The idea of shame as an impediment to self-care has been niggling at me for a while. I know from my own experience how this pattern goes – my shame is triggered and my ability to extend myself the kindness and empathy necessary for self-care is depleted, leading to more shame.
We all have our own shame triggers but there are common themes. Shame and vulnerability expert Brene Brown says “shame drives two main tapes: ‘never good enough’ and ‘who do you think you are’”.
When I talk about ‘self-care’ I am talking about things that nurture our bodies, minds and spirits. The things we love doing, things that make us come alive. Self-care is the things that nourish us. Self-care can be exercise, nutrition and meditation. It can also be music, art, creating something, playing with a pet, talking with a close friend.
For me, the exercise, nutrition and meditation side of things are easier to get to. This is because my personal version of shame means that for me to feel worthy I must be ‘healthy’. But until I spent some time with the shame that was underneath that I wasn’t actually healthy at all. I swallowed all of my insecurity and pain and kept this shame hidden, so while I might seem healthy on the surface to anyone looking on, underneath that was a lot of muckiness. I might eat a healthy meal with friends and eat a chocolate bar in secret later. I might do lots of exercise and yoga and then go out and binge drink and take drugs that night. I might act very happy and positive then be exhausted and depressed from the effort of this later that night. I might encourage a friend to share their pain with me then shut down when I had an opportunity to share mine.
To move past this coping mechanism and the idea that what was on the outside mattered more than what was inside meant me spending time with what those feelings were. I lived in a prison of judgement – judgement that I perceived as coming from the outside, but really it’s all a mirror of how I feel about myself. I discovered that the things I was doing to make me feel good brought up a lot of shame in this very fact that I then felt good about myself. The counter-actions were a form of self-sabotage, to bring me back down to size. I feel haunted by the phrase “who does she think she is” and that made me undermine any positive step I took to look after myself.
We can only really nurture ourselves positively if we nurture those aspects of ourselves that we want to reject. Now I have spent a lot of time in those murky waters and find it easier to let myself feel good, so I don’t need to undermine myself to the same degree. And at least now the awareness is there so if I slip then I can see that pattern for what it is and not be lost to it.
With this freedom I am gradually able to enjoy the things that make me physically healthy without undermining myself – I might choose a morning yoga class to set a peaceful tone for my day or go for a run to wake myself up and then I am (mostly!) able to let myself enjoy the benefits.
And the next layer of freedom I am discovering is that I am now more able to move toward the things that I really want to do but aren’t as immediately ‘justifiable’ in my personal frame of reference. I am spending time creatively, for the joy and fun of it – I still feel guilty about this and about choosing these solitary and ‘aimless’ ways to spend my time and I had to fight myself using the word ‘indulgent’ in this description. I still find it much easier if I can tell people I’ve been busy with work or parenting rather than acknowledge that I came alive mostly during the times when I was on my own, lost in creativity. That shame is still rampant and it is a work in progress for me to free myself from those shackles.
We can’t let go of all of these other things – my family, my work and paying the bills are all vital to me – but maybe we can ease up on the limitations we place on ourselves in honour of these if we can face the idea that perhaps its more than the reality of those getting in the way, that perhaps it’s our relationship with them and our relationship with ourselves that needs some attention first.
Over the past few years I’ve been working on letting go of a competitive streak in myself. This streak has a strong genetic influence and is not entirely unhealthy – it has helped me carve my own path, to meet interesting people and try interesting things, to build a career and business, to keep learning and growing and setting my sights high and far. It has given me ambition and for a long time I was grateful for that.
But I have learned that ‘ambition’ is far from a happy state and indeed is a barrier to wholehearted living and any sort of internal peace and contentedness.
The tool that has helped me shine a light on my relationship to competitiveness is yoga and, in particular, yin yoga. The irony is that it was my competitive streak that held my attention to yin yoga – proof that nothing is ever ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the richness lies in the ambiguity and dualities.
The first yin yoga class I did was called ‘deep tissue stretch’ and it was with Andrea Kwiatkowski on Movement for Modern Life, a blessing in the form of a subscription platform that has improved my life a gazillion fold with excellent teaching and ability to have daily classes for all moods and needs. I liked the sound of this class that would reach into areas ‘like a massage’ and looked forward to the results.
It was tough! I struggled to find ease in many of the poses and the idea of holding them for 2-5 minutes was new to me. Andrea held my attention with her acknowledgement that ‘you might find this quite a frustrating practice’ – so I understood that it wasn’t just me and I stayed with it.
I gradually learned to back off, to ease away from ‘the edge’ as it is referred to in yin and to approach each pose in a softer way. I learned that this allowed the release I needed to go further – that yielding in my striving led to the yielding my body was craving, that easing off my effort allowed me to find much more progress and development in the work I was doing with this practice.
My physical yoga practice, known in yoga as asana and how we often understand ‘yoga’ generally, is my training ground for life and a touchstone that helps me understand who and where I am and what needs to change and how that change can come about in my life off the mat. So these lessons of yin, of lessening the effort, of not pushing so hard or trying to override where you already are, of going with rather than against and of listening acutely and – importantly – staying with what arises became my pillars of life. My benchmark for ‘success’ has become more about how it feels and what comes out of it for my growth rather than any external validation or acceptance.
