Monday, November 10, 2014

My ongoing self-care journey

This isn't going to be a preachy blog post, despite what the title may indicate. I'm not here to dictate how any person should live their lives, or judge people for the choices they make for themselves and for their families.

However, I have been asked by several of my friends to tell my own story of how I found my way back to a place of self-care and health, having abandoned both for almost a decade.

I do not promise that any of this will resonate with you, nor do I expect any person to follow the same journey. But if you are looking for a place to start, perhaps you can find some guidance in my experience. Or perhaps you have some to offer me, as I continue on this journey.

I didn't want this to be long because the people I know who want to read this are too damn busy to read long posts. After all, this about self-care- which means finding time for yourself to focus on your own needs. (I doubt anyone has ever read my blog and thought to themselves "Man, I needed to read that.") But I had a lot to say on the topic, so it was designed to be read in chunks, or only the sections that are actually relevant to what interests you.

So, instead of a narrative, I'm just going to answer the questions that I have been asked, in point form. Each answer has three parts, because I like things in threes. They make be happy. (This is the OCD in me talking.)

What do you mean by self-care?

Self care is relatively simple: You need to take care of your own needs, in order to meet the needs of others. Think of it like putting on your own air mask in a plane before putting on the one for your child. If you pass out, neither one of you will be better off.

I define self-care by the following three areas:

a) Physical Health: Making sure that your body is getting what it needs to work at optimum capacity. Ie: being your strongest self.
b) Emotional/Mental Health: Make sure that your mind and heart get what they need to work at optimum capacity. Ie: being your most engaged self.
c) Spiritual Health: Making sure that your 'spirit', 'soul', or whatever it is that you call your sense of inner purpose, gets what it needs to feel self-actualized. Ie: being your most peaceful self. 

While some of the approaches might overlap (for example, sleep is deeply linked to all three), self-care in my mind is the concerted decision to approach each area with a sense of purpose and intentionality.

Why is self care so important?

At some point I realized three things about myself:

a) I would never take my children's health (again, including all three aspects of overall health) as nonchalantly (or as non-existantly, as the case had been for me) as I was taking my own health. I am aware that my actions are models from which my children will learn how to care for themselves and for others. It is deeply important to me to teach them to care for their own basic needs and respect their own bodies.
b) To properly care for my children, and to role model the kind of healthy lifestyle I want them to live, I needed to make some dramatic changes in every day living. This included what I ate, how I slept, how much exercise I got, how I spent my time (and with whom I spent it), how I treated others, and how I treated myself.
c) If I was outside and looking in, I would consider my 'self-care' was in a complete state of crisis, one that was edging towards critical mass and displaying itself through increased anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. Inevitably, this was going to impact my children's happiness (and my husband's) negatively.

I realized that my life desperately needed to regain balance, not only for myself, but for my entire family.

Something had to change.

What was the first thing you did?

This is the simplest answer, but was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I got real with myself. I confronted three lies that I had fooled myself into believing and that had begun to dictate my life.

These lies were:
a) I don't have the time/energy/will power/ability...(you name was all a lie.)
b) I am not worth the time and investment it would take to get healthy.
c) I have so far to go that it isn't worth starting.

Taking a hard look at these lies was the very first and unquestionably the most important part of my journey so far. Yes, I did have the time/energy/etc. I wasted an incredible amount of time, energy and valuable resources on completely benign things like social media. I wasted hours watching reality tv or other television shows that I didn't really care about. I did this because I was exhausted- but the exhaustion was being caused my lies.

I *am* worth the time and investment it is taking to get healthy. Not only am I worth it, I deserve it. I have the right to it.

As for going so far- well, that's a lie that I still fight on a daily basis. It is true. I have come a long way- and I have a long way to go. And sometimes that is really discouraging. But what I realized was that any step towards self-care, no matter how small, was a significant improvement on what I was living now.

Every small step is a step forward.

Ok, but how did you really start?

I consider my period of self-reflection to be a bit of a 'pre-game season'. In a concrete way, I started to make some serious changes in May 2014.

I decided to begin by working on my physical needs first since these are often the framework needed for building up other areas. So I:

a) Started tracking my daily movement (My pedometer is the single best investment I have ever made in my own health. I am a visual person and I needed the numbers to help keep me motivated and to validate me.)
b) Committed myself to three small, concrete and measurable goals (at the very beginning these were: 1) To walk/move 10,000 steps a day, 2) To eat at least three times a day, following a very simple meal plan (very very simple) 3) To drink at least 8 glasses of water a day.)
c) Found a support network. I joined an online fitness/motivation group, and then created two of my own. I now admin three separate groups and am actually starting to do personalized self-help coaching.

