Self Care is Safety

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about self care lately because I’ve been trying to practice it, and as part of that I’ve been trying to pin down what are effective self care techniques for me. Soft fabrics, cats, a good glass of wine, familiar smells, books, Netflix, going for a walk in a park, not having to cook…these are all things that I use to take care of myself. And as I’ve thought about many of the things that feel like self care to me, the more I’ve realized that the essence of self care is creating a space in which I can feel safe.

A great deal of this is physical pleasures: when you are experiencing something warm, soft, or comforting, you are more likely to feel safe. But beyond that, many of the things that are self care for me involve making things familiar and understandable. Books have always been a safe space for me because they are controlled. Nature, trees, green spaces, are essentially the same no matter where you go and will always feel like childhood and playing outside. Scents are memories for me, and the moments when I can recreate the smell of home is a moment when I temporarily am at home.

These familiar things remind me of the places that I know I am taken care of, the places I don’t have to worry. A lot of people imagine that self care is about what makes you feel good, but that’s a bit too simplistic. Often it involves things that soothe or calm, but underneath what makes most of my self care successful is that it helps me to feel safe in some fashion. It makes my space my own, it distracts me from things that scare me, or it reminds me that I am allowed to be vulnerable.

This is one of the reasons why familiarity is an important part of self care. Things that are the same as places or people that I trust are the fastest way that I can feel safe. Of course human beings like routine, and things that we’re used to are more comforting than things that are new, but on a deeper level than that, for someone who has a mental illness, familiarity means the places that we trust not to hurt us. It means the places where the anxiety might turn off for a while, or where we can escape from depression. “Home” is often our safe place, and the people we are familiar with are our support system. This isn’t true for everyone: sometimes the things we see every day are oppressive, boring, or painful. But more often than not the fact that they are familiar makes them easier to deal with, and thus safer. Even more than that, our safe places are generally those that represent family or friends, things that have kept us safe in the past, or other parts of our life that are integrally part of who we are. Familiarity.

This of course makes self care more challenging if you’re in a new place or around new people, but it does offer a helpful way to reframe self care so that it might be more effective. I feel safe when I feel competent, accomplished, and cared for. These might be hard feelings to capture in a new place, but I know that when I write I feel competent and accomplished, I know that when I have a to do list I feel better when I get things done, I know that hearing from people (even from a distance) makes me feel cared for. These are not things you might immediately think of when you hear “self care”, but reframing self care from “pampering” to “meeting my emotional needs” or “safety” can elucidate new things to try. Now I’m gonna go start my novel and feel accomplished.

Talking Over

Yesterday I posted about a personal experience that I had. I identified certain things about my identity and mental health, and mentioned some things that were helpful for me in terms of both of those things. The majority of the post was about things that pertained to me and me alone, with the suggestion that perhaps others could try as well because I had found it helpful, so maybe it would be helpful for others as well.

Now overwhelmingly, the response has been positive, but I did get one comment that summed up for me all that is wrong about talking over another person and their experiences.

Well first off she should stop telling people she is asexual. As she isn’t. She made several references to sexual or romantic relationships she has had in the past. And never once did she say oh I hated the sex part….

Second she right love is awful painful for a borderline and most do get clingy. But this whole if I don’t have sex with you I can love you so hard thing is kinda of not really true. She just removed added simulation to her emotions. Yea borderline emotions are intense and painful.they lead to thinking crazy. But the key part she left out don’t have to act on those feelings. Or thoughts. That once you start learning how to wait them out you learn how to think through them and separate the borderline b.s from what’s actually happening…

All she did was remove an emotional trigger.. and her fb experiment will bite her in the butt when all those friends don’t start giving that love back when she crashes again. But that’s just what I think.”

Normally I don’t take the time to respond to comments like this because they’re awful and just deeply unhelpful, but the problems with this comment are problems that I see over and over and so I wanted to take the time to break down why this isn’t actually constructively engaging with the ideas that I presented. This is a classic example of talking over someone.

So first and foremost, when someone identifies themselves (whether as asexual or bisexual or pansexual or whatever) you don’t get to tell them they don’t identify that way. Identity is complex and personal, and no human being is the Grand High Judge of Sexual Identity. This is one of the most common ways that sexual minorities get fucked with: by others defining what they are and why. It hurts absolutely no one for an individual to identify in the way that they find most compatible with their life experiences, but having your identity undermined or denied is quite painful (and especially for asexual individuals leads to things like corrective rape). As a corollary to this, if you are going to play Sexual Identity Police, at least understand the definitions of the identities you’re policing. Asserting that someone can’t be asexual if they don’t explicitly state they hated all the sex they’ve ever had fundamentally misses what asexuality is, and worse it demands that anyone who is asexual give personal information about their sex lives in order to legitimize their identity to randos on the internet.

