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

Reparenting-Resistance to Training: Why Working Out Builds More Than Just Strength

I’m an avid runner and yogi. I love the feel of being out on the road, ending my fourth mile at the top of a hill. Also knowing that the ocean and its breeze is just ahead of me, waiting on the other side. I love the calm on my mat right after we finish our vinyasa. And when I’m lying prone in savasana, letting the energy from the workout settle over me. But it wasn’t always that way.

For a long time I avoided exercise at almost any cost. Even though I played baseball and soccer in my youth and also took taekwondo lessons, I’ve struggled with any form of physical activity since I started middle school. With the exceptions of when I decided to lift weights for stints of two months every five or so years. So it was to my complete surprise when about four years ago I took to running as a hobby and practicing yoga fairly regularly.

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. Making great strides in my overall health and fitness levels.

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 the first place. I had been so worried about my survival first, and belonging second, that any energy I had went to those two efforts. These thoughts consumed my thoughts and actions.

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 unhealthy as well. So I suppose it was only natural to use something like running (because it was already second nature to me) to get in touch with my body and take control of my health. Yoga helped to slow me down enough to feel what was here as well as getting acquainted with the parts of my body I had been neglecting for so long.

Running specifically was a source of pride and accomplishment for me. I could track the progress in mileage in time and with tangible results. As I said above I was running 13.1 miles from 2 miles inside of a year. 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.

I remember running my first rely-marathon with a friend of mine from Vermont. The course carved through downtown Burlington and the views of Lake Champlain while running up and down the city’s hilly roads were lined with rows of vibrant green conifers. This was set behind the clear, glassy lake which was reflecting the sapphire sky and its low lying supple clouds. It was beautiful. And along with so many people running along side of me which 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.

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.

These two hobbies have been a large influence of 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, running and yoga were the two ways I was able to give some structure to my life.

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. 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.

And with yoga it was a way for 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 being a challenging workout, showed me how to be in my body. And to experience these emotions not only in my body, but while being surrounded by supportive, like minded people.

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 feelings. Every time I stepped foot inside myself I felt as though I was under attack!

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

I suppose this is why sports are so important for some young people. Something to give them the stable, supportive, community that they may be lacking elsewhere in their lives. A younger me would have scoffed at the idea. But looking back on what the self-driven, dedication and support from loved ones has given me, I could only imagine what it would do for someone who was hanging on by a thread. Who felt like they were just trying to survive.

Fortunately for us we don’t have to be experiencing some great trauma to develop a new healthy hobbie like running or yoga. The benefits are equally as gratifying either way. The more we make showing up for ourselves a habit, by way of commiting 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 this subject. It’s about how “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 hobby like running or yoga, or maybe swimming has always appealed to you, I urge you to pursue your 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. One of the reasons yoga is so healthy is that there is no competition, no judgement. You show up just as you are. And that’s always be enough. Whatever interest 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 confidence and trust in yourself along the way. Happy trails and Namaste :]

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