How did you find time? 

This might be the most commonly asked question I get, particularly because I know for being an incredibly busy person. I also think the 'time' lie is the one that I find most people universally resonate with.

Here is how I found the time:
a) By deciding that my health was as important as anyone else's in my family.
b) By prioritizing my health over other activities that sucked away at my energy and happiness.
c) By understanding the relationship between exercise, sleep, rest and mental health. (Tip: Exercise is a basic foundation for all the rest. Your body is meant to move, and if it doesn't move enough, it will have a harder time doing the other things it needs to do, like sleep and feel happy.)
As you'll note, at the very beginning of my journey, none of these things required any additional time away from home, nor did they really require anything significant in terms of effort. All it required was for me to move more and to make tiny changes in my life to feed/nourish my body. The idea that health=time was another one of the lies I had been telling myself.

For the most part, the time issue didn't become a factor until I had progressed to much larger goals, about three months in. At that point, I had to start prioritizing and a lot of things that were less important to me (ie: this blog, social media in general and even some relationships that were not bringing me closer to a happy place) had to take a massive step back so that I could focus on myself.

Now, I do about an hour and half of exercise, five to six times a week. I have found ways of fitting this in by breaking it into smaller sections (3X 30 minute work outs) and using programs that I can do from home but that are giving me the results that I am seeking. (I swear by Beachbody programs, but there are tons out there for a variety of needs. Personally, I use the 21 Day Fit regime and Focus T25 for my home base training. They are challenging, interesting, and effective. I have found several others that I do also like, so if you want some recommendations, let me know.)

But yes, sometimes I do my work outs late at night or have to wake up early for them. And I have been known to walk on my treadmill while wearing my daughter in a wrap. I've even been known to break into a dance party when it is quiet at work. Personally, I have found that I sleep better if I get my work out in and so the trade off of sleep for exercise is worth it some days. Other days, I choose sleep.

The time is there. The chances are that it is being filled by things that are way less important than taking care of your body, mind and soul. Redirect your energy, and you will surprise yourself.

How did it impact your life?

Absolutely everything about this has been tremendously positive.

a) I am healthier and feel like I have more energy.
b) I am motivated and looking forward to taking on new challenges (including working in a sleep goal, which is going to be the biggest challenge of all with two small kiddos who don't sleep).
c) I am proud of myself. Really proud. And that has done tremendous things for my self-confidence, my sense of self-worth, my self-esteem, and the quality of my personal relationships. 

What's next for you?

I've already mentioned a few goals that I am working on: completing my first triathlon, figuring out a way to balance all of this with sleep, spending more "quality" time with my husband and children...

But also, what's next for me is focusing on the next steps of my health:

a) Begin to really plan and make goals around my emotional/mental health and spiritual health. I am starting to recognize in myself a calling and sense of purpose. I want to use my brain more- in ways that stimulate, excite and create- and I want to be a part of something bigger than myself.
b) Continue to cleanse myself of activities, relationships and habits that are toxic to my well-being.
c) Finding a way to 'slow down' and giving myself permission to just be quiet, with myself, so that I can recharge my inner introvert. 

In many ways, I've only just begun my health transformation. My body is changed and my outlook is changed. But I have an awful lot left to do to bring myself to a place of self-actualization. And thankfully, I now have the energy to do it.

What would you recommend for someone who is wanting to take a more active approach in self-care?

a) Just start. Pick a goal, or a few small ones, and commit to them for three weeks. That can be as simple as drinking water, or as complex as hitting the gym 3 times a week (though I recommend starting with simple.)
b) Throw away the scale. No, I'm not joking. Get rid of it entirely, or at the very least put it away for at least the first month of your goals. This is not about pounds and inches. It's not about dress sizes. It's about a sense of general well-being. Your body will reward you- trust it to do its job. Don't focus on the 'what' you want to look like; focus on the 'who' you want to be and 'how' you want to get there. Your body will do the rest for you.
c) Remember that any small step forward is a step in the right direction. This is a process. There are no quick solutions to health. It requires a daily effort to self-care, and will be an ongoing journey for the rest of my life. The difference between me now and me a year ago is that I am learning to enjoy the journey. I have come to relish self-improvement. I want to be a better person every single day of my life.

Most importantly, I want to feel like I have really lived every day of my life.

And that's how I feel right now.