Self Care, Listening to our Bodies: How do we Know What They are Saying if We Were Never Taught How to Listen

I never ate breakfast. It wasn’t until very recently that I’ve started making and bringing breakfast to work with me and making a concerted effort to eat something in the mornings. I would eat breakfast occasionally, usually when I was out with friends or family, but I never took the time to make breakfast a meal, and take the care to nourish myself. The same goes for lunch as well. The only “food” I had through my teens, twenties and thirties was lots of coffee in the morning to keep me going and more alcohol at night to slow me down. That was a hard way to live.

What helped me to understand just how badly I was neglecting my physical needs, were a few hard lessons I’d rather not learn again. I’ve been a runner for a while, maybe 8 years. I used to run up to 13 plus miles, but have recently cut back to a modest 2.68 miles, twice a week. I’ve also been a yogi for some time as well, though not as long as I’ve been running. I started about 6 years ago and have loved getting on the mat ever since.

I was also raised with an intense work ethic, to put it mildly. I worked hard for sure, but I never learned how to slow down, or relax and unwind after a hard days work. It just wasn’t something that was valued in my family. No matter what I did, it was never enough, but I knew for some absurd reason I had to keep working harder.

So when I started eating more healthful foods, and exercising regularly, I thought I was doing the right thing. I wanted to feel and look healthier, and I wanted the health benefits from living a healthful lifestyle, but what I was missing was the ability to listen to my body. For instance, when my body’s under stress, or I haven’t eaten enough, there is a floaty feeling that coincides with these circumstances. So when I went for a run one day, feeling this floaty feeling, but thinking it was just how my body was feeling at the time, and after I finished yoga and hopped in the shower, I didn’t realize that these were the conditions where a person will pass out from pushing themselves too hard.

And I passed out. I didn’t hurt myself too badly, but it was a shock for sure. I had been so used to being propped up by caffeine and alcohol, that once I was drinking tea in the mornings, cutting my caffeine intake by less than half, and only having the occasional drink, I wasn’t prepared for the consequences of how my body would respond under these stressful circumstances to the caloric deficit I was running on.

And to be fair to myself, I didn’t really know how unhealthfully I was responding to my body’s needs, because quite frankly, I didn’t know what they were. While I was growing up, I was never taught how to feed myself properly, or anything else regarding personal health. I was fed and my clothes were washed, but I never had a caretaker pull me aside and say, “I’ve noticed you’re only eating candy during the day, this is why that isn’t the best diet for you, or probably anybody”, or teach me anything at all really. All those life skills your family are supposed to pass down through the generations, never happened for me. No family recipes, no budgeting skills, or selfcare lessons.

Somehow my caretakers thought this was a problem that would sort itself out. Fast forward 15 years, and I’m waking up in an apartment strewn with garbage, wading through the empty beer cans and spilled ashtrays on the floor, to get to the bathroom that wasn’t in much better shape. I didn’t eat breakfast in the mornings, mostly because I didn’t wake until 1:00pm, but even if I did wake earlier, breakfast was not the first thing on my mind. I was more worried about survival than anything else.

But this was also the behavior that was modeled for me growing up by my caregivers. Sure their house was much cleaner than, well than most places actually, but the type of living was the same. Wake up at 10am. Drink 5-6 cups of coffee to get started. Go to work. Work from 3-11pm with no breaks, and finish your shift with a few drinks with your working friends. Go home and drink a few more to unwind from the busy day. Go to bed and start the sequence all over again. There was never any point at which I, or my caregivers, stopped and checked in with how we were feeling.

Were we hungry? Tired? Did we need a night to stay in and relax? Maybe a crossword puzzle and a cup of herbal tea instead of three 40s an a pack of smokes? I may seem a bit flippant, but these were serious moments of neglect that we were inflicting on ourselves. Looking back, I’m surprised I made it out at all, let alone being healthy enough now to take care of and attune to my physical needs.

Which brings us to passing out on the bathroom floor. It seemed I was doing all the right things. I was eating a plant based diet, and cooking healthy meals for myself, exercising regularly, hydrating consistently, not smoking and drinking only occasionally. But what I was missing was the ability to tune into how I was feeling physically in the moment. Was I hungry? How much rest should I be getting to feel my best during the day? Are my portion sizes adequate? Should I really be skipping breakfast and lunch, eating only the extra pastries I found laying around at work? These were the questions I needed to be asking myself, but was never shown how, or had these attributes modeled for me.

And to this point, Tara Brach said something that rang true with me the first time I heard it, in one of her talks, “We are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.” — Louis Cozolino. This is something that I’ve come to feel is more and more true the more I reflect on it. Without the loving guidance of our caretakers, teaching us how to care for, and attune to our needs; physical, emotion, financial, dietary, hygienic… whatever the need, if we’re not shown how, and shown with care, then we learn to neglect ourselves, which may carry with it a degree of contempt towards ourselves and those who neglected us for the lack of love and caring we feel for ignoring our most basic needs.

So if we’re left with the lessons of neglect and self-contempt, how do we learn to give ourselves the care we need, to overcome these feelings that have done us so much harm? From my understanding, it takes a whole lot of love and self compassion. This can be tricky, if you’ve never embodied these feelings, it can feel a bit hopeless, like going home only not knowing where you live. But there are some strategies that can help us find the way to our loving selves.

From my experience and what’s helped me to overcome some of my most difficult, critical self-judgements are; meditation, slowing down long enough to listen past the critical voices that have taken residency in my mind. Practicing self-care. I’ve already shared on this blog my self-care Sunday ritual, which has been an anchor to help me return to a time and place where I can do something to care for myself and tune out from the rest of my daily stressors, giving myself the gift of a little peace.

Coming up with a resource list, basically a list of things, activities or places that bring me a sense of ease, peace and rest. Self-compassion, a practice that will eventually build emotional resilience to the things that come up day to day. And practice. Keep coming back to the resources, self-care, self-compassion and things, places and activities that bring you a sense of peace and calm.

I’ll be going into more detail on some of these methods, plus ways to tell when you’re in need of some much needed rest. If you’re anything like me, you may feel as though you can just push past your physical and emotional boundaries using shear force, which is the opposite of self compassion! That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading, and peace :]

Image Credits: “Love yourself” by QuinnDombrowski is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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