Self-Care and its Slippery Shadow

Art by noell oszvald
Art by noell oszvald

When does the self-nurturing act of nesting and withdrawing from the world turn into debilitating isolation?

How does self-care turn into self-sabotage?

When do our once-effective practices for self-care become self-destructive?

When does the sacred pause become a stuckness, viscous and muddy, and seemingly impossible to break out of?

If only there were a clear line we could see, “Ah there it is! This retreating to my bed as soon as humanly possible is starting to feel unhealthy, I better fix this now, before it gets really hard to.” If only there was a definitive marker, a brightly colored delineation, between there and here, where we can see, and know, those practices, those choices and decisions we made in our best interest are no longer serving us.

Sometimes there is. More often, instead, I think, it’s far more subtle, inch by inch, we sink into the mud that once was fertile soil, until one day we look at the circumstances we have created and realize they’re just not working anymore. And we feel stuck in the mud we have created. We’re in the dark and we can’t find the light switch.

We are so wise, so self-protective sometimes, knowing when we need to stop. Knowing when we need to withdraw, to fold inward from the noise of the world, cancel plans, hole up, Netflix and chill for a few weekends in a row.

I’m learning to spot pending burn-out a mile away, and I get into gear to steer away from it with more ease and grace lately. (Yay, me!) I’m developing a knowing for what I need, I’m attentive to myself. My needs. To the clues and the signs.

I change course. I politely cancel plans. I hole up. I withdraw. I nurture and nest. I put on my invisibility cloak.

Yet, where I still find challenge is the knowing when I don’t need it anymore, before my inner retreat and period of rest and respite goes dark, very dark. I fumble around for the light switch. I want to take off the invisibility cloak but its laces around my neck are knotted.

A few years ago, for example, during a chronic pain meltdown, I was exhausted and frustrated and at the end of my rope. “Rest,” my body kept telling me. “Stop.” And I tuned in. I canceled my life and stayed in bed for a month.

Little did I realize, this sedentary prone position physically worked against me, causing more physical pain, causing the intense cycle of misery to last longer than it needed to. Yes, I was right in that I needed to slow down. I needed rest. But I also needed physical therapy and stretching and less bed.

More recently, I’ve done some withdrawing when I decided I would do my best to try and live a sober life nearly two years ago. My dance card hasn’t been quite as full. Parties, frankly, just weren’t as much fun. I made up the story that certain people preferred me lit up like a Christmas tree, a story that might actually be true, and that’s okay. I found out that I wasn’t as social as I thought I was, in fact, enter social anxiety, something I’d never known before. I hated feeling like I had to “fake” having a better time than I was so that people thought I was still cool… silly, I know. Then the second year, it’s gotten way easier to be in the world as a sober person. It’s not a struggle, it’s just the way it is. I’m not just “okay” with it. I love it.

I’ve been realizing it’s okay to leave the party early. It’s okay to even skip it. And I can have hella fun sober now. About a month ago, on a bar rooftop doing karaoke with a bunch of awesome ladies, I remember thinking “Remember this moment. It’s one of the very best moments of your life.” I was lit up like a Christmas tree, but it was pure joy, endorphins, connection, love.

I still have some social anxiety that usually dissipates, and if it doesn’t, I know how to take care of myself. I leave. And in the right environments, with the right people, I’m even engaging and fun.

Having come pretty close to burning out this summer, I withdrew more. Became a homebody. Spent a lot of weekends on the couch, nestled under blankets with my love, getting my head rubbed, and it felt good. I decided it was what I needed. But when it was no longer what I needed, my downtime, my withdrawal from activities and plans and people didn’t just shift into “okay! I’m back!”

First, it needed to go sour. It turned into isolation, loneliness, restlessness, boredom, depression. I was becoming an unpleasant person to live with. Hostile and judgmental. (Poor Matt.) And lots of feeling sorry for myself and the state of my affairs I’d created. I felt like the ugly troll living under the bridge, threatening billy goats from the shadows.

