Self-Care Isn’t Selfish (Is It?)

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

Let’s start with this, the poem that changed my life.

The Story

It seems like another lifetime or dimension

Rejection, Isolation, moving in my pores and marrow

If I put my right hand on my heart, and then,

the left on top of the right, a port is opened,

a streaming connection to a vacuum or canyon and I cry inconsolably

There’s a Story I tell myself about not being wanted,

Once, Twice, or more… and then, tell myself that the Story isn’t real

But, the cavernous echoes of vacancy, of emptiness, reveal a soul, longing to be touched

And I wonder, did the emptiness create the Story, or did the Story create the emptiness?

Four years ago, sitting on a pillow and praying by the fire, I felt these words meander through me, bringing with them some forceful, yet familiar emotions. Sadness. Anxiety. Fear of rejection. This moment was a watershed moment for me, not unlike others I have had in the past in which my inner Poet sends me a message-in-a-bottle style epiphany, from the inside-out, letting me see something I hadn’t been privy to before.

Like a rudder that puts just enough pressure into the water to change the trajectory of a voyage, this poem changed mine.

It prompted me to ask myself, when was I abandoned or rejected?

Since writing “The Story,” I realized that the feeling of abandonment that I described wasn’t based on the reality that I had been abandoned, but on the fear of it that had become bigger than reality.

The truth is, I haven’t been abandoned.

I’ve been abused.

I’ve been neglected although some of the neglect has come to me, through me.

Somewhere along the line I came to believe that self-care is selfish, and selfishness is unforgivable.

I came to believe that taking care of others was my way to remain safely embedded in my relationships because healthy attachment with an honest sense of self-awareness seemed to be out of reach. I was so afraid of abandonment that I formulated some systematic rules for pleasing those around me, the ones I was most afraid to lose. And then I stuck to this system: avoidance of rejection.

For my parents, my irrational practice of avoiding rejection meant different things. To please my father, I became sort of athletic, I adopted his precepts on morality, and I tried to be funny, sanguine and tell him good stories.

To please my overburdened mother (my perspective at the time), I laid low, didn’t demand too much, and eventually offered to take care of things like errands and household needs. None of these things were necessary because my parents love didn’t need to be earned, but these are the perceptions of a child.

Ironically, the deepest area of connection between both my mother and my father was spirituality, so that’s where I put my focus. Unfortunately, because it was so important to them, there were also many ways that I could mess this up that this focus on spirituality became a mine field. Don’t make a mistake.

When I wrote “The Story,” it was under the influence of a moment of illumination, the first time I actually woke up to the reality that my fear of abandonment wasn’t really based on having been abandoned.

It was based on my lifetime attempt at not being abandoned, a belief system not unlike a corner I had painted myself into without remembering where it had all started in the first place.

Why was I afraid of being abandoned? Unfortunately, the fear has existed so far before the practice had become a rut that I don’t even remember the source. I do remember later noticing that it seemed to be phantom more than reality.

So, since I am aware of this pattern, why am I still working so hard at being “selfless” to avoid being abandoned?

Here’s how I see the syndrome plays out.

I get a little time a day to myself… disposable time, so to speak. My first thoughts when I find myself with some free time are, what are the shoulds? Do I need to call anyone, pay a bill, or prepare for dinner?

Then, I usually just start chasing my tail.

Maybe I want to work out? Maybe I want to read, but that sounds lazy. Maybe I should eat, but I can’t even tell if I’m hungry (enough?) after years of telling my body to postpone self-care, no matter how basic.

Maybe, I should do something pleasant, like watch a TV show or take a bath? That usually feels self- indulgent unless I’m either sick, wounded, or stinking noticeably.

Yes, some of this is exaggerated for effect. Still…

How do I initiate self care in a way that doesn’t trigger the inner child that’s afraid her selfishness (or attention to needs) will end in rejection?

As always, I’m just spit-balling, but I am a pretty decent spit-baller, and I spend a little time chewing my cud around things like this.

Since most of our childhood beliefs are formed when we’re very small, I assume I’m dealing with an inner child here, and an inner child needs to be parented.

I recognize that the little one in my consciousness who squirms when I talk about fixing myself a nice plate of food…either because she doesn’t want to eat healthy, or is afraid that if she doesn’t do something productive she won’t be loved…I recognize that she needs guidance and shouldn’t be driving the bus.

I’m starting to listen to her, to try to get down to what she’s worried about.

Sometimes I remember to tell her I’ll hold her concern for her, whatever it is, and remind her that I’m a competent adult, a grandmother with decent survival skills, who can keep her safe while we make a sandwich.

Today, I’m adding to the plan.

I’m going to make a list, a grown-up list of things that I will commit to making happen as the shepherd-of-all-the-Laurys that live inside this body and mind.

The list includes meditation and prayer, writing, exercise, water, and good food. It also includes nurturing activities like friendship and allowing for things that give me joy and pleasure. And then, I’ll write the ways that I can make these things happen, logically and systematically finding time to honor these needs and take care of the parts of me that are afraid to ask.

I’m assuming that my condition might be something other people have encountered, and it will either evoke a conversation, or maybe even cause some thought bubbles to emerge that weren’t there before for somebody else.

Either way, here’s my take-away: it’s my job to take care of myself and no one else’s.

We’ll see how it goes.

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Laury Browning

Laury Browning

A teacher/writer, the youngest daughter of Pat and Shirley Boone. Perspective: a member of a family with a public persona, and a sort-of preacher’s kid