One time I sat in on a friend’s psychology lecture when I was visiting her at university and I learnt about phantom limbs, the syndrome that sometimes occurs when someone has lost a limb but still feels as if they have it. The lecturer talked about how this can be a big problem in situations where the person in question feels like their phantom limb is tensed and the muscles are clenched, causing them very real pain. They have to be gently led through the process of relaxing the non-existent limb before they can begin the process of teaching their body that the limb in fact is not there at all.
Recently, I keep thinking about this syndrome in relation to the importance of self-care. I’ve realised that I’m experiencing life a bit like someone who has a phantom limb at the moment. I have a mental ‘to-do’ list that feels like a tightly clenched fist at all times. I believe that I have to somehow manage to be the baby’s primary carer at all times, as well as earn a living, write things that I am proud of, take care of the housework, be a kind and generous friend, write letters to loved ones, be well-read, interesting, and up-to-date with current affairs, start writing my novel, found a website (you get the picture)… all without ever asking for help. Needless to say, it’s impossible to live up to these self-imposed standards.
I think it’s partly to do with working motherhood and needing to learn to balance things in this particularly intense time of life, but I also think that it’s an experience that is common to most of our generation in our adult lives. Why do we do it to ourselves? Why can’t we relax properly, even when we actually do have a rare moment to spare? Why do set ourselves impossibly high standards? It seems to me that we are all walking around with phantom limbs, carrying a lot of unnecessary weight.
I’ve written before about how, as a culture, we need to slow down. But what does that look like on a personal level?
First of all, we have to get rid of the idea that looking after ourselves is somehow self-indulgent. I loved reading Robin Long’s piece about how guilt gets in the way of healthy living for Darling magazine recently. To be able to live to our fullest potential, after all, we need to be strong, happy, and healthy ourselves. To be able to give others our best, we need to treat ourselves well, too… and not feel guilty for it. (Repeat after me: ‘Feeding myself is just as important as feeding the baby!’)
I find making ‘to-do’ lists helpful when I’m busy and tired and constantly living in fear that I’ll forget something important. But we need to know when to stop with the ‘to-do’ lists, too, however helpful they can be. I absolutely love this article about the ‘to-don’t’ list, and am making an effort to see my ‘to-do’ list in the right way; I need to use it to jot down the essentials that I really mustn’t forget, being really honest with myself and keeping those to a bare minimum, have a separate section for a few more aspirational notes, and then forget the rest for now. This may even mean making my own ‘to-don’t’ list (I love Stephanie May’s version), to consciously think about which things are hanging over me semi-permanently that I need to mentally put to one side.
This leads me to the value of living with intention. I came across the lovely ‘Autumn on Purpose‘ project by Laken of Peach & Humble recently; the idea is to slow down in this new season and live with a renewed sense of calm and purpose, enjoying the present and seeking out the little things of beauty scattered through our lives every day. In the first of her weekly emails through the series, Laken encouraged us to make our own intentions. These are different from goals in as much as they are more general priority areas (or, as Laken puts it, ‘feelings and desires centered in the present moment’), not tasks that we need to complete. Thinking about what my overall life intentions are in this season helped me to clarify when I need to say no to something, or ask for help in a particular area of my life. My intentions are:
- To be nourished in body, mind, and soul.
- To be present with my family and not let this time slip me by unappreciated.
- To acknowledge the joy that being creative gives me, and to purposefully make time for work.
I’ve started trying to drink warm lemon water first thing in the morning, and to make myself a bowl of hearty porridge. I try to get up early enough to give myself at least 10 minutes of quiet, peaceful, sit-down-and-relax breakfast time every other morning. I’m trying to bear in mind these tips for safeguarding your future health from Verily, as well as incorporate more of these joyfully easy every-day antioxidant ingredients into my life. I’ve asked for this beautiful magic carpet pilates mat for my birthday so that I have a motivation to tune in to Robin Long‘s wonderful (and free!) videos while the baby plays around me every day (everyone has a different form of motivation that works for them; mine happens to be pretty things and food!).
I’m trying to teach myself to be better at asking for help with the baby, to schedule my days better and plan ahead so that I have time to work during the day and can better enjoy the times when I’m not working and be more present with my loved ones as a result. I’m trying to switch off my laptop and phone whenever I can an hour or so before I go to bed, so that I can start to unwind properly before trying to sleep. I want to learn to follow Erin Loechner’s wonderful example of ‘slow blogging‘.
These things are all baby steps, and I am so far from having it figured out that it’s almost laughable. But I have one solid intention that I am going to try and hang on to: there are many things that I want to achieve, many things I want to get better at, and many ways I want to become a better person, but I don’t have to do it all at once. It’s okay to seek the order that I crave when I feel surrounded by chaos. And, most importantly of all, self-care is not an optional extra.
Have you ever had a wake-up call about how important self-care is? How have you learnt to handle stress and chaos in healthy ways?