Somewhere I know, there is a middle ground, a happier balance between doing and being, between weekends on the couch and engagement with the world that feeds me well, and sustains me properly, as an ambivert. For me, it can’t be all or nothing. That’s toxic and draining for me, in either direction.

“Figuring ourselves out” is the most challenging assignment, because the questions keep on changing. And so do the answers.

So what do we do? How do we know? How do we choose? It requires a self-intimacy. A self-closeness. We must stay close to the questions, always, in real-time. Because while I don’t claim to have “figured myself out”, (an arrogant claim, as “myself” is fluid, not static.) I do know that I am a rock solid ambivert. I need people. And I need alone time. I need real connection, with myself, AND with others.

And while couch is a lovely thing, too much couch dulls my spirit and diminishes my inner flame.

Today, this week, in fact, I feel the clouds lifting. Hallelujah, I found the light switch, I’ve taken off my invisibility cloak, I am re-engaging and reconnecting and it feels like I’ve been far away, on a long journey. It feels like coming home.

It is a homecoming, and while I don’t need to figure myself out, I promise to stay closer to the questions, to check in more frequently, to see what’s current, what’s needed, what’s new, what’s now.

Because I deserve that kind of attention.

Can you be with this feeling?

by Jordan_K, ©photographer reserves all rights
by Jordan_K, ©photographer reserves all rights

Can you be with this feeling?

This is the question I hear, in my mind, in this moment, when I am in a lousy, cranky, hormonal, bitch-on-wheels mood. The sun is shining, it’s a perfect afternoon, there is much to be grateful for, I know. But sometimes crankiness happens. I don’t like it. I want relief. I want to escape this feeling.

Can you be with this feeling?

The inner voice asks again. I prefer being happy, of course. But what if I surrendered to this crankiness. I did have a terrible night’s sleep. My back aches, my head hurts, my moon storm is in full force, and I decide, in this moment, yes. Yes, I will be with this feeling.

It will not destroy me. It will not last. I will not get swallowed.

Yes, I am always at choice. And in this moment, I choose to be with this feeling.

I have spent years of my life trying to escape unpleasant feelings. Fight, flight or freeze. That is our human condition, after all. And in this moment, I embrace my humanity and allow this feeling to be what it is. A feeling inside of me. I am not the boat, battered on the waves of an angry, restless ocean. Can I be the angry, restless ocean, in this moment? Yes. I can.

I, like most people, find it easiest to be present when things feel good, when I feel good. I have no trouble being present for joy, bliss, peace. Easy-peasy! The real practice of presence becomes a true practice when I can become fully present to those “other” feelings, the ones that live on the opposite side of my wide and vast emotional landscape. I will not die. I will not be swallowed.

I am the ocean, not the boat.

I become present to the sensations in my body. Some unpleasant. I notice and observe what is happening now. The sun is warming my body, as I sit on my breezy balcony, typing away, noticing the warmth of the sun on my skin. Noticing the aching in my head. In my body. Noticing. Being present to what is. There is nothing else, after all, except what is.

When your darker moments come, can you stay with your feelings?

Can you not abandon yourself in attempts to feel something different?

Can you be a safe place for every feeling?

Even the unsavory ones?

I am learning how.

My busy mind wants to label, identify, sort, find cause, pinpoint reasons, organize, define, correct.

My spirit says “relax into the now.”

I consider what I can trust:

I trust in the temporal nature of all feelings. I trust that this will pass. I trust that I am safe. I trust that I can be gentle and kind and avoid the desire to flee this feeling.

I trust in the larger, more broad perspective. I trust that this is not “who” or “what” I am. This is simply a feeling. Who I am is larger, much larger, than any feeling.

Oddly enough, miraculously enough, when I surrender to what is, when I allow myself to be present to this very moment, something starts to shift, subtle and small, something starts to lift, and I am reminded that even the darkest storms eventually dissolve and pass.

