Self Care Listening to our Bodies: How do We Know What They’re Saying if We Were Never Taught to Listen

Self-care isn’t easy for everybody. This was most definitely the case for me. One of the places it was most difficult was in learning how to attune to my body’s needs. And one of the more basic places this took shape was around the food I ate.

You Are What You Eat

For example, I wouldn’t eat breakfast. It wasn’t until very recently that I’ve started making and bringing breakfast to work with me. Now I’m making an effort to eat something for the first meal of the day. 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 was true for lunch as well. The only “food” I had through my teens, twenties and early 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.

Learning Lessons the Hard Way

What helped me to understand just how badly I was neglecting my physical needs were a few hard lessons. I’ve been a runner for maybe 8 years. I used to run up to 13 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. Yoga started for me 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 without alcohol. Relaxing just wasn’t something that was valued in my family. Under the work ethics of my family, no matter what I did it was never enough. But I knew for some absurd reason I had to keep working.

Pushing Yourself too Hard

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. One of the hard lessons I learned was when my body’s under stress or I haven’t eaten enough, I get a floaty feeling in my body. So when I went for a run one day feeling this floaty feeling and not understanding what it was that I was feeling and after I finished up on the mat, I hopped in the shower. What 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 a fourth of what it used to be and only having the occasional drink, I wasn’t prepared for the consequences of how my body would respond under these stressful circumstances.

Unhealthy Lessons About Self-Care

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 my 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 in the realm of self-care really. All those life skills your family are supposed to pass down never happened for me. No family recipes, no budgeting skills, or selfcare lessons.

My caretakers thought this was a problem that would sort itself out. Fast forward to my early twenties 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 had woke earlier, breakfast was not the first thing on my mind. I was more concerned with my survival.

When Self-Care Isn’t Modeled in the Home

But this was also the behavior that was modeled for me growing up by my caregivers. Sure their house was much cleaner, 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. 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 we 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.

Self-Care More Than Just Eating Well

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. Cooking healthy meals for myself. Exercising regularly and hydrating consistently. Not smoking and drinking only occasionally. But what I was missing was the ability to tune into how I was feeling physically.

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? Or eating only the extra pastries I found laying around at work? These were the questions I needed to be asking myself. But I was never shown how or had these attributes modeled for me.

Survival of the Nurtured

Tara Brach said something that rang true with me 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 I feel is 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 and shown with care, then we learn to neglect ourselves. This may create 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.

If we’re left with these 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. Which can be tricky. Especially if you’ve never embodied these feelings. It can feel a bit hopeless. Like trying to go home only not knowing where you live. But there are some strategies that can help us find the way to loving ourselves.

Strategies for Self-Care

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

What are Your Resources?

Coming up with a resource list helps as well. 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

Updated: 7/30/22

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