a lovely light fixture. But it took me a YEAR before I could actually go into the room. Sometimes I stood in the doorway and noted how pretty it all looked, but the part of me that I was creating that space for just wasn't ready to inhabit it.
That part of me was actually smarter than I was, because it knew that I had some pretty high expectations for it. And high expectations, like perfectionism, are, as the fabulous and funny writer Anne Lamott says, "the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people." In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she asks how we can free ourselves from perfectionism. Her reply:
"It's easier if you believe in God, but not impossible if you don't. If you believe then this God of yours might be capable of relieving you of some of your perfectionism. Still, one of the most annoying things about God is that he never just touches you with his magic wand, like Glinda the Good, and gives you what you want. Like it would be so much skin off his nose. But he might give you the courage or the stamina to write lots and lots of terrible first drafts, and then you'd learn that good second drafts can spring from these, and you'd see that big sloppy imperfect messes have value" (30).
The prettified version of self-care that we read about in magazines is like wanting the magic touch of Glinda the Good, without having to really sit down with yourself and pay attention to what it going on, without having to experience the big, sloppy, imperfect mess of you. My friend John, who was on the panel talking about meditation said that his teacher used to tell him that in the beginning, meditating is like wading out into Lake Michigan—you are surrounded by trash, old tires, used syringes, empty beer cans, whatever. But eventually the water clears and calms, and you get a broader view of the horizon.
Lamott suggests that if you don't believe in God, or if your version of God is "God as high school principal in a gray suit who never remembered your name but is always leafing unhappily through your files," we might do well to remember this great line of Geneen Roth's: "that awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage" (31). One of the people at the panel discussion who is a therapist said that sometimes she has to remember to talk to herself the same way that she talks to her clients: with compassion and the awareness that most of the time, they are doing the best they can. Anne Lamott echoes this exact sentiment when she writes, "I doubt that you would read a close friends early [writing] efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker. I doubt you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat. I think you might say something along the lines of, 'Good for you. We can work out some of the problems later, but for now, full steam ahead!'" (31).
Awareness is indeed about keeping yourself company, refusing to abandon yourself even when you don't fit, aren't happy, and feel things you (and probably other people) would prefer not to feel. So, with a shout out to John, who shared this poem last night over Mexican food, an exceptionally loud heating vent, and the unpredictable interruptions of the very helpful wait staff, here is today's poem. It is by the 13th century mystic Rumi, and is called, "The Guest House.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.