Basically, the next time someone tells you how they identify and you feel the need to challenge it, remember that what you’re essentially doing is ignoring someone whose identity puts them in a vulnerable position because you Know More and don’t care about whatever thought they have put into identifying that way.

Now the rest of the comment seems like it’s less harmful because the commenter specifies that it’s just her opinion. The problem comes when she imperiously declares what will happen in my future and what I’m doing with my emotions. This is a nice bit of mind-reading and psychic abilities. I’m impressed.

When someone with a mental illness brings up something that they tried that seemed to help them out, telling them that they’re wrong and that they’ve actually just hurt themselves is incredibly invalidating. While you may have had a different experience from theirs, that doesn’t mean that you get to ignore the words that they have actually said or the experiences that they’ve actually had. If your depression didn’t get better through exercise but someone else says “I tried exercise and I’m really happy with how well it’s working. If you’re interested you could try it too”, the appropriate response is not “You don’t actually feel better! It’s all a lie! Exercise doesn’t work!”

The secret (not so secret) about experiences is that they’re personal. Different things work differently for different people. It’s easy within the mental illness community to get defensive or catty when someone else copes differently from the way you do. It sucks to see someone else doing well if you yourself can’t find good coping mechanisms. But despite how easy it is, it’s a horrible plan. If someone isn’t asking for advice, don’t give advice. If someone did something differently than you would have, you can just move the fuck along. The more we perpetuate the idea that there’s a “right” way to recover, the worse off everyone will be. It’s simply not true that her way of dealing with BPD is the same as my way of dealing with BPD, but that doesn’t have to come with a judgment.

I don’t really care if this person fundamentally misunderstands why I did what I did or how my asexuality is interacting with my BPD or doesn’t get that the point of my experiment wasn’t to just take sex out of love but rather to see what it was like to be open with love and love more people more fully. What I do care about is the implications of her comment that I’m doing something Wrong because I didn’t do what she’d do. I care about the implication that she gets to decide what identities and treatments are better for random people she’s never met. I care that this is considered appropriate dialogue on the internet.

It’s not dialogue. It’s talking over.


Staying Functional

It’s been a rough week. Many of my friends, fellow bloggers, and role models are starting to show a bit of wear and tear. The whole internet has been buzzing with news about the shooting, with debates, with misogyny, with threats, with victim blaming. I’m tired. My patience is worn out. I’m getting triggered left and right by the smallest, stupidest things, and my coping skills are slowly running out.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t stop when my spoons run out. I still have to work. My dad’s birthday will still happen this weekend and I’ll have to be social and entertain. I still have to write. I still have to clean my kitchen and cook (somehow) and deal with the sudden heat and plan for my move to Ireland next year. I just have to do it all while also feeling like I’m about to snap or break down and start bawling or just run out, stop moving, fall over and not get up.

I’m sure this is the same quandary that all those with mental illness, or those who engage with difficult topics, or those with chronic illness face: how do I remain functional and keep anything from getting worse when my reserves are almost out? I drag myself into the office, but how do I accomplish anything when my brain power is spent just trying to refocus my mind on something other than sexism and shootings and self hatred?

I’ve been trying to use a few tactics, but I would certainly appreciate any suggestions that you all have. Mostly, I’ve been trying to reorganize my priorities so that I can accomplish some things with minimal brain power. This means that my to do list has shifted away from more writing and into some easier tasks at work (as well as I can). At home, instead of trying to tackle some of the bigger project I’ve limited myself to basic, mindless things that will help me feel accomplished: putting away my clean laundry right away, making a big pot of rice and beans so I don’t have to cook for the rest of the week, paying close attention to my schedule so that I don’t miss anything. It’s hard sometimes to feel like I can do these things, but if I get one or two done each day I can head off a lot of the feelings of uselessness and keep myself from hitting a bigger breakdown later.

This also means that at work I am shying away from things that I might really screw up if I’m not all the way present. I’m doing behind the scenes work and trying to save my energy for the times I’m in meetings or have to be front facing for the company. This is the biggest challenge. Part of me is trying to accept that there are certain tasks I simply can’t do right now, but that isn’t something I like to accept and of course it makes me feel like I cannot do my job. In reality, what it means is that right now I need to focus on something slightly different, make my job something a bit different.

