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.

Mean-Spirited Roadhouses and Other Detours

A personal favorite of mine, that I feel guided to re-post. I hope it reaches the heart of whoever might need it most.
“Gamble everything for love, if you’re a true human being.
If not, leave this gathering.
Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.  
You set out to find God, but then you keep stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses.”
– Rumi

When our hearts are open, we gamble everything for love, we hungrily seek divinity, we bounce (or sashay, or saunter, or strut…) along the spiritual path with zeal, or with peace, with awareness. It feels amazing.

And then we stop.

Ah… look, here’s an intriguing roadhouse.

We slip in…

We all have our favorite mean-spirited roadhouses.

Maybe yours is regret.



Returning to hurts of the past.

Or an emotionally bankrupt relationship.

Or maybe it’s a physical activity that works well for numbing. For removing you from the intensity of the divine, of your own light. Or your own feelings.

Bingeing on Netflix streaming for hours and hours at a time.

Facebook scrolling. Scrolling, endless scrolling. Scroll. Click. Scroll. Click, click. Scroll, scroll. OOH! A notification!

Drinking too much. Or too often. Or both.

Shopping for things you don’t need, just to feel a rush of newness, of… something different than this.

I’ve done all of these things, stopped in all of these mean-spirited roadhouses, as well as others I won’t name.

Luckily, today, in this moment, I am back on the path, gambling everything for love.

But I also trust the detour.

There will be times on this spiritual path, when we will find ourselves at mean-spirited roadhouses. And more importantly, we must.

The path of divinity is intense, and asks much from us. That we be completely aware, that we remain open, that we shine bright.

It can get exhausting being our magnificence.

Oh look… there’s my favorite mean-spirited roadhouse… I’m gonna stop in for a spell… I think they’re running specials…

And so, the cycle continues.

Until it ends. Until that glorious day we can walk right past those familiar mean-spirited roadhouses, and keep on walking, gambling everything for love.

Gambling everything for love is not for wimps. It’s not easy. Nor is it free of dangers and risks. But, as Rumi is saying, more or less: go big or go home.

It doesn’t matter if you use the word God, spirit, love, divinity, magnificence, grace, glory. I don’t care what the heck you choose to call it. We’re simply talking about your innate connection to that which is bigger and greater than the limits of your humanness. Call it what you will. We’re either seeking it. Connecting to it. Living it. Or detoured.

Right now, think about your current place on your path. At this moment of your life, are you gambling everything for love or half-heartedly reaching for majesty? Are you seeking God or hanging out in a mean-spirited roadhouse?

If you’re in a mean-spirited roadhouse, when you’re ready to come back out, to pick up on your path, come on. The light at first, is blinding. It’s dark in there, after all. And you might carry some of that mean-spirited roadhouse smell on your clothes for a while.

But out here, on your divine path, the air is sweet, the sun is bright and the breeze wants to say hello. Welcome back.

Gamble everything. Give it your all. Go big or go home.

As Rumi knew, half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.


Original publish date 7.16.13

The Slippery Slope of Self-Sabotage

"Self-Sabotage" by Alexandra Levasseur (c)2013
“Self-Sabotage” by Alexandra Levasseur (c)2013
“When you can respect the darkness within yourself without any guilt trips,
you’re becoming truly free.”

Ah, these words reach me from the pages of Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte at the perfect moment this morning. Like salve to my bruised heart, my “here I am again” frustration, picking myelf off the floor and dusting myself off, again… I am becoming truly free?

Spirit tells me “Yes.”

I’m not afraid of the dark.

I am more afraid of the damaging effects of those who create an image of pure light and perfection and enlightened spirituality than those who courageously respect their darkness and claim their shadowy places.

I am magnetized toward those who are attempting wholeness and integration in this crazy human experience carnival ride, and repelled by those who think they have gotten a handle on purity and perfection and now are on a mission to enlighten the rest of us.

I’m hoping you prefer real over perfect, too.

As long as we’re on the topic of real…  I’ve been face-to-face with my sabatuer again recently. Insidious and sneaky, she comes in when I am feeling strong and disarmed, confident and powerful. Cocky and arrogant.

Usually it’s when I declare I’m done with her, and at the time, I feel it to be true. Then before I know it, what seems “sudden”, but more truthfully, is a collection of small consecutive choices compiled into a “how did I get here?” head-scratching, face plant on the ground moment. And then, there I am, completely off track from who I want to be, what I want to create, and I’m making old familiar choices that are the opposite of what I truly want. She brings me to my knees yet again. Humbled. Small.

Teacher and author Caroline Myss believes within each of us, the whole lot of us, every single one of us, lives this archetype, the Saboteur. It is as consistently human as all of us having intestines or heartbeats.

No one is immune.

This is what comes with the human experience. This is part of the reason why our souls inhabited these bodies, to feel this life, to see what it is to be human. To play in the dark. To experience it all.

As long as we are human, there will always be a place inside of us, some dark and shadowy place, that wants to destroy our happiness.

Refusing to acknowledge its existence is a dangerous, arrogant way to live.

Some of us struggle daily, like warriors fighting the good fight, to keep the Saboteur from destroying everything. Others may only get glimpses, quick little peeks, occasional bitch-slaps, sudden storms that come and go in bursts. A flare-up. A land mine. BOOM.

What motivates our inner Saboteur? Why is she so hell-bent on our destruction? Our staying small? The reasons vary.

Perhaps we don’t think we deserve happiness. Perhaps we are afraid of possessing and owning our full power, and all of the expectations and obligations to the world that would come with. Perhaps we scorn the idea of being “all light” because of old stories about how boring that is…

Mine feeds off a toxic cocktail of all three of those stories. What motivates YOUR inner Saboteur?

Getting to the core of our toxic love affair with the Saboteur is the first step in healing it.

Once I was lamenting over the “same old same old” that felt like I was going in circles… like I kept getting the same issues of an expired subscription.  “Dammit! I thought I was healed!”

A wise friend said “I like to think of it as a spiral instead of a circle. Yes, I pass the same landmarks but each time I pass, I’m a little farther out, a little more healed, more evolved.”

I’m starting to think of these experiences as an opportunity to love and care for myself more exquisitely. A chance to expand my capacity for self-compassion. An invitation for deeper healing.

Yes, you healed. Now you get to heal more deeply.

“Getting off track is essential to our growth.” Danielle LaPorte says. “How about reframing negative feelings as wake-up calls?” Later she goes on to say…

“All experience is useful. Everything is progress.”

All? Everything?



And as I get myself back on track, one smart, loving choice at a time, I can feel the healing happening.

There is always room for healing, as long as I am human.

Let’s stop scorning and judging ourselves for our supposed transgressions, let’s stop thinking we are either good or bad, light or dark, and work to create a healed wholeness where our darkness informs us, instead of controls us, and the Saboteur is no longer armed with weapons of destruction, but with information that we are able to integrate. So that we may heal from our self-inflicted wounds quicker, a little quicker, each time.