Last week I sent myself on a 2 day retreat. A bit like being sent to my room to sort myself out, but much prettier. There is this beautiful place on Lake Victoria, about 30km out of Mwanza. They have built two little cabins right on the water with big windows to let in the sunrise. I went with my journal, my yoga mat and my book and it was bliss.
There is something about being truly alone that lets my spirit rest. I am a tried and true introvert, something that has taken some time to realize and understand. I love people, fully and with my whole heart, but after a while, I need to find myself alone, quiet and still to refuel.
I always wanted to be an extrovert, wanted to be the kind of person who sought out people, who had tons of friends and was the life of every party. As I get a little bit older, and perhaps even a little bit wiser (fingers crossed), I have come to make sense of what I crave and why.
So I went away. Before I left, I had this feeling like the world was closing in on me. It had been weeks full of people, months even. I had travelled, visited people, had people visit us, and been in back-to-back workshops. It was just too much and my heart was shouting at me to close the door and get quiet.
There has been a lot of talk about introverts on the worldwide web in recent days. I’m convinced that mindbodygreen is going to devote a whole column to it soon, full of tips and 5-point lists for us quiet-seeking folks. I even came across the Quiet Revolution recently, a space just for story telling about being an introvert, quizzes and the like.
Sometimes pop psychology makes a bit too much of a thing and we lose the meaning in all the chat. I think this is becoming true of introversion, and it’s also very true of the term self-care. Both equally evasive in their meaning, while both saturate wellness sites and casual discussion. But are these ideas still important? If so, how can I embrace them and learn to practice them in a meaningful way?
One of my very best friends and I were discussing the term self-care sometime last year and as we chatted about it, she said, “self-care is so much more than a f*cking bubble bath”. I laughed hard, out loud and from my belly, resonating entirely with the statement. For a long time, to me, self-care meant creating a quiet space, lighting some candles, reading a book, taking a bath. It meant a portion of time that you put aside to take care of yourself. Once a week, once a month, once a year, whatever.
But my dear friends, self-care is so much more than a f*cking bubble bath. Don’t get me wrong, candles and bubble baths and soft music are lovely, if that’s what you’re into. No disrespect intended. But that’s just not it, not by a long shot.
First of all, self-care is not something you do every once in a while. It is something you learn how to do in every moment of every day. It is not time that you set aside that is “just for you”, it is learning to live with intention and with protection of your self and your wellbeing. It is being, in the ink of my most favourite writer, Anne Lamott, “militantly and maternally on your own side”. It is a daily, sometimes hourly practice of making choices that are in your own best interest.
I am faced with a series of choices in each and every day, and I can decide to act in ways that work for me or in ways that don’t. I have come to understand what happens to me when I make too many choices that don’t work for me. I have bad habits, habits that I have built up over years of not listening to myself. Silencing that little voice inside that says “enough” and choosing to push myself past my limits, to refuse rest, to bury hard feelings and to numb out with substances of my choosing. I avoid, I distract, I carry on. I stifle what I want to say because I am worried about someone else’s feelings, I choose to help someone because I don’t want to make that person feel bad by saying no. I give through resistance, I work through exhaustion, I do not take care of my body.
I do not take good care of me.
Anne tells me to be both “militantly and maternally” on my own side. Being militantly on my own side is about protection. It’s about creating a space around myself, a space in which I have what I need and a space in which I have power to keep out what is not helpful. I have been given a responsibility to protect my space, my time, my heart, and my wellbeing, in my opinion, by a higher power who placed me here, in this time and place.
So I protect, I learn to be militantly on my own side, but I also nurture, and become maternally on my own side. I have to find ways to be gracious, kind and generous in my self-comfort and soothing. I have to learn how to be compassionate with myself, as compassionate as I would be to anyone else who I found to be struggling. I have to learn to acknowledge when things have been stressful or hard, and to give myself permission to step out for a breather. I need to learn to hold myself, in a safe and peaceful space, until I am ready to step back out into the world again.
It has taken 33 long years to realize that I am my own best chance at finding peace.
The tricky part is that for too long now I have reached outside of myself for the comfort, the love, the grace I so desperately seek. I have looked to people and things to make me feel better, I have hustled for my worthiness (Brene Brown’s words, not mine), I have scratched and clawed and pulled from others to try to fill the space inside. The trouble with this method is that it never really works. You always need more, you are forever clawing and scratching and seeking more, and more, and more. And those you are clawing from find themselves tired, weary and disappointed in themselves because they just cannot satisfy your desires, they cannot meet your needs.
But when I come to be alone, when I retreat into the quiet and close out all the noise and distraction around me, I find myself connected to this kind of river of peace within me. I find that I have an endless supply of soothing, calming measures to use to bring myself into a state of peace.
I am convinced that until we learn to truly practice self-care, until we learn to be both maternally and militantly on our own side, we will never be able to be generous, gracious, caring or nurturing with others. Some of us are introverts, some extroverts, some at different points on the continuum and we all have different ways of finding peace, but the common factor among us all is that we are the ones responsible for finding it in our own ways. You are your own best bet, just as I am mine.
If you are sitting at a table surrounded by visitors, but find yourself with an empty jug, you just cannot pour wine for everyone at the table. To try to do so is clearly futile, and when you realize that the jug is empty, you are faced with a choice. If you’re like me, you are most likely to start blaming someone at the table for forgetting to fill the jug, relinquishing yourself of the responsibility and the embarrassment in front of your guests. Others will run to the wine cellar and pull out a wine that is not yet ready, leaving the guests feeling disappointed or even cheated with less than they hoped for. Instead, sometimes it is necessary to accept that the jug is empty, to tell everyone to just go home and come back another time when the new wine will be ready and when you can truly enjoy it together.
I fervently believe that I love at my best when I have taken care of myself well. For me, this means listening to me, to that voice inside that knows damn well what is needed and when. It means finding space and quiet to soothe my introverted heart. It means giving my body the good food it needs, moving my body in ways that bring energy and strength. It means making time and space for things I love, and things that nourish my soul. It means breathing deep, it means checking in, it means stepping away when the inner voice says enough.
What I receive from others can only ever complement what I do for myself, and when I am doing the work of taking good care of myself, what they give to me is suddenly immensely richer, more satisfying and appreciated then when I scratch and claw and hustle for them to do what I need to do for myself.
I hope that you can choose to be on your own side. To listen to you, to what your body and your soul are telling you. To protect your peace and your wellbeing, to be gentle and gracious and kind to yourself. To recognize the deep wealth of power that resides in you. To make the awkward choices that may make those around us uncomfortable but that will give us what we need to not only live, but to fully thrive.