Self-care is supposed to be a way for people to step off the never-ending action of the work-work-work hamster wheel, because people were exhausting themselves trying to be as productive as possible. Over time, and not much time, we found a way to turn self care into something you can buy. We have images of self-care now:
Scenario 1: pretty person (almost always female-bodied, able-bodied, young and beautiful, because only these paragons of society deserve to be cared for, right?), lying in a bath surrounded by rose petals looking peaceful/ contented/ blissed out.
Scenario 2: Pretty person (we can recycle the model in image 1; nobody actually notices the person, because it’s a general assumption that it’s either someone like us or someone not like us) on top of a mountain taking a deep breath, lit from within, not a care in the world. Maybe a good-looking significant other and a dog who is well trained.
Scenario 3: Pretty person (as above) lying on massage table, hands kneading back, serene smile on face. Bliss.
It happens with nourishment too: We have gone from knowing what our bodies want, to looking to others to tell us what is good and healthy for us to eat. We have our idols: someone beautiful like Gwyneth Paltrow who glows from within because her diet is ‘clean’ as in devoid of impurities and SHE is clean and devoid of impurities. And that’s what nourishment is: something that we all strive for but can’t possibly afford or maintain because for goodness sake we all want to eat an entire bar of chocolate in one sitting on occasion.
(Scenario 4: A fridge full of fresh vegetables and a green juice and some obscure herbal powder that costs as much as a week’s food budget that is the answer to all of life and the time to prepare it all and the money to afford it all and nobody tugging at your pant leg telling you that they just threw up on the rug in the living room ten minutes before you have company coming and your hair is still wet and now there’s vomit on the carpet.)
And if self care and nourishment are things that we’re constantly striving to achieve, that means they’re out of our reach. We can touch them but not dive into them. Stare up at them, glowing on their pedestals. But that’s not for us. Or maybe it is for us, but we have to do it perfectly. How can that be healthy?
Can we, for a minute, strip all of that crap away? Strip away the image of what ‘nourishment’ is supposed to look like. Strip away what ‘rest’ is supposed to look like. Strip away ideas about ‘self-care’. Strip away the ideas about home made face masks and baths and massages and clean sheets and a perfect environment and hours of free time and peace and quiet and perfect hair.
When self-care becomes a commodity, it becomes something that we have ideals about, mental images for, and assumptions about who gets to have them. They become things we strive for, things we are worthy of or not worthy of, and most importantly, things that have external markers that we need to look to others to understand. To say that in a different way, when we have images of what self-care looks like, we stop trusting our own bodies to tell us what they need in order to be cared for, fed, nourished and loved.
And I think the most insidious thing about it is that this thing that’s supposed to restore us becomes something that instead burns energy and makes us feel exhausted while attempting to make it perfect.
To care is to feel concern for, interest in, liking for.
What does it mean to care for yourself? How many of us treat ourselves as people worth liking? Worth concern? I mean, getting into the real, gross, nitty gritty details, if we’re trying to care for ourselves but are on some level rejecting that nourishment, then how well is it going to work? It’s like trying to feed a child but the child is turning their head away at the last minute so the spoon hits their cheek. If we can’t be kind to ourselves then its very hard to recognize in the moment what it is that we truly need, and we can't get the nourishment we want, regardless of what that looks like.
It can be something as simple as leaving the dishes in the sink at night, but it can also be cleaning the dishes in the sink at night so that you have a clean slate for the next morning. It can be taking a long hot bath, or it can be falling into bed fully clothed and covered in dirt from the day. It’s not something that you can quantify or describe for anyone else, because at any given moment it will be different for any of us.
And if we don’t recognize in the moment what it is we truly need, then we’ll be splitting our attention— focusing on one thing while trying to do another, so that we’re not really getting the benefit of either. For example, if we’re taking some rest time but thinking about everything we should be doing at the same time, then we’re not really resting, but not really doing the things. Whereas if we can recognize in the moment what it is we truly need, we can make a better decision: do the stuff first then rest, or rest then do the stuff.
