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.
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.
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:
- What are you doing to care for yourself?
- Where important is your sense of self, your well-being, and your self-maintenance to you?
- Are you noticing heightened reactions to stimuli over what your normal? If so, it suggests your resilience is depleted.
- What are you doing to let off steam/reduce pressure without negatively impinging on others?
- 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?
- How is your relationship with yourself? Is that one working for you?
- 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?