In my first post for Mental Health Awareness Month I wrote about Olivia, and what an inspiration she is to me. (Read HERE) I described how I want everyone to feel safe talking about their mental health and how I can’t shepherd my advocacy work without first tending my own mental health. Today, I want to share more about that: my own mental health, what’s working and what’s not.
I do not have a diagnosed mental illness, although I do have a tendency toward feeling melancholy and struggling with low self-esteem. During tough times, I can spend an inordinate amount of time on the couch watching T.V. and giving myself a mental tongue lashing for being such a lazy, disappointing so and so. During not so tough times I can do the same: Negative self-talk my way into believing a plethora of unpleasant thoughts. Self-flagellation is an unfortunate specialty. This negativity, its indications and symptoms, are by far the biggest challenges to my equanimity.
You may remember what I wrote about the Whole Person Wheel exercise I had to complete while Olivia was in treatment, (read HERE) and how, in the white space, I came face to face with my perceived faults and inadequacies. Since then the six human potentials on that chart have become a guide of sorts, a way for me to identify if I’m caring for my whole self or only certain parts of myself. The potentials are: spiritual, emotional, physical, social, volitional, and mental.
Last year, I set the intention to focus on self-care, wondering if, after 12 months, I’d experience any discernible differences in my mental or overall health. Would putting myself on my to-do list generate concrete improvements in my life? Would my melancholia diminish? My see-sawing self-esteem equilibrate? Would I have anything of value to share after my experiment?
It’s important to keep in mind that there is no “right” way to practice self-care. You define what works for you and what doesn’t. Also, there’s no perfect sweet spot as to number of days a week or minutes a day that optimize self-care’s benefits. In a perfect world each of us would find time seven days a week to read, write, practice art, exercise etc., but the stresses of daily living can make that lofty goal impossible to achieve. The point is to get self-care into your schedule as often as possible without stressing yourself out, which would defeat the whole purpose!
Here’s a primer on the activities I implemented, some of which have always been part of my life while others were new. I include the corresponding (potential[s]).
+ Speaking some of my truth (spiritual, emotional)
+ Seeing a doctor to address the effects of menopause (physical, emotional)
+ Facilitating a cyber book club (mental, social, emotional)
+ Writing my blog pieces (mental, spiritual, volitional, social)
+ Accepting what self-care isn’t (mental, spiritual, emotional)
+ Accepting that sometimes self-care doesn’t look like self-care (mental, spiritual, emotional)
+ Meditating (spiritual, volitional, mental, emotional, physical)
+ Making and teaching art (spiritual, social, emotional, mental)
+ Facing fears and doing it anyway (spiritual, emotional, social, mental, volitional)
+ Letting go of comparison (spiritual, emotional, mental)
+ Exercising (spiritual, emotional, mental, volitional, physical, social)
+ Seeing a therapist (spiritual, emotional, mental, volitional, social)
+ Getting massages (physical, emotional)
+ Reading for fun and growth (spiritual, emotional, mental)
+ Journaling (spiritual, emotional, mental, volitional)
+ Socializing (spiritual, social, emotional, mental)
+ Practicing gratitude (spiritual, emotional)
+ Practicing self-compassion (spiritual, emotional)
Wow…I didn’t realize how long this list was going to be and I'm sure it's incomplete. Good job me! (I didn't create a visual like the one above, but it's a great idea, as is penning self-care time into your calendar and remembering that the simplest acts, like hugging and napping, are self-care, too.)
What I hope this display of my choices inspires for you is to think outside the box. Almost anything that nourishes and nurtures you counts as self-care. Looking over this list I notice that not all self-care is created equal. By this I mean that some activities called to me daily, like reading for growth and journaling, and some called to me sporadically, like exercising (ha!) and meditation. Perfectly normal. Doing all of these activities every day would have taken forever! And some days you just don't feel like putting on your sneakers and going for a walk. Also, I knew I had for years neglected one particular area. Spirituality—a connection to something greater than myself--was and continues to be my primary focus. Why? Because it’s the one area I’m learning about that helps me the most in practicing self-compassion and reducing my negative self-talk. It inspires me to live more authentically, with deeper connection to my thoughts, feelings and actions. (More on this in another post.)
So, after a year of practicing self-care in a conscious way. . .
Do I discern any differences? You bet I do. I'm more aware of my negative self-talk and catch myself when I'm doing it. Through the practice of self-care activities, I've developed more tools to cope when the negativity strikes, and its hold on me has decreased, aiding my melancholia. I feel calmer, more at peace, even in times of stress--a concrete improvement in my life and attitude. Self-care isn’t a silver bullet. It didn’t eradicate my low self-esteem. I didn't suddenly lose a bunch of weight. I still prefer more often that I'd like to admit to drink wine rather than face my issues. I can still let petty offenses bog me down. But when I tell myself to cut me some slack, I ususally do and that's pretty damn great. (Which, as I think about it, is an act of self-care in itself! Some self-care begets more self-care!) As to what didn't work, the answer is actually nothing. Each of these activities held value for me. The one caveat I'd share is meditation. Because it takes education and practice, I relied on it less and didn't gain the benefits I could have by establishing a regular practice. (It's on my list to continue exploring and learning about.)
As to the value, well, I hope you find value in reading about my experiment, and I hope you’ll try it for yourself. You deserve it.
Mental Health Awareness Month may be drawing to a close, but I’ll continue to write about my journey. Sometimes us “normal neurotics” can feel bad talking about our problems with the devastating traumas that surround us on a daily basis. It’s important, of course, to have perspective. It’s just as important to honor and validate that which is ours to live with and grow from.
Resource Alert: My friend, Edward Gunawan, along with his brother have created an amazing new webcomic to raise awareness about mental health. Please visit Project Press Play HERE.
That’s my two cents. What’s yours? What are you favorite self-care activities, especially ones not on my list? And have you experienced concrete effects from your practice? What are they?
P.S. I chose the above picture of myself, taken after a trip to the gym, hot, red-faced and sweaty, because it represents progress in accepting me for who and what I am at this moment in my life--a benefit of self-care! Huzzah!