How many of us ignore our bodies’ requests for rest, sleep, time off, food, because we ‘shouldn’t’ want it? How many of us ignore our bodies because it doesn’t make sense to be tired or to feel affected by something? How many of us, when feeling tired, immediately dismiss it as silly and carry on? How can we know what we really want and what true caring for ourselves is if we don’t even listen? And why don’t we listen? Because we don’t want something to be true: we are hard on ourselves, needlessly. If someone you loved came to you and said ‘I’m so very tired but I don’t want to be tired’ would you tell them to suck it up and get back to work, or would you make them a nest on the couch and tell them to rest for a little bit? Why can't we do these things for ourselves too?
Care for yourself like you’d care for someone you adore. Stand up for yourself the same way; make space for your WANTS, not just your needs. That can look like rest but it can also mean a kick in the ass. It can mean clean your kitchen, or wash your hair, or get some work done. But it can also mean ignoring it all and going to sleep. This can’t be sold, really, because its nothing to do with the external stuff and everything to do with your connection to yourself and your ability to listen without judgement. Which gets us back to kindness: listening to yourself without judgement means that whatever you are, in that moment, is acceptable.
The other, beautiful side effect of this kindness is that, when you stop blocking yourself, you stop blocking the world too, and that makes it so much easier to let the world, other people and nourishment in.
Feel it inside yourself— those places where you’re holding on, blocking, stopping the world outside from touching you. Feel it and if you can, let it go for a second. Let the world in. Feel how when you let the world in, it starts to feed you on a fundamental level. And when the world starts to feed you, your body starts to feel nourished, and starts to heal itself. It’s such a beautiful thing, this place of rest. And its something that you can tap into, not just when you’re 'resting' but when you’re moving around, working, cooking, chasing the kids, driving across town. You can tap into this place and move through the world in a way that is sustaining you. All you need to do is let yourself soften a bit.
This is a variation of an exercise I learned from my friend Rachel, who's a brilliant somatic body worker*:
A recipe for self-kindness
Close your eyes and feel your body right now. Feel your breath coming into and out of your lungs. Feel the edges of your body and the places where your body meets the world around you. And now feel for a subtle pressure that you're holding, most likely in your shoulders, your chest. Feel for a tension where you're saying that you should be doing something else, better, faster stronger, more efficient. Feel those places where you’re holding on, blocking, stopping the world outside from touching you.
Focus on it for a minute-- feel how it's coming from within you, and creating a place inside yourself that's at conflict. Then, start to make it even stronger. Tense it more. Make the pressure greater. Do this until the pressure is so great it’s uncomfortable. And then, let it go.
Soften. Choose, for a minute, to be kind to yourself. Let the world in. Feel how when you let the world in, it starts to feed you on a fundamental level. And when the world starts to feed you, your body starts to feel nourished, and starts to heal itself. It’s such a beautiful thing, this place of rest. And its something that you can tap into, not just when you’re 'resting' but when you’re moving around, working, cooking, chasing the kids, driving across town. You can tap into this place and move through the world in a way that is sustaining you. All you need to do is let yourself soften a bit.
One of my favorite plants to work with to encourage this softening is rose. I’ve been rose-bathing a lot lately. And if you wanna play along, here's what you need:
A few cups of rose petals, a big pot of water. Boil the water, then remove from heat and drop in the rose petals, and cover the pot for 5-10 minutes. Strain into a bath, and add 2 cups of epsom salts and as 4 pumps of Rose + Sandalwood body oil. Soak as long as needed, then when you get out, slather body with more oil, and use Marble + Milkweed's rose, cardamom and sandalwood perfume. Repeat as needed.
*actually its more like somatic bodyworker-wizard who helps people change their patterns and their entire lives simply by touching the body and helping them drop old patterns that aren't working anymore, but that's a bit of a mouthful for one sentence :).