by Carol Chandler
The first thing I discovered about self care: It’s very difficult to begin caring for yourself after years of neglecting yourself. This seemed especially true after years of childhood trauma. Focusing on my needs as a child and asking for them to be met often led to some form of retaliation, usually dirty looks or the silent treatment. Growing up, having needs felt like it was nothing less than criminal.
As an adult, both having needs and being unable to meet my needs has, at times, made me feel like I a self care failure.
We all have our breaking point and for me, I hit that point time and time again before it finally began to sink in that I am not the Energizer Bunny. I spent years trying to be the perfect daughter, the perfect niece, the perfect friend, the perfect student. I gave chunks of myself away until I could no longer see my reflection in the mirror.
I wanted so much to feel as deeply loved as I loved everyone else around me, but I didn’t love myself. And I found that giving every part of me away until nothing was left never did bring me any of the things I was searching for.
Now, even though I have come to this realization, it is still hard for me at times to not push myself to just keep going and going and going. It is engrained in me to do what is expected of me by others—that I have to go above and beyond in everything I do in order to keep those I care for satisfied and loving me.
Today, I have many healthy relationships where this type of behavior and unhealthy devotion are no longer expected or required of me to receive love and attention, but how others view and treat me alone cannot shift how I see and interact with myself and those around me.
These changes have to come from within.
Transferring my thoughts and efforts from everyone else and onto myself has involved a lot of telling myself that I am deserving, even when I don’t feel like I am. When I first got started, I found it hard to believe that there was anything about me worth fighting for. The messages coming from within my own mind spoke cruel and demeaning things to me and were doubtful that I could do any better.
Then one day I asked myself these questions: “Would I ever say the things that I say to myself to someone else? Are these voices my own or have I heard them before from someone? Would I ever treat the needs of a guest in my house the way I treated my own on a day to day basis?”
The answer was that I could never fathom calling another person ugly, lazy, or worthless and I would never deny my guests food, drink, or rest or ignore them when they wished to converse with me. When I looked at things from this perspective I could no longer justify the negative self-talk and physical neglect, but making the changes hasn’t been a smooth or quick transition.
Even though I recognized that I needed to care for myself, I found it hard to hold firm to the boundaries I began to draw and I struggled to set limits for myself. I’d spend too much energy on school work all while going up to six days without sleep at a time. I can’t count the number of sessions, emails, and phone calls in which I freaked out to my therapist over the demands of my college courses. I had to take four classes a semester for financial aid, I had to get all As, and I had to prove to everyone that I was capable and that I wasn’t broken.
Being a good student had been the only way for me to receive the positive attention I craved while growing up, but trying to be perfect and make myself appear worthy was consuming me.
I still have a voicemail on my phone from August 9, 2016, of my therapist trying to talk me down from my state of panic over starting a new semester. Ironically I was at the school talking with my advisor when she called.
That semester was a turning point for me though. I dropped down to three classes and began to focus on my healing over my education. Surprisingly to me, when I did this all parts of my life began to improve, including my relationship with my education. My GPA rose and has continued to rise rather than suffering. Each semester since has caused me less and less anxiety and fear.
I keep that voicemail to remind me where I have been and where I am today. It’s encouragement not to go back and not to give up when I falter.
Fulfilling my needs has meant that I have had to listen to the voices I was hearing and find my one true voice underneath. It has also meant listening to what my body is attempting to communicate to me through sensations.
We can’t supply our needs until we know where we are lacking. Our self-care needs are as unique as we are, though some things are basic and universal such as nutritious food and adequate water, rest, safety, and support. If our basic needs are not met, it makes it challenging to successfully meet any others.
My first true act of self-care was recognizing my basic needs had gone unmet for many years and that I had fallen into a hole I couldn’t climb out of alone. I lacked a support system, a need which was filled for me by talk therapy. This relationship offered the safety and comfort I had yet to find elsewhere and gave me the foundation I needed to continue building my self care practice on.
I call self care a practice because it is a method of living and feeling whole that is something I am starting to utilize in my daily life. It is also something I continually learn from and grow better at with time, and of course, practice.
There is no need to rush in a practice because there is no finish line. There is no reason to feel like I have failed when I hit a snag along my journey because there is no “expert level” to strive for.
My self care routine is never going to be foolproof and that is okay. Self care is about reaching health and happiness, whatever that may look like for my life, rather than obtaining perfection. I have hit many snags along the way and have landed on my rump a plethora of times as I discovered what self care needed to look like for me. I’ve learned that slipups are going to happen but what is most important is, to be kind to myself when I fall and to always get back up.
What are your struggles with self care? Please share below and remember to subscribe to the comments so you don’t miss any of the discussion. You can post anonymously and emails are never shared publicly.
Carol Chandler is a senior at the University of Michigan where she is majoring in psychology with a minor in women and gender studies. She is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, assault, and emotional abuse and uses these experiences to fuel her passion for helping others who have experienced trauma. Along with her work with activism she enjoys literature and is both an avid reader and writer. She is an animal lover with two cats and several betta fish and feels at home with nature which is duly noted by her growing collection of orchids, her love of gardening, and her hobby of raising butterflies. Her hope for the future is to continue on her healing path and to use her voice to further help herself and her extended family of survivors along on their journeys.