Caring for Self

With so much happening, how can I care for myself?
With so much happening, how can I care for myself?

I have often heard people say, “I put other people first”. Exploring what they mean invariably uncovers a belief that to be loving, caring and compassionate (a “good” person) being selfless and putting others first is important. With COVID-19 bashing the planet with anxiety, illness, death, we have a fantastic opportunity to re-examine how we care for ourselves and others.

Here are some ideas on how we might care for ourselves:

Address common beliefs that may get in your way.

First, do you know you matter? Some people really do not know this, and from that space it is a difficult belief to adjust. If you really do not believe or know you matter, find someone who does believe that about you, someone without another agenda who can assist you gain and strengthen that belief. Love, trust, acceptance, understanding are all vital elements of developing the belief that “I matter.” It is probably the most important aspect of self-care.

Second, “I am here to help others.” Common among those in helping professions. The belief is worthy so long as it is not applied at the expense of yourself. Selfless service for others at the expense of yourself serves no one. Why? If you do not take care of yourself, you won’t last long helping others.

Third, some believe they thrive on stress and pressure. To quote Richard E. Boyatziz, noted professor in fields of psychology and emotional intelligence, he said:

If someone says “I love being under pressure. I do really well. Just give me a couple of Red Bulls and I can really perform”. If you were present when someone says that, I have got to tell you, you are listening to an idiot, because the human body cannot do that.

Richard E. Boyatziz, “The Science of Effective Coaching”, Webinar for ICF Team and Work Group Coaching Community of Practice, May 2019.

Stress increases adrenaline and other hormones that, if permitted to stay at high levels for sustained periods, wear the body down and lead to physical illness and impaired mental acuity. You may fool yourself that you are great with stress, but your body will let you in on the alternate facts when it is good and ready.

Physical Safety

When learning first aid, one of the first lessons is STOP and check it is safe before approaching an injured person or applying first aid measures. Not doing so can place you in jeopardy, may require someone else to rescue you, and might not even help the person who is in need. When I was 14, I was on a school trip and one boy pulled another from a whirlpool under a waterfall to get sucked in himself. His body was found by divers 68 feet under water. He was lauded as a hero, and indeed was, but he was a dead hero, and could not assist anyone else, not to mention his family, friends and community left deeply grieving.

In our current circumstances, we each need to suitably protect ourselves by physical distancing, wearing appropriate protective barriers, and asserting our right to have others honour our distancing needs.

Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Safety

There are plenty of stimuli assailing us that can stir up strong emotional responses, trigger anxiety, and even challenge our sense of purpose and value. I tend to immerse myself in news from around the world, and self-care for me necessitates some degree of stepping back from the unrelenting negative news of death, negative speculation and people making ludicrous decisions and statements (unbelievable how many conspiracy ideas are circulating now!). Maintaining clarity, balance and purpose is more crucial now than ever given there is so much more that can aggravate an already challenged sense of self.

Self-Maintenance

Beyond basic safety is the need for ongoing attention to maintaining resilience (easily worn down through anxiety and shock), strengthening your emotional and mental foundation, and ensuring you are adequately connected to people who support and strengthen you.

I am very fortunate. I live with Juanita, my wife, and after five weeks of isolation with her, I am still extremely grateful it is her I am with. I sometime get snappy and apologies become necessary, but not because she has done anything to me. And she does receive any apology as genuine contrition. When she is annoyed with something I have done, or not done, she makes a clean, direct request of me. She does not fume, get moody or harbour resentment. Once we have had a discussion it is gone. Nice! Those qualities, and other reasons I love her, make the fact I am isolating in a bubble with her much more than tolerable. Also, having worked from home for the best part of 25 years, I am not learning new skills or imposing a new routine on myself, other than a few specific outings to meet people that I now do over Zoom or Skype. The one thing that is disappointing is the bacon and blue cheese scone that I have every Thursday morning, the one day per week the café makes them, and I believe making those scone available for me ought to be an essential service.

Even in my blessed state, looking after myself is still important. Juanita and I haven’t been able to traipse through the hills of Wellington as we did most weekends. Walking around the block has had to suffice. Emotion does build up. In situ exercise, stretching, journaling, and manual labour help alleviate pent up physical, emotional and mental energy. Reading and meditation can shift your attention, and bring space from a busy inner world. Connecting with friends, perhaps coffee appointments (over Skype or Zoom), keep the social muscles working. Actively connecting with someone you trust and sharing what is really going on for you, how you are feeling, can be beneficial, bringing relief through letting go. I recognise that some find this incredibly challenging or impossible.