Of course this doesn’t happen overnight, I am still on this journey of listening and adapting and learning and I see it as a lifelong journey. As is the other side of the coin, the letting go of what others think and the doubt of whether I am ‘good enough’ for my place in the world.
Competitiveness may be a fun and helpful trait for many and in many circumstances. I love watching an exciting game of rugby or 100m sprint and that wouldn’t be the same without the competitive spirit. But when it is part of your life to remove you from the here and now, to validate yourself and to make you push when perhaps pushing isn’t right, then it is not healthy.
At this time of year when we set ourselves targets and insist we must be ‘better’ this year, may we have the self-compassion to approach this with gentle discipline and kind self-talk. My goal is to commit to things that appeal to me, to follow my path and grow every day without force and allow adaptation and change when I meet resistance. Happy new year:-)
Over the past 18 months I have experienced my first major bereavements and been thrown into the world of grief, it’s quite an experience! And, I believe, no two experiences will be quite the same. Relationships differ, ways of death and any ‘preparation’ for it differ, where you are in your own life when you experience it differs.
My story is this: my dad died very suddenly 16 months ago – an ostensibly fit, healthy 64 year old he died out running with his (now our) dog, Jack. My mum had just been diagnosed with breast cancer two months earlier and she declined rapidly to die in February this year. I was in the midst of other big life changes as this was happening – becoming a parent and moving from a London flat to a smallholding down a rural Scottish track, ironically to be closer to my parents and other family, with big changes in our work lives too.
So these are just a few things I have learned through my own particular journey so far. I think it will be a lifelong journey…
1. Grief is isolating – I am not an isolated person: I have family, friends and support around me. I also have people around me grieving the same people too. But I wouldn't say it's something you can really share. It is so personal and something I almost feel protective around. Relationships are unique and your experience of letting go of that person must therefore be unique. This can be extremely painful and make you feel very lonely. Feeling sad can make you want to withdraw, especially when you feel like people just want you to be ok again and you’re just not. It can also be hard for people close to you to understand, it can be hard to support someone with a bubble round them, but I think that bubble is necessary protection for our grief for a bit at least, which means it simply is isolating.
2. Grief is visceral – I heard a psychotherapist say “grief feels like fear” and I totally agree with that. It comes with heightened anxiety and can take over your body, tense your jaw and churn your gut in particular. It is therefore really an embodied feeling, which can mean back pain, stiffness, upset stomach as well as anger and bubbling frustration. Another bereavement specialist told me “you can’t deal with anxiety cognitively” and this was so helpful a reminder that our bodies are our minds and vice versa. The routes out of anxiety for me are the same that are helpful for managing symptoms of grief - Yoga, massage, acupuncture, running, hugging (see Erika’s blog on oxytocin for reasons this helps so much), meditating, talking, sleeping, playing hide and seek with a toddler…
3. Grief is unavoidable – Grief comes with death so is unavoidable for that reason. But I also say this in that grief is something you actually do have to go through when you experience death. Early on a friend told me "No one escapes the full grief experience " and this has chimed with a lot of anecdotal evidence from, for example, interviewees on Griefcast who tried to avoid the experience and it comes back to haunt them later on. But it’s not something you go through then finish! It’s something that you have to create space for in your life, to examine and process and ultimately to learn to live with. Grief changes you and you have to adapt to absorb those changes.
4 Grief is not all bad – if you said this to me on some days I would feel like punching you! I sometimes feel like that is untrue, but in my more rational frame of mind I see it like any injury - if you attend to it, if you go into it and explore it you can learn a lot about yourself and life. If you just numb the pain then it will just hide there and give you greater trouble down the line. Grief is a sign that you have really loved and that is what makes life worthwhile, so if you can bear to let the process happen it can help ground you in your priorities and focus on what really matters.
5. Grief is Really F*&£$ing hard!! – Because it's isolating, because it’s visceral, because it’s unavoidable and even because it’s not all bad (really you’d rather have them back!) – all these things and the adapting to the change the loss brings make grief hard. It is a complex beast, it’s absorbing and intense at times. It is like childbirth and chronic pain, these are things that everyone acknowledges are tough and painful, but until you experience them yourself you won't really ‘get it’.
I wanted to share these experiences as I have found it helpful to hear other experiences, particularly through listening to Griefcast and also through Griefworks. While it is such an individual journey, there are so many common aspects, emotions, tensions and challenges. I have found solidarity, understanding and support through these channels and they’ve helped me make sense of some of the reactions I’ve had, which is invaluable on this confusing, anxious sad and important journey.
I have been writing occasional blogs for my work with West Norwood Therapies for the past few years so have published some here and am in the process of trying to find a regular blog writing habit for my own enjoyment and creativity. I'm not doing very well with it so far as other things seem to take precedence, but the intention is there and I'm sure I'll find the habit when it feels right :-)