I think many of us spend so much of our lives with family members, role models, religious leaders and texts, self-help books, magazine articles, and other facets of society telling us to be ruled by self-control, via willpower, that it quickly becomes ingrained in us that immense willpower is essential for running the more difficult parts of our lives. Certainly, there are times when the only thing holding us back or making us go forward is a sense of moral duty, and that can fall under the category of self-control. But self-control of that sort often doesn’t work well as willpower for healthy choices in our day-to-day lives. When the elusive ‘willpower’ fails us, we think we’re lacking something core. We have internal battles where we berate ourselves for even thinking about making poor choices. We struggle to want to make good choices. We need better motivation and methods than simply exerting willpower over ourselves our whole lives.
Fortunately, good self-care provides us with other vehicles for motivation. When we’re choosing to feed ourselves so that we blossom instead of controlling ourselves so that our urges are reduced . . . well, it just changes the equation. It becomes easier to make good choices. Those choices enable us to be more satisfied, fulfilled people with more to offer others around us. And when we err, as all of us do, we are able to forgive ourselves and move forward—to know that we will always be beautiful works-in-progress.
One of the techniques of tuning into myself to improve my life is to pause, ask, listen, and respond.
Let’s say I’m feeling upset. I feel really irritated at the world, and I don’t know why. I start feeling aggravated, and it elevates until I have worked myself into a deep funk. At this point, it’s tempting to let myself just give in to being so frustrated without figuring why—but it doesn’t make me happy, and it isn’t really fair to anyone around me (especially my husband). If I catch myself in one of these moments, I take the path of empathy.
I pause. I take a deep breath and release it slowly. In the moment of pausing, I recognize how I’m feeling, and I don’t try to struggle against the feeling. I just let it be—which is in itself an act of empathy.
I ask myself gently, “What do you need right now to feel better?” or “What’s at the heart of you feeling this way?”
I listen. I give my mind and spirit time to work through the answer. There are times I can’t tell why I’m feeling off, in which case I can simply offer myself heartfelt condolence on feeling bad and not knowing why. But more often, I’ve discovered, my body will tell me what’s really going on if I take the time to listen.
In the scenario of being grumpy, perhaps I’m tired. I discovered I was often very tired when I first started doing this exercise. In trying to suppress being tired, I would lead myself (and occasionally still do) to anger, or food cravings, or anxiety, before I realized what I needed was rest.
Then I respond. I tell my body what I’m going to do to improve the situation, and I stick to what I’ve said. It is not always possible to get instant gratification, but it is often possible to make adjustments to improve the situation over the next few hours. And just knowing that I will take steps can help my emotional state begin to improve.
When I began realizing that I was often tired—that I was regularly wearing myself out beyond the point at which I could easily recharge—I started giving myself permission to take an occasional half-day off work just to recharge my batteries with rest. I began taking more naps. I reduced my caffeine intake and regulated my hours of sleep to give my body better circadian rhythms. I started taking melatonin at bedtime. Etc. I demonstrated to myself that I could trust myself with my self-care. In the process, I became more able to take good care of myself, and I was able to create a life more suited to my needs and desires. And as I’ve continued this process, I’ve become more likely to be able to figure out what I need before I hit emotional crisis mode.
Previous Posts in the Year of Self-Care
Intro to the Year of Self-Care
Step One: Embrace Gradual Change
Mid-Point Support for Step One
Step Two: Commit to Weekly Grocery Planning
Mid-Point Support for Step Two
Step Three: Eat Breakfast Every Morning
Step Four: Offer Yourself Empathy