I know that soon a member of my family, my dad, will be dead, and that I will not be at the funeral. I live in New Zealand and my dad lives in England. He has already lasted longer than the few weeks the doctors gave him. As I consider how best to take care of myself, I have shared with him all I needed to say, “Dad, I love you and I am glad you are my dad.” While I know grief will be part of my package of emotions, gratitude for how blessed I am is current for me. Expressing gratitude is a fantastic way of pushing the scales away from the negative and reminding self that some good stuff is happening.

Some questions for reflection to conclude:

  1. What are you doing to care for yourself?
  2. Where important is your sense of self, your well-being, and your self-maintenance to you?
  3. Are you noticing heightened reactions to stimuli over what your normal? If so, it suggests your resilience is depleted.
  4. What are you doing to let off steam/reduce pressure without negatively impinging on others?
  5. Where do you place your emotional and mental attention? How is that serving you? Are there any adjustments you can make that will strengthen your wellbeing?
  6. How is your relationship with yourself? Is that one working for you?
  7. Which of your relationships are strengthening and caring for you? Who else can you and do you rely on for sustenance? Is there any action you need to take that will strengthen and support meaningful connection with others?

Leading From Within

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman

Many powerful people have discussed and described leadership. The hallmarks of leadership include creating a vision, establishing a direction, and demonstrating by example how to pursue the path. As I reflect on those I consider great leaders I think of people such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi. Certainly they were vocal, strong in presenting and pursuing their visions and voicing their passion, most definitely important aspects of leadership. However, they each learned leadership through the crucible of life which honed and prepared them for their mission. They first had to lead from within, so that their integrity shone forth and their personal power established. Without first mastering themselves, and demonstrating leadership of themselves, they would not have had the same power to shape nations.

Imagine spending over 20 years in a prison cell. The courage and the conviction required to abide the appalling conditions Mandela suffered enabled him to emerge as the statesman he is. Gandhi’s did not invent his ideas on nonviolence on a whim but as a result of years of struggle, including imprisonment, and demonstrated conviction to his values. Martin Luther King grew up with a full understanding of oppression, and knew it was dangerous to seek change, but had a vision, a dream, and was willing to back it.

To achieve leadership greatness one must, I strongly believe, lead ourselves first and foremost through and out of our own darkness. All through our life we have built up layer upon layer of programming, training, behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, addictions, emotional responses, social expectations etc. These cover up and detract from our clarity over our life purpose and the values that are core to us. We establish protective mechanisms that keep us safe, maintain security and levels of certainty, but which also rob us of the ability to align with and act in accordance with our core purpose. Cutting through the façades we have built around our soul so we can shine forth in the fullness of who we are is a powerful process and requires deep commitment to self, and personal leadership. Success in this endeavour provides the substance for and basis of our personal power. It enables us to manifest leadership to others because we have triumphed within ourselves.

Fundamentally it is pain and pleasure that motivates us to action. We avoid pain and seek pleasure, with pain taking precedence over pleasure. We grow up with experiences shaping our beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions. We learn who we are and what behaviours are acceptable, and which are not, from our primary care givers. We associate pain with non-conformance, from failure to work within norms and social boundaries. We associate with groups (friends, colleagues, gangs etc) and learn of the rules for reward by these groups. Obedience to norms carries rewards. Breaking from the norms, being odd or different, carries penalty and pain. But a leader cannot work in the norm, as an average person, as part of the group. At some point they must assert themselves, separate from the group, and come into their own space.

Most people start learning this as teenagers, rebelling from parents and choosing another tribe to belong to. They move from one social group to another, establish different patterns and norms, and feel they are closer to being themselves. Later they discover it was their desire to belong that motivated them so they were still being managed by groups. Some never get over this, looking outside themselves to satisfy their need for acceptance and belonging rather than from within themselves.