And when I don’t have anything that needs to get done, that means complete and utter self indulgence. It means I get to go home and take a nap, or buy myself ice cream every day if I feel like it, or go running twice, or avoid everyone if I want to, or whatever the hell at that moment sounds like it might break through the hazy fear that’s hampering me right now. I hate feeling that desperate. I hate grabbing on to any impulse that seems like it could be remotely positive, but I know that if I simply won’t get through. I hate listening to my needs. I am demanding it of myself though.

Perhaps the hardest part is being responsible for myself and my emotions. I want to fall apart over everyone, bitch people out, yell and scream and swear and cry. I want to tell everyone to piss the fuck off. I want the people who are nonchalantly commenting on blog posts about misogyny to hurt as badly as I do when I see people talk about how mental illness makes you violent. I want to puke.

But it is no one else’s fault that I feel this way. Even the people who are pushing my buttons in all the wrong ways. I still need to be responsible, and when I do lose it, I have to know to apologize and take responsibility for the ways that I can’t cope. I need to be able to set healthy boundaries: I can’t just avoid people, but I need to actively tell them I need space. It is so hard to find the emotional resources to recognize when you’re being out of line when everything feels raw. But as someone who wants to be a positive ambassador for mental illness, I need to be able to function appropriately in my relationships and with my acquaintances even when my mind is not acting appropriately.

And just for fun, I’ve been trying to take mini breaks at work during which I look at goofy GIFs on Tumblr or watch lindy hop on youtube. Little things are all that get me through. Little things are what distract me and keep my mind from spiraling. Little things are what drag me away from that nasty comment.

I will remain functional.

The Lessons of Success

There’s a piece of received wisdom that says we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. When you fail, it says, you learn what not to do in the future, you learn about yourself and your reaction to stress, you learn who you can count on, you learn about problem solving and about which elements of your plan work. We learn a great deal from our failures, I don’t think anyone would deny that. When something goes wrong, one of the first questions that others ask us is “what did you learn”? It’s even in interviews fairly often.


However it seems to me that success is often underrated in what it can teach us. I was contemplating today whether I had learned more from my successes or from my failures, and immediately I knew that the “right” answer would be failures, but that it was also an untruthful answer. Where we learn depends on where our deficits in knowledge lie. I am an individual who discounts her talents and abilities, who is hard on herself, who is acutely aware of her shortcomings and nearly always striving to do better. These things can cripple me if I can’t learn to also see what works for me, how I contribute to the world, or what my role is in positive actions in the world. Success is far more likely to teach me these things than failure is. For others who are better capable of seeing their positive impact, paying attention to failure might be a better option.


It may seem as if all success does is bolster one’s ego and emotions, not teach lessons. I wholly disagree, and I’d like to point to a number of concrete reasons and things that one can learn from success. The first thing that you can learn is your own worth. Understanding your worth is very different from simply feeling good about yourself. When you look at a situation and understand that objectively you contributed to a success, you have a knowledge about yourself that is different from emotion, and it’s one that is important to have in order to cope with strong and difficult emotions.


In addition, you learn from success what works. It is hard to hit upon this simply through the trial and error of multiple failures. Personally I think it’s easy to find ways to fail, but much harder to find the right combination of ingenuity, planning, and confidence that brings you to success. Learning what that feels like, what a particular situation calls for, and what it looks like when it succeeds does so much to give you a basic roadmap for the future.


You also learn about yourself and your reaction to success, you learn whether you can be gracious and humble, you learn who supports you and encourages you and wants to hear about good things in your life, and you learn which people are willing to help you reach that success in the first place.


In my mind, the most important kind of success, and the one that you learn the most from, is the success that comes after a failure. Many people say that when you fail you learn how to get up and try again with new lessons and tools in hand. I agree. However what really teaches you the lesson that failure is not the end of the world, or that you can be flexible, or that you can learn and grow in a way that has positive consequences, is when you get back up, try again, and succeed after a failure. This teaches you that you can rebound, that you can survive, that you are smart and capable of growing, that you have learned what to change. The success after the failure is a necessary component of that learning process, because it illustrates what you’ve learned, it gives you the confidence necessary to keep trying, and it gives you hope.


Hope to me is the best lesson of success. You need success to keep going, and in my lines of work that can be daunting. When you forget hope, you burn out very quickly. When you have a success, you learn that change can happen. This gives hope. Hope that you will do better in the future, hope that you and your work are worth it, hope that things will be ok. It’s hard to explain learned hope, but when things go well, you learn that they might again in the future. Hope.


I’d like to change the wisdom. We learn from all of our experiences, and what we need to learn depends on what we struggle with today. If all you see are your failures, you are far more likely to learn from a success. Perhaps we could simply allow a variety of experiences to be important instead of focusing on one to the detriment of others.

