As we’ve talked about before, women who get serious about self-care might want to prepare to face society’s disapproval. Society lets us know that some self-care (especially of the appearance-related variety) is mandatory, some self-care is optional (if we don’t go overboard), and some self-care is just RIGHT OUT.
As a near-crone, I’m finding it easier than ever to stand up for that last kind. On a day when I’m emotionally sturdy, I’ve had a good breakfast and there’s a new episode of Elementary to look forward to, I will defend against boundary violations and smash patriarchy as handily – and showily – as Xena with her boomerang thing.
Other days, I just want to be lowpro. I don’t need to prove anything or host a spectacle. Those are days when all I need is my secret ninja self-care kit of internal techniques.
In truth, any self-care visible to the world flows from the inside out. Self-care is fundamentally an attitude, one of kindness toward ourselves. But to cultivate that kindness, we’ve got some real work to do.
Because most of us were taught – unintentionally – that being tough on ourselves is what whips us into an acceptable shape. So often in our world, something difficult will arise, someone will disapprove of us or something will happen to make us feel unloved or unsafe or just small, and internally we pile on. You idiot! we think. If only you had put more work into that proposal!
(If you don’t know what I mean when I talk about that hostile internal environment, you might not have one! Or you might recognize it by another name. Anne Lamott calls it “Radio KFKD.” Hafiz called it the “10,000 idiots.” Others call it “the internal critic,” or “the Judge.”)
Over the millennia, people have devised many ways of dismantling the hostility machine. These include techniques for examining thoughts, dismissing thoughts, ignoring thoughts, and altering thoughts – techniques such as meditation, visualization, breathing, even hallucinogens. I think they’re all good, but I’ve never found anything faster, cheaper, easier and more low-profile than asking this simple question: IS IT TRUE?* That question is a sharp pin in the Judge’s balloon of disapproval.
Here’s how you do it: Say my twin sister Jane calls me selfish – ach, like it’s a bad thing! – because I tell her I can’t babysit on short notice. My Judge piles on, agreeing that I am selfish, and implying that if I don’t babysit Jane will get me kicked out of the family.
So I notice these thoughts – I’m selfish! and I’ll get kicked out of the family! – and I ask IS IT TRUE? Am I selfish and is that a bad thing here? I might decide that in this case it is acceptable to me to be selfish and save my own evening. Or I might decide that I’m not being “selfish” in the negative sense. Almost certainly I’m not going to get kicked out of the family; Jane didn’t even say that. That’s just the kind of thing the 10,000 idiots like to say because they know drama and exaggeration will get me whipped up.
Taking a moment to ask this question (we might need to announce I need to take a moment! and step away) and examine our thinking isn’t going to produce a miracle the first time out. But it will remove some of the inner conflict. So the inner result is some relaxation. And the outer result is that I get to carry on with my evening while Jane finds another way to rescue her own plans.
I’ve been asking myself IS IT TRUE? for the past six years. (Here we will leap ninja-like over hours of brow-knit contemplation. Imagine cinema’s most boring montage ever, all sitting on orange cushions and scribbling in notebooks.)
And sometimes the answer is Yes. Sometimes something painful will be true. What’s never true, though, is that we’re a terrible, horrible, awful person who should just go die now, which the 10,000 idiots have been known to chant.
What’s also true is that as your internal world becomes caring instead of unkind, the outer world changes too. You find that Jane starts asking for babysitting well in advance, and stops calling you names if you can’t help out. Hafiz said everything gets quiet, like the 10,000 idiots packed up and skipped town. No flashy fighting techniques required, just a little ninja trick of being invisible when the Judge goes looking for an executioner.
And that makes this a huge oversimplification of the world’s great project to create inner peace. There are many terrific resources on this topic. Two of my favorites are The Work of Byron Katie (lots of free resources on her site) and There Is Nothing Wrong With You, a book by the American Zen teacher Cheri Huber.
I welcome your thoughts and questions!
Image: Nagoya Sanza wiping his sword on a sandal (detail), Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1845-1846, Rijksmuseum.