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

Reparenting Resistance to Training: Why a Good Workout Builds More Than Just Strength

My workout of choice is running and yoga. I love the feeling of being out on the road, ending my fourth mile at the top of a hill and also knowing that the ocean’s breeze is just ahead of me, waiting on the other side. I also love the calm on my mat right after we finish our vinyasa and I’m lying prone in savasana, letting the energy from my workout settle over me. But it wasn’t always that way.

Building Healthy Workout Habits

For a long time I avoided working out at almost any cost. Even though I played baseball and soccer in my youth, while also taking taekwondo lessons, I historically have struggled with any form of physical activity since I started middle school. There were some exceptions. Like when I decided to lift weights for stints of two months, every five or so years. But nothing that lasted for very long. So it was to my complete surprise when about four years ago I took to running as a workout and practicing yoga on a regular basis.

I’m not sure what got into me, but I took to both yoga and running so quickly that I was running half marathons in a little under a year’s time and I was doing yoga twice a week. I was making great strides in my overall fitness level and it felt good.

I attribute much of my motivation levels to my quitting smoking, drinking and playing video games. But also as much credit goes to my living situation being the most stable it has been since my early childhood. Probably around the time I stopped playing all the sports I used to engage with in my youth. I had been so worried about my survival first and belonging second, that any energy I had went to those two efforts. These worries consumed my thoughts and dictated my actions.

Finding Stability, Finding Healthy Workout Routines

As I would come to find out, I had been hyper vigilant due mostly to my past abuse, that lead directly to my developing PTSD. I didn’t realize it then, but I was expending great amounts of energy keeping my feelings guarded and isolating from others. I was so guarded that I was dissociating from both my feelings and body almost constantly.

Once my living situation stabilized and I was able to take stock of what personal resources and achievements I had to build from, I realized I didn’t have many. I had spent so much of my time running from every aspect of my life that I had maybe two friends that were well adjusted and stable. I had loads of debt and was pretty physically unhealthy as well. So I suppose it was only natural to take to something like running to get in touch with my body and take control of my health. Yoga helped to slow me down enough to feel what was happening in my body, as well as getting acquainted with the parts of my body I had been neglecting for so long.

Turning Exercise Into A Resource

Running specifically, was a source of pride and accomplishment for me. I could track the progress in mileage and in time, with visible results. As I said above I was running 13.1 miles from 2 miles inside of a year, so I began to look much healthier pretty quickly. Also the neighborhoods and scenery I was running in and around were beautiful. It helped that I had some running buddies along the way as well. Thanks Jenny : )

One such beautiful run filled with both scenery and running buddy was when I ran a rely-marathon with a friend from Vermont. The course carved through downtown Burlington and the views of Lake Champlain, while running up and down the city’s hilly roads which were lined with rows of vibrant green conifers. This all set behind the clear, glassy lake that reflected the sapphire sky and its low lying supple clouds. It was beautiful.

The run was beautiful, but also running along side so many other people was more supportive than I would have thought. There’s always an excitement on race day. Like this run REALLY matters. No matter how many times you’ve run the course or the race, it feels special knowing there are so many like minded people gathering to achieve the same goal.

Finding Support, Finding Direction, Finding Connection

The feelings of support and community are also true of yoga classes. The dimly lighted room, the open space filled with yoga mats politely distanced to give room to the people surrounding you. And soothing music softly playing as people prepare for the class by coming to stillness and quiet on their mats. The quiet flow of synchronized movement while each person follows the instructors direction to the best of their ability with focused intentions and minds. And finally the release of the session’s work as it melts away from your body leaving you feeling relaxed and filled with life, as you finish your day’s practice in savasana.

My workout routines have been a large influence on my healing path as well. From the time of my abuse till I was in my early thirties, I had no real goals or aspirations to rise to in my life. I was listlessly floating around from situation to relationship to circumstance, completely uncertain about what was going to happen to me or my future. I didn’t feel as though I really had a future to speak of. After I woke up into my emotions and realized I hadn’t any shape or form to my life, running and yoga were two ways I was able to give some structure to my life.

