It’s has been a rough couple of weeks. It happens to everyone. When things in my life start to feel like they are piling up I am try to outrun them. My instinct is to double down my effort. I push myself harder. I start to take short cuts in my health, a missed meal, a missed workout, and get less sleep. My willingness to sacrifice my basic health is a path for more poor decision-making.
I needed help. I needed a friend, someone to help me find a turnoff from the path I was on. Then a friend shared with me her secret to staying grounded in the middle of life’s storms. Sit and watch the birds. For 15 minutes each day, no phone, no music, just a cup of coffee and 15 minutes observing the environment around you. I even watched her do it one day. Obviously I was too busy to join her. Why am I so resistant to asking for and accepting help?
Asking for help is really hard. Our culture values toughness and endurance. We believe that people can and should “pull themselves up by their boot straps.” For women this can be specially challenging, with cultural norms still promotes self-sacrifice for our families, jobs and communities. Asking for help can feel like admitting weakness or defeat. It is indeed a “Big Ask”.
My “big ask” was when I finally admitted that I could not control my drinking, a belief I clung to for years. Asking for help meant I truly couldn’t control my drinking. If this wasn’t true, what else did I believe about myself that was a lie? For others it may be about work, taking care of family or just getting through a challenging day of life.
Therein lies the next challenge: who do we ask for help? In addition to my own personal experience, I have heard enough stories from other women to know that it is not uncommon for members of the medical community to minimize or discount our health concerns. This is particularly common with plus size women, who receive the repeated message that losing weight will solve your problems. Having the courage to ask for help, only to have the request be minimized or discarded can be devastating. Not being heard can lead to further, often preventable, harm.
Even if you are lucky enough to find help, accepting the help offered can be just as or even more difficult. This sounds counter intuitive, but the help we need is not always the help we want.
The help offered to me is usually something I don’t want to do. This can as simple as making changes to my diet, like eating less bread, or as complex as going to treatment for addiction.
Why is accepting the help so difficult? Because it requires creating space in life to do something without an immediate result. When I am physically ill, this can be bed rest. When I am in emotion pain I often have to sit with difficult and painful emotions. By that I mean I literally sit still and experience the feelings, and develop some compassion for myself. In other words, sit and watch birds.
Who has time for this ridiculous indulgence?
Here is little secret truth our society often over looks; it isn’t an indulgence to take care of our health, mental or physical. It is actually a necessary part of our survival.
We may not have the time, but we need to make the time. For me, this means I have to clear space in my schedule, forego plans with family and friends, and occasionally take time off work. The means I need to ask for MORE help and to tell people I can’t do something, even it is something I really want to do.
Even after I have done all these steps, and have made the difficult choices, I am left feeling lazy, unproductive and of less value. These are not helpful emotions when trying to address feelings of self-doubt, insecurity and low self-esteem. All of this combines into a tangle of shame.
Which leads me into the final steps of find the exit ramp off the highway of self-doubt and shame. Accepting that I am, in fact, human and all humans’ struggle. Everyone gets sick and needs to take time off; everyone struggles with sadness and pain. This is often counter to the images and messages we receive in society and the media, but it the truth. Pain and suffering is one thing that all humans experience and it is the one thing we have in common.
I had to learn a process of acknowledging my pain and demonstrating compassion toward myself. I take time when I need it. I call those who make up my support system; friends, doctors, spiritual advisors and communicate what is going on. I ask for help and treat myself with compassion, even if I don’t feel like I deserve it.
Taking care of your physical and mental health is necessary for survival, but sadly it is not something society emphasizes, much less rewards. If we as a society normalized our views of health to be less judgmental, self-care wouldn’t be such an extreme idea.
I am off to go watch some birds.