Life is Hard: Take Care of Yourself

This post is dedicated to my faboo Marnie, who needs a little TLC right now.


In the circles that I run in, self-care is big. On the other hand, in American society at large self-care is fairly frowned upon. Long work weeks are expected, frivolities are considered unnecessary, and it’s selfish to spend time or money on yourself. Self-care is HARD, particularly in a climate where it’s not supported. Most of us tend to believe that we shouldn’t need to pamper ourselves, or that we’re only allowed to when things are falling apart. The way that many people view “me time” is to work yourself to the bone and then take one gigantic vacation that completely recharges your battery. Generally this is a really inefficient and bad plan that simply doesn’t work, so I’d like to first advocate for the necessity of self-care in all lives, second try to promote a more integrated and continuous model of self-care, and finally offer some tips and tricks that I have found effective.


So first and foremost, self-care is not about being selfish. It’s not about being self-absorbed. It’s not about putting yourself before everybody else. Self-care is about making sure that you’re taking care of your body and your mind and your senses so that you can function well. At the end of the day, the best way to give to other people or to be effective at your job or to be a good parent is to practice some self-care because it makes you more in tune with what you need, it gives you resources, and it helps you to have enough energy to do what you need to do. It’s like emotional fuel: you wouldn’t ask yourself to do a workout without eating, so you shouldn’t expect yourself to make it through a long day without some emotional energy.


Now what I’m not advocating is that we always put ourselves first and never help others, or that we spend all of our money pampering and spoiling ourselves. What I am advocating is that we take some time each day to do things that make us feel calm, soothed, and energized. I am advocating that we always take a balanced approach when we’re trying to help others: only give out of what you have. If someone asks you to listen and you are on your last legs, you’re allowed to say no. However if someone is looking like they’re down and you’re feeling really strong and positive, it might be good to go over and ask how you can help. Self-care can help you get in touch with when you feel you can help and when you can’t, which overall will make you more effective. Practicing regular self-care will not take up too much time in your life, but it will likely leave you feeling better and more capable at work and in your relationships.


In many circumstances, I think we all assume that if each one of us just takes care of someone else, then somehow we’ll all end up taken care of. Unfortunately that doesn’t work; someone always gets missed, or things are uneven, or energy gets lost in the transfer. The best person to take care of you on a daily basis is yourself, because you are the only person who knows what you are experiencing and feeling, and you’re the only one who can figure out what you want or need. You are the only one who’s there all the time, and you’re the best judge of what needs to happen.


In addition, it’s important for us to be relatively self-sufficient in terms of our emotional health. Obviously there are times when we can’t do this, but most of us wouldn’t like it if we had to ask someone else to plan and cook all our meals, make up our workouts for us, and feed us our pills. There are some people who have to do this and it creates a lot of strain in their relationships and often makes them frustrated and unhappy (there absolutely isn’t anything wrong with you if you’re in this situation, but I don’t think it’s what anyone strives for and we generally aim for independence in our caretaking). However with our emotional health we often expect other people to take full responsibility for it. I think it’s time we learn to take care of ourselves. Self care is exactly this: it’s learning to identify what you need and how to get it.


Overall, the benefits of self care are that we all will feel better and function better with some self-care, we can take care of ourselves better than anyone else, and we can be more self-sufficient if we practice self-care.


So hopefully now that I’ve convinced you that self-care is useful, I want to talk a little more about the style of self-care that I’m advocating. Sometimes it can be useful to do something big for yourself. One of my future self-care plans is to get a tattoo of the eating disorder recovery symbol, and for me that’s a huge piece of self-care. Taking a vacation can be self-care. But for the most part we already know about these larger things and we know how to do them. We generally view that as what we’re supposed to do: feel miserable all week long and then party hard on the weekend. I’ve never particularly understood this model and I think it sucks. Instead of only focusing on these larger things, I think we need to shift our focus to the day to day, because one big action only leaves you feeling better for so long.


Many of us worry about our relationship or our job or the large things that affect our lives and generally strive to improve these things, but we don’t stop to think about the actual texture of each day. That day to day texture, more than the ability to rattle off our successes, is what makes us happier individuals who are capable of contributing and caring. Improving the day to day can be incredibly difficult. We may not get to choose what projects we’re working on, or if our partner is having a rough day. What we can change is our self-care routine. We can allow ourselves that mocha every morning if it significantly impacts our happiness. We can take five minutes during our lunch break to focus on our breath and come back to the present. We can find a few things that really make a difference to us and make sure we schedule some time each and every day to do them. No excuses. And it’s also handy to have a longer list of slightly larger things in your back pocket for the bad days, so that you can manage.


