Self-care, by definition, is that which is too important to leave in the care of others. (Once we’re adults, anyway.) Among the things that are ultimately our own responsibility include our physical safety and well-being, our finances – and our emotions.
Obviously, we sometimes need the help of physicians and lawyers and accountants. But those folks only have temporary, limited custody of our welfare. If it doesn’t work out, they’re replaceable.
Emotions, though – that’s a more tricky area. So many of us routinely give others custody of our feelings. We ask for approval, and if we don’t get it? Uh-oh. Do you not approve of me? Well then, we say, Here! Just run off holding my self-regard and toss it in the nearest bin when you’re done with that.
Or maybe we live with roommates, children, partners. Why can’t they just… behave?! Here, we say, thrusting our serenity at them. Hang onto this for me! I got no use for it until you straighten up.
We can do it to ourselves, too. Why doesn’t this sweater look like it did on the model?, we ask. The answer we get back, from somewhere inside our own head, can be gaspingly unkind. We will say things to ourselves that we would never say to anyone else. And we believe them.
And our contentment and self-respect get kicked to the curb.
Before I understood the link between my beliefs and my feelings – and we are talking well into adulthood – and before I found a good way to regain custody of my feelings, my solution was to eat. Eating is sometimes the perfect solution, but only for one or two problems, like hunger. I always seemed to have, as the song goes, 99 problems. Which is another way of saying I weighed far too much.
Around the time I accepted that eating to feel better was causing me to feel worse, I found Byron Katie, as I mentioned last time – a very unlikely source of help.
If you don’t know her story, Katie is a self-described ordinary housewife from Barstow, California, who was once dependent on prescription drugs. Her addiction landed her in a halfway house, where her outbursts and rages terrified the other residents. Katie was placed by herself in the attic where one morning she woke up … enlightened.
Since then, she’s spent her life teaching a simple method for achieving enlightenment (if you want it) or just regaining custody of your emotions. Katie calls her method “The Work.”
The heart of The Work is this: You notice something is bugging you, and you ask yourself exactly what. Your kid leaves his dishes in the sink again and you are furious and if you look into it, you see that what’s really bugging you is this idea My kid doesn’t respect me. Or maybe what’s at the bottom is the thought My kid will never be able to take care of himself. Or maybe: I’m always picking up other people’s crap! I never get any time for myself!
Whatever the situation is, when you notice you’re agitated (furious, resentful, despairing, anything), and you’ve figured out why, you ask yourself: Is it true? I wrote about this question in Inner Self-Care: Ninja Techniques, but we can take it a little further by asking Is it absolutely true? Or, Can I know, absolutely, that it is true?
And if the answer is, Hmmm. I guess not, you ask yourself for at least three reasons why this thing you’re telling yourself that’s bugging you so much isn’t absolutely true.
Q: “I never get any time for myself!” Is that true?
A: Yes, dammit!
Q: Is it that absolutely true? Never? Never any time?
A: Grrr, okay, not absolutely true. Grrrrr.
Q: Okay, then, self: give me three examples of how it’s not entirely true.
A: Well, I had an afternoon at home to putter last week. And every day I take a shower by myself and I can spend as long as I want doing that. And I could send the kids to Grandma’s for a day or two.
These simple questions and answers are still a compressed version of Byron Katie’s “Work.” They’re like the hip-pocket version. Not enough to get us all the way to enlightenment. But they are enough to provide immediate relief from runaway emotions, and you can take these questions with you everywhere you go.
I hope Katie would forgive the liberties I’ve taken. If you’re interested in her method, please visit her website. It is a goldmine of free resources, including videos of Katie in action. (They will show you how very much I’ve left out, I admit.)
But if all you do is start asking Is it true? every time you’re about to hand your serenity to the wrong person, or eat the cookies you said you weren’t going to, or whatever your thing is, it’ll give you back custody of your feelings in less time than it takes to pick up someone else’s dirty dishes.
More reading: Byron Katie’s Tools to Do The Work.
Image: Speckled Caiman Wrestling a False Coral Snake, after Maria Sibylla Merian, 18th c. Plate no. 70 from an uncolored edition of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.