Self-Care in a Selfie-Absorbed World

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That wasn’t a typo. I wrote selfie-absorbed because it seems that, as a culture, we are all so focused on our images. Wikipedia defines the selfie as “a type of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone.” Time magazine wrote that the selfie was among its "top 10 buzzwords" of 2012. In November 2013, the word selfie was announced as being the "word of the year" by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today’s blog post is not a sociological look at why we love to take pictures of ourselves and post them on Facebook. But it struck me today that so many of us find taking good care of ourselves challenging. In this world where information and communication happen at lightning speed, our brief screen images often seem more important than how we are really feeling.

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As a nutrition therapist who treats many clients with disordered and emotional eating, I’m frequently encouraging good self-care: eating well, sleeping well, moving the body in ways that feel good without overdoing it, etc… I’d be dishonest, though, if I said that I never have trouble with self-care myself. I have worked on my relationship with food and I’m two decades recovered from my own eating disorder, but I still occasionally find myself eating in front of the computer to save time or eating on the fly in the car. I know that giving myself good, nurturing, focused experiences with food feels better physically and emotionally, but I don’t always do it. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice because I have a deadline that feels more important in the moment, but sometimes I’m putting my own needs too low on the to-do list. When I don’t really taste my food because my mind is on something else, I might feel disappointed. I might find myself distracted and foraging for a snack later, even if I’m not hungry. Taking the time to honor my need for food, and the sensory enjoyment that an eating break provides, makes me feel like a more grounded, giving, and less distracted clinician/parent/partner/friend. When our cup is filled, we tend to be better equipped to help others in need.

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Sleep is another self-care item that so many of us struggle with. Just one more email, just one more chore, just one more sweet conversation with a friend or partner… And before we know it, we’ve squeezed our required seven hours of sleep (or however many you need to feel your best) out of the picture. The instant gratification of getting things done or connecting with a friend might have been wonderful, but we didn’t take the long view. How much can we really get accomplished the next day? How grumpy will we be with the people that we encounter as we get more and more tired over the week? I also find that when I “binge” on sleep after a week where I haven’t quite had enough, I feel groggy and worse after over-sleeping. It didn’t really produce the effect that consistent good sleep would have to begin with.

We do this failing-to-consider-the-long-view dance with food, of course. That [insert comfort food here] might have felt really good to eat. After all, you’re entitled to eat whatever you want, right, especially after all the work you’ve done to be “good” today? In the short view, that comfort eating might have felt great. In the long view, you may have felt overfull and groggy all afternoon. If you’ve struggled with disordered eating and self-judgement, you may have also felt bad about yourself for eating what you know doesn’t make you feel good.

One of my clients today said that her eating disorder and constant focus on food makes her feel like she is only living a “half life.” She’s so focused on what she is and isn’t eating and working her life around her eating disorder, that she finds it hard to be in touch with what she really wants to do. She goes back and forth between being overly accommodating of others and hoarding time and food and space to herself. She is working on a more balanced stance where she is able to take care of herself and, in doing so, has the space and energy to be generous and open and clear with others.

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Isn’t that what we are all working on as we try to negotiate our needs and others’ needs? It’s no mistake that this gets played out with food. We sometimes just can’t find that middle ground. We go back and forth between restricting or eating pristinely (and feeling virtuous about it) and binging or eating beyond our needs because, damn it, we just deserve a cupcake. Note, that I have nothing against cupcakes (love them), but we often use these rewarding-types of foods as a way to make up for the fact that we haven’t done much of anything for ourselves all day. In this case, a cupcake is our only self-care. But is that what we are really craving? Would we rather have a moment to leave work and walk around the block, clearing our heads? Would we rather have a hug after a long day, but we’re too afraid to ask for it for fear of rejection? Would we rather spend a bit of quiet time being reflective and compassionate toward ourselves or in some rejuvenating spiritual or physical practice? Would we rather connect with a human being instead of a computer screen full of selfies?

I still have to remind myself to practice what I preach to my clients regularly: we become more giving when we first give to ourselves. (In fact, us helping/healer types are particularly good at forgetting self-care at times.) When we nourish ourselves with good food, sleep, down-time, connection with people who energize us and don’t deplete us, and generally value and honor our own needs, we become more capable of living the lives that we are meant to lead. We naturally give more to the world and the people around us.

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How do I start to do this when I have believed all my life that my needs aren’t important? How do I fit self-care in with all the obligations and priorities and to-do list items…?

One bite at a time.
One hour of sleep at a time.
One breath at a time.
One dishwashing dance party at a time.

It’s better to commit to eating one mindful, slow meal than to expect your eating style to change overnight. It’s better to do five minutes of meditation in the morning, if that’s all you have time for, then to leave it out when you know that it centers you and helps you through your day. It’s great to commit to getting a little more sleep than usual and work slowly up to the amount that your body lets you know it needs. It’s better to move a little — and just commit to it — than to say that you are going to go to the gym five days a week (and beat yourself up if you can only make it twice). All that energy that goes towards not feeling “good enough” is energy that you could be putting out into the world, doing the great things that only you can contribute. We each have our own unique gifts, but we often get in our own way and fail to let our lights shine.

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Today, make a commitment to yourself and your very own needs for self-care. Make a small but (this is important) do-able decision to change something about the way you live your days, be it about eating, movement, sleep, or other self-care. Try that small change out and get that new habit nicely locked in before you try something else. Be patient with yourself; change is hard and there is often resistance. Look that resistance in the face and keep trying. One healthy, self-caring habit carried out often makes the next one a little easier. Self-care, like self-neglect, is contagious and grows. If you find that negative, self-loathing feelings get in the way of change, get some help from a therapist or therapy group. Sometimes working with people who can give you some of the unconditional compassion that you need (but find hard to give yourself) is helpful and healing.

Remember that you are a whole being and not just your screen image. What will you do today to take better care of yourself — and, therefore, your world, as the self-care extends out in ripples of giving to those around you…?

(Feel free to comment below and share your own thoughts and journey… We are all in this together.)