So all of you are onboard, right? You’re all clamoring to start your self-care right this exact minute, but you’re sitting out there just like I was with no clue of what it means to soothe yourself or what will actually be effective in making yourself calmer. Partially you have to discover for yourself. Everybody’s a little different in what floats their boat, so I can’t tell you what exactly will work for you. Try some experimentation. For a few weeks try to incorporate something a little different each day.  To get you started, here are some suggestions of things that work for me or that have worked for others. There are also lists galore on The Google, so if none of these things strike your fancy, you can venture out into the wide world of the internet. One thing to keep in mind is that many of these things might sound silly or trite at first. Keep an open mind. Some of the things that I dismissed most quickly the first few times around have been proving to be the most helpful.


Without further ado: Self-Care Tips


  1. The first thing I always suggest to people who are looking for ways to self-care is to start with the senses. I never realized before how closely emotions and physicality are tied together, but it’s amazing how quickly your emotions calm if you can calm down your body. So try to be good to your senses: they’re how you perceive the world. This can come in any number of forms, and will be very personal. You could buy something incredibly tasty once a week, and really take the time to savor it. I personally am a texture person, which means that I have a couple of very fuzzy blankets and a pair of footie pajamas so that if I’m having a rough day I can immediately sooth myself by touching something soft. Lighting a scented candle might be your thing. Taking a hot bath. Wearing comfortable clothes. Taking some time to look at cute kittens online in the middle of your day. Listening to music. Anything that engages your senses and brings you into the present moment, while also being calming.
  2. Moving your body can be GREAT, especially if you work a desk job. If you can get out and go for a short walk, your body can feel a lot better.
  3. Reading a book for pleasure.
  4. If you’re a fidgeter, get some silly putty or something similar. You can likely have it with you at work, and just use it if things start to get stressful.
  5. Giving yourself permission to say no, or to skip something if it won’t make you happy and if you don’t have the energy. Particularly if you’re someone who has an overloaded schedule and some of the things on it are supposed to be fun, don’t go if it won’t make you happy.
  6. Do yourself the favor of trying to take care of your body. Get enough sleep (THIS IS SO IMPORTANT I CAN’T EVEN SAY IT ENOUGH), eat regularly and try to be fairly healthy (that doesn’t mean cutting out delicious things), try to exercise some, take whatever meds you’re on but don’t take non-prescription things. It is amazing what doing these basic things can mean for your emotional well-being.
  7. Spend time with people you like. Talk to them.
  8. Art can be really helpful, in whatever form this means to you. Exercising your creative drive feels GREAT. Painting, playing music, writing, going to a play…let yourself experience art. I can no longer go a day without writing, and if I tried I would go CRAZY.
  9. For a little extra, added pampering, something like a massage is wonderful. For the menfolks out there, I know that this might damage your manpride, but pedicures are also fantastic. You get a little foot massage and you feel lovely afterwards. Related to this, getting a new haircut or something to make yourself feel extra spiff are great.
  10. Dress up. Or dress down. This one really is about personal preference. If it makes you feel a little more springy to put on a cute dress, then GO FOR IT. If, on the other hand, you’re sick of having to wear clothes that are uncomfortable, then wear sweatpants for a day (as you are capable). Particularly when it comes to dressing up, don’t let anyone shame you for how you dress. If you’re overdressed, then OWN IT. It doesn’t matter. Just smile and tell anyone who asks that you wanted to dress up for yourself.
  11. Let yourself watch shitty TV with no guilt. Every Friday is bride night on TLC, which means Say Yes to the Dress. Guess where you can find me every Friday night? Guess how much shame I feel over that? Exactly 0. Now sometimes parking in front of the TV can leave you feeling pretty shitty, but consciously choosing to watch something you enjoy is different from just falling into the routine of sitting in front of the TV and channel surfing.
  12. For those who may be on the higher anxiety side, or have diagnoses, or even just those who have a tendency to get lost in their own heads, it can be good to pull yourself back to reality. This isn’t exactly self-care, but it is a practice of regularly taking care of your emotions. There are a number of suggestions as alternatives for cutting, and I think they can be fairly effective for anyone who feels anxiety or who wants to use negative coping techniques. They include things like holding on to an ice cube, drawing on yourself, flicking your wrist with a rubber band, or take a cold shower.
  13. Mindfulness! Meditation! This was one of those things that I was skeptical of at first. It seems very woo woo, I know. But there are evidence-based mindfulness techniques, and you could join a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction group, or simply look up some of those techniques online. These are great ways to recharge a little, or simply calm your mind.