“You’re a great advocate for other people, but you suck at doing it for yourself.”
My cousin said this to me the other day and all I could think was, “My God, I’m 31 years old and am still putting myself on the back burner.”
As if to confirm this thought, the leader of a writing group I’m in gave this prompt for the week: “What does it mean to you to practice self-care? What is your process? How did you learn this practice (or lack of)?” I literally winced. What self-care? This was synchronicity pinching me.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Carl August Sandburg once said, “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”
I’m naturally a giving person, making myself a champion at letting others spend my coin of life, and am in the midst of figuring out how to deconstruct this old habit in the hopes that I may transform it into something more harmonious and beneficial. ‘Cause brother, I am tired.
If someone seeks my attention, whether it’s to help them, work with them, or play with them, chances are I’m going to put my tasks off to the side and put the other person front and center, all the while thinking to myself, “I can take care of my stuff later, this person needs me now.” I’ve been this way my whole life. Why?
I’m going out on a limb here, but I think this habit is resting on a solid foundation of fear. Let’s deconstruct, shall we?
Fear of “missing out.”
Who has time for self-care when friends invite us to see a show at the club, a new exhibit at the museum, an advance screening at the theater, or a soft opening for the new bar down the street?
I get so caught up trying to “live life to the fullest” that I neglect myself in other ways. I Carpe Diem myself ‘til I’m so burnt out that I have no energy to take care of things that I need to do. Things finally reach a point where I have to scramble to take care of my business, catching up with emails, taking care of my laundry, studying for class, or working on my writing. This scramble sucks, leaving me feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled.
Another major drawback to playing so much with others is not having the energy to play alone. I get home, rush to get my personal tasks done, and then I crash, leaving me with little energy left to do the fun things I enjoy doing in solitude, like reading, listening to music, knitting or writing in my journal. Yes, I had fun with my friends, but my best friend, me, is sad from neglect. I cringe to think how many journal entries I’ve started with, “I have so much to write, but I’m too exhausted right now to go into it, so here are quickie details.” Those short, choppy entries aren’t much fun to read back on.
They say all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but all play and no work is just as detrimental. As much fun as it is to be the happy-go-lucky grasshopper, it’s just as important to be the industrious ant.
I am trying to combat this problem by prioritizing with an agenda. Yes, an actual timed and dated notebook. I remember the school providing every student with one back in junior high and high school, and I loved it; I am eager (translation: desperate) to get back on track with a schedule that mindfully divides work and play time—with others and, most importantly, with myself.
It’s also important to keep at the forefront of my mind that there is no way to do it all, and the thought of “missing out” is actually pretty silly. As long as we are alive on this Earth and are grateful for this fact, we are not missing out on anything.
Fear of being alone.
I have dedicated so much time to other people (translation: love interests) simply because I didn’t want to be alone. Not alone in the sense like I didn’t want to be by myself (God knows I need my periods of solitude), but rather I didn’t want to be alone in life. I would get so wrapped up in relationships, trying to help with art projects, personal issues, family problems, etc., that my own passion projects and day-to-day dilemmas were soon quietly tucked away.
I struggle with this fear on a daily basis. I’m 31 and single and it’s kind of killing me. I want so much to have that best friend to share my heart, mind, soul and body with. However, as time keeps ticking by, I find that I am more concerned, not over the lack of an intellectual lover who is just as adept at tickling my G-Spot as he is my funny bone, but rather over the fact that I still have yet to finish writing any of my books.
So as much as I loathe being alone, I loathe even more the thought of not bringing my dream to full fruition as it deserves.
Fear of responsibility.
Hmmm, maybe I’m subconsciously making myself busy with others so I don’t have to face my own life.
I love the movie Amélie (really, who doesn’t?), but there’s a part in there that makes me blush and look down at my hands in my lap every time I see it.
Amélie and her neighbor, the Glass Man, Raymond Dufayel, are discussing an elusive figure in a painting he is working on. Amélie suggests that perhaps Raymond is experiencing difficulty capturing the subject because the girl in the painting isn’t entirely present, (she is thinking about a boy she saw somewhere and felt an affinity with).
Raymond is not at all amused by this romantic notion and states that maybe the girl is instead a coward, not a lovelorn daydreamer, more comfortable imagining a relationship with someone who isn’t even there rather than forming real bonds with present people.
Amélie is immediately defensive, saying maybe she’s instead thinking about trying to help other people fix their messy lives, to which Raymond replies (and I look at my hands in my lap), “What about her? Her own messy life? Who’ll fix that?”
It is all too easy to spend time, our coin of life, on others, distracting ourselves with the daily drama of our friends and family. It is in this way that we avoid looking at our own mess.
Helping others is great and can facilitate lasting bonds and great friendships—but one does feel…less when the time comes to face our own reality and we realize that we still haven’t planted that garden, or finished that story, or practiced that song.
And where does that leave us?
I am still trying to develop a mindful practice that will help keep me on track with my responsibilities to myself and my own life. It isn’t easy. Old habits die hard and this one is a screaming beast for me.
I’m getting better, though. I have been taking the time to build my confidence by writing more, sharing more, connecting more with like-minded people. I recently reached a point where I am finally comfortable telling people, “I’m a writer,” when asked, “So, what do you do?” This seemingly simple step was actually a grand jeté for me, and I’m looking forward to more leaps of humble power.
How do you combat back-seating yourself, and how do you practice self-care so that you have the energy to attend to your own ambitions and needs?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May