It is the dark that defines the light. How can I know pleasure, if I never knew pain? How can I know peace, if I never knew unrest? How can I know joy, if I never knew this funk? Is it not then a gift, an odd one, in strange wrapping?

I unwrap.

Yes. I can be with this feeling.





Originally published October, 2013.

To Be with Our Emptiness

Photo by Dee Hill
Photo by Dee Hill

We are, each of us, introduced to our emptiness at some point in our lives. Some of us come into contact with it as children, some of us as adults. But at some point, we begin to notice it, feel it.

It aches deep within us, constantly, this void. Sometimes we barely even notice it, as we spend our days focused on frenetically filling it, and oh, do we try to fill it with all kinds of things.  Over the years, I’ve tried in so many ways. With relationships, work, focusing on others, with sex, shopping, shoplifting, cigarettes, TV, with drugs, alcohol, religion and God. 500 piece jigsaw puzzles, even for a while.

Since I’ve been sober for nearly six months, I’ve noticed this emptiness pop up with increasing frequency. Of course it does, I have far fewer places to hide.

For me, it feels like a deep itch, like a gnawing, gaping vacuum under my heart, above my belly, and it rumbles in a low growl, like a motor. What do I fill it with? I don’t like it. I’m not comfortable with it. It’s like when you have a rash and they tell you not to itch and all you want to do is itch.

Talking about it over lunch with a dear friend yesterday, she resonated immediately. “It feels like… a burning hollowness.” she said.

Yes. That.

It calls to me and feels like want. What do I want? I ask myself. What do I need right now? More coffee? Another cigarette? An orgasm? To get loaded? To fuck? To take a nap? To take a walk? The wanting tugs at me, like a persistent toddler.

Fill me, it says.

I asked another friend about her emptiness over coffee. With twelve years of recovery under her belt, she knew exactly what I was referring to.

“In recovery, we call that a God-shaped hole.”

Yes. It made sense at first. But then I thought more about it. I have a rich spiritual practice. I write and talk to God every day. I practice gratitude, and mindfulness, and I feel supported and loved by something greater than me all the time. I listen to spiritual podcasts.  I read spiritual books. I journal. I color mandalas. I feel like the Divine and I are pretty tight. I think calling it a God-shaped hole may be simplifying it. For it implies then, that a god-shaped hole can be filled with God. Problem solved. Oh, still have the hole? Just pour in more God.

I am beginning to see thing differently. And for me, it’s a pretty radical concept.

It started as an epiphany, as a question I asked myself.

What if the hole, the itch, the emptiness, the sweet ache of being alive is not meant to be filled, but is meant to remain empty?

That is what I now believe. I’ve come to realize is that this emptiness isn’t meant to be filled. It’s meant to be lived with.

And learning to live with this emptiness – teacher and poet Mark Nepo calls it “the sweet ache of being alive”—is the most challenging inner work I have done.

What does this emptiness want from us? Only our companionship.

Because when we leave this emptiness and allow It to just be, when we sit with it, breathe into it, and learn to simply be with it, it turns into our depth, our vastness.

It will sometimes take all our might, but we truly can shift the urge to fill it into a practice of just being with it. I’ve been working with this practice lately.

If we sit with it, with curiosity, with a welcoming spirit, even if that welcoming spirit is a reluctant welcoming spirit, we realize the hole doesn’t need filling at all. This white space, this deep hollow becomes a portal and through it, in it, we free-fall into the depth and spaciousness of our own being. Our limitless spirit. The emptiness is the portal through our humanity and into our divinity.

What would happen if we just dove in?

We become one with the hole and it doesn’t swallow us. It only reveals to us our vastness, our infinite capacity for everything, our sweet, vulnerable ache that doesn’t need anything except our company.

This is a new concept for me, I reiterate. And when I remember to practice it, when that itch, that familiar, uncomfortable yearning for that mysterious anything, that un-nameable something, that persistent toddler of want, tugging at me, saying fill me, fill me, arises, I am learning to turn my attention to it, instead of blindly, unconsciously numbing out.

I turn my attention to it and say “hi.”