Running and Support

Running was a way for me to understand that I could achieve something, however small. The distances I ran and the connections I made with the people I ran with were markers for me. Markers that allowed me to cultivate a sense of accomplishment. Even if it was only making the jump from mile six to mile seven, I was proud of that mile. As though that mile showed me I could overcome something. Achieve what I never thought I was able to accomplish before. And I didn’t feel it in the moment, rather it was looking back where I felt the accomplishment of my actions.

Or the five mile buddy runs I used to run with my friend Jenny, around the neighborhoods of my past. The unconditional friendship and feelings of accomplishment of consistently running five miles that accompanied me through the streets that I had so associated with past failures. They gave me the strength to feel better about the choices I was making. Instead of the choices I had made, while building tighter emotional bonds with friends.

Yoga

And with yoga it helped me to feel comfortable around people again. Something I was having trouble with while being present in my body. I had been so used to drinking and using medication to soothe myself while around others, that I forgot how to be around someone while in an unaltered state. Yoga, with its comforting setting and gentle flow, while also being a challenging workout, showed me how to be in my body, while I was experiencing discomfort. And to experience these emotions, not only in my body but while being surrounded by like minded people, felt good. Supportive.

Reconnecting To My Body

As I’ve mentioned above I had maybe two friends who stuck with me and were supportive. Most of the people I had surrounded myself with before I woke up emotionally were critical, angry and viciously mean. Both my friends and especially my family were very cold and very cutting. It was no wonder that I was so detached from my body and emotions. Every time I stepped foot inside myself I felt as though I was under attack!

Running and yoga were ways for me to know I could achieve physical health goals if I committed to them, but that they were also ways of being in my body and surrounded by people while feeling safe and being present. Furthermore, I felt that I could choose to make the healthy choices by surround myself with people who I felt safe being around. That helped to show me that I had the agency I felt I lacked for so long, to make healthy choices for myself. I could choose how my future was going to unfold. I could stop wandering so listlessly and find some focus, some center to regain control of my life.

Becoming a Healthier Version Of Myself

I suppose this is why sports are so important for young people. Something to give them the stable yet supportive community that they may be lacking elsewhere in their lives. I know it was for me and I was in my thirties when I started. A younger me would have scoffed at the idea of finding support and feeling good about building healthy habits. But looking back, on what my dedication and the support from loved ones has given me, I could only imagine what it would have done for a younger version of myself.

Fortunately, we don’t have to be experiencing some great trauma to develop a new healthy workout routine such as running or yoga. The benefits are equally as gratifying either way. Also, the more we make showing up for ourselves a habit, by way of committing to our workouts and physical health, the greater the trust we nurture in our own lives will be. Tara Brach a Buddhist psychologist who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, gave a talk related to the support I’ve been talking about. The way Tara puts it is, “that it’s not the survival of the fittest, it’s the survival of the nurtured.” And for me the more often I reflect on this piece of wisdom, the truer it becomes.

So if you haven’t started a workout such as running or yoga, or maybe swimming or tennis has always appealed to you, I urge you to pursue these interests. Be inquisitive and explore your personality some. Maybe hiking has been in the back of your mind, waiting for the time to be right to pick it up and see where it takes you. Make the time for yourself and show up. But be kind to yourself on the way and be consistent. The more you practice, the better it becomes.

One of the reasons I like yoga so much is that there is no competition, no judgement. You show up just as you are. And that will always be enough. Whatever interests or predilections you have, foster them. Who knows where they’ll take you, but wherever it is, it will be satisfying. And you’ll be building support, but also confidence and trust in yourself along the way. Happy trails and Namaste :]

Image Credits: Hot Yoga at The Mat in Liberty Lake, WA. by LibertyLakeAnne is licensed under CC0 1.0

Edited 5/27/22

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