When pursued further, the maturation process eventually leads us to question who we are, why we are here and what greater purpose we serve. The recognition of our individuality, our uniqueness, and the possibility that we have value enables us to seek within for our gifts. Discovering and being true to who we are becomes important. There is a shift from seeking love and acceptance from outside to a place where we provide that to ourselves, and become less bound to the whims of our “tribal” groups and roots. However there is also pain in this process.

Shifting our focus from outside to inside us requires us to meet and confront all our fears, insecurities, debilitating attitudes and behaviours, and find ways of putting them behind us. Some of us have powerful inner critics that berate us as our parents may have. We hear the piercing criticism from within with greater clarity than the scolding we may have experienced in younger days, which can stop us in our tracks. Whether it is the voice of our inner critic or the rigid walls of protection we have erected over the years, they stop us shining, and to truly emerge we must overcome them. If we stay bound to our insecurities we shun the opportunity to change and to transform ourselves from part of the pack to the leader we can be. If we seek to change ourselves through coercion and internal aggression and anger we have simply substituted the voices of our experience with our own tormentor. We emerge when we have found ourselves to be lovable, acceptable and perfect as we are, and truly believe that. That is not saying we are perfect. Goodness, what is perfection and who can judge that? It is saying that we are entirely acceptable as we are, that we have our own uniqueness based on who we are and what we have experienced, and everything has brought us to this point in life, and all of this is perfect and right as is.

To lead others we must lead ourselves. We must be able and capable of dealing with adversity, the naysayer, and find ways through and out of those difficulties. Our ability to deal with and manage external adversity and opposition is much greater when we have mastered the opposition that comes from within us. Our ability to lead with clarity and conviction in public is greatest when we have already managed that within ourselves in isolation. Perhaps being in prison for 20+ years is something that could benefit everyone. Certainly it provides time to reflect, see ourselves more clearly and deal with our personal demons. However not all of us need to change whole nations. We have good we can accomplish by remaining engaged in the world, but the battle within is just as real. A growing number of people are learning the benefits of meditation, yoga etc for stress relief. Some find it painful because they slow down a little and start to see themselves more clearly, and find things they judge as unacceptable or wrong with them. If we wish to lead others effectively then we must have already learned to lead from within. We must have confronted ourselves and been victorious in engaging with and being comfortable in the presence of our own voices and messages from within. We must have learned about tolerating and working through the issues that surface from our past. We can be hampered by insecurity and doubt or develop a powerful love of ourselves, warts and all. None of us can become entirely free of these things, but we can develop comfort for and appreciation of the fog we create in our lives, and find ways of charting through them. For as we move through our own internal fog we develop the capacity to lead others through theirs.

I have always found the following an inspiring statement:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson, “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”

The more we connect with ourselves, and manifest the greatness within, the greater our capacity to work through life, deal with issues, and exhibit personal power that will inspire others. If you wish to lead others, then first lead yourself.

Where are you in the process of developing personal power and governing yourself? What barriers have prevented you achieving the success you desire? What behaviours and attitudes diminish your ability to lead others and create change within your organisation? As you learn to lead from within you also gain greater understanding of the issues and barriers faced within organisations and how to work through them.

Bubbles of History

Bubbles
Bubbles rising towards the surface

I have noticed that I can be having a really good day and be emotionally hijacked by something from my past arising within me and clouding my experience. It may result in minor negativity or cause total turmoil. It could even be a positive impact. The key point is that my current state is suddenly changed from within, not at all related to my external world. Sometimes the bubbles of emotion come in clusters, really upsetting my equilibrium; other times they occur singly. Each bubble arises with my awareness growing as it nears the surface, and then it reaches the surface and pops. Its contents then become part of my current experience. Like real bubbles that carry gas and scent from the bottom of a lake, the bubbles from within are more intense in their moment of bursting, erupting emotion linked to some past experience into our current world.

At such times I find it best to recognise and acknowledge that I am working with emotion from the past, and process the associated feelings through journalling, talking with my partner, or some other means that enables me to accept and release the emotional eruption. Even positive emotion bursting on the scene needs releasing otherwise we are losing our connection with the present and are being dragged back into the past. The most important thing is realising and accepting it is a natural part of life. The past does reinsert itself from time to time without provocation. It does not signify that we are stuck with an old issue or have some fault with our emotional world. Our psyche naturally lets go of it rubbish, its own cleaning process of our attachments to the past, and when it does we get to deal with it in our current state.