Musings on self-care

I’m up relatively early this morning and I am kind of feeling like I could write something for the first time in a long while. So, here I am. I have been quiet on the blog for a while. Lots of Big Things happening in the work and life departments, which mean lots of hours between 1am and 4am trying to get my brain to be quiet enough to let me go back to sleep and lots of mornings which see me stumbling into the work day tired, sluggish and just over it all. I’ve been reading quite a bit recently, in light of all of this, about self-care and all the different meanings ascribed to this notion. I don’t feel, most days, like I am doing a very good job taking care of anyone, never mind myself, but I am aware that if I don’t start trying to look after myself a bit more consciously, things are unlikely to get much better any time soon in this regard. I have been musing about what self-care is, what it could be, and what I can do about that for myself. I think, pandemic notwithstanding, that most of us could probably benefit from more time and energy spent on ourselves, that we could all learn to take better care of us.

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Self-care is understood in a range of literatures to encompass physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and in in this article, the author addresses each of these areas, arguing that taking care of ourselves in all five areas is key to developing resilience and the ability to cope with both everyday life stressors and more acute stress (like a harsh set of comments from a supervisor, or a meeting that goes badly). If we’re not sleeping, we’re not coping. But, to be able to sleep, we need to find ways to calm our minds, we need to exercise (even just a little bit), we need to eat decent food and take in the calories our bodies need. I am not good at any of these things right now. I am drinking too much coffee and eating sporadic and not always very nutritious meals (apart from dinner, mostly because I don’t only have to feed myself). My brain is always going and because I am tired, meditation is super-hard, and because I am tired, I can’t be bothered to cook oats if there’s a cereal bar and a banana that require no cooking, and because I am tired, I don’t want to go to Pilates or walk my doglet. For me, right now, part of my self-care is making myself take a walk even if it’s a short one; it’s boiling two eggs instead of a bowl of cornflakes or a cereal bar; it’s taking my thyroid and iron tablets before I drink my coffee so that my body actually absorbs them (and not skipping them altogether); it’s going to bed before 10.30pm, so that I can get some proper sleep in before the inevitable brain circus at 3am. And it is hard. I have to consciously make myself take care of myself.

This is something else I have been reading about in regard to self-care: it’s not always pleasurable or easy, and it’s not necessarily about beauty products, mani-pedis and spa day (although, don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE a massage and a facial right now, and so would my tired skin). In this article, the author argues that when we persistently link self-care to massages, spa days, shopping for a new outfit or taking time away from our daily lives we frame self-care as indulgence and as a luxury. Not only do we have to spend a lot of money we may not have on this version of self-care, we also locate this care externally, in things. Rather, as several more critical pieces on self-care argue, we need to start internally, with ourselves, and we need to understand that self-care is necessary, not indulgent, and everyday more often than involving any form of luxury. Self-care often takes discipline and it is not always glamorous or pretty. Over the years, for me, self-care has looked like going to Pilates even when I want to stay in bed, going to therapy even when I do not feel like talking to my therapist, taking my pills when I don’t want to, going to the doctor to get the pills in the first place, closing the laptop and saying ‘no’ to work because I actually know I need to rest (even though the work never does). And this takes work – some days not so much, some days a great deal. Self-care is about working out what “you need to do to thrive” and not just survive, and then doing that as consistently and consciously as you can.

This reading led me to a more radical understanding of self-care, one written about by Audre Lorde when she was being treated for breast cancer. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde wrote about being a black woman, a poet and a lesbian, having a single mastectomy and refusing a prosthetic breast. She wrote about the kinds of advocacy she engaged in to defend her decisions against well-meaning others, against the medical establishment, against society – a society that did not care for her in the ways that she chose to care for herself. In this article, the author makes a thoughtful link between us and society: if society does not care for us, then we need to choose to care for ourselves, and these acts can be radical, like choosing to work a 40 hour week and taking the weekend off; choosing not to answer email or be available for work in the evenings; choosing to take your vacation time and leave your phone and email and work at home; choosing not to take on extra projects because it’s expected of you or its what everyone else is doing; choosing to say ‘no’ when no is the best choice for *you*. In an academic – and more general – work culture that has made a virtue out of being available to everyone all the time, that equates success with loads of research papers and grants and memberships and being ‘on’ all the time, that valorises living to work instead of working to live, many of us struggle to keep up. Research has already shown that working mothers’ research “productivity” declined significantly during the first year of the covid pandemic (if productivity is understood as papers published and grants applied for and not as home-schooling their kids and keeping their families safe and alive). In this culture of over-work, then, choosing not to overwork can be recast as a form of self-care against accusations of laziness or not being ‘committed’ enough to be successful. We need to redefine success and we need to redefine work-life balance, especially for those who are already starting from further back and need to run harder, faster and further just to keep up.

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Most days these days, being any kind of successful at my work and my life does require disciplined self-care – taking my pills before my coffee, sitting at my desk to work instead of on the couch so my back doesn’t hurt, walking the dog and being outside, tidying up so my house is not an unmanageable tip, eating Proper Food. But, even though I am grumpy about it, I know I’m coping because I am trying to do it most days. I would not be coping at all if I was not trying to look after myself and care about myself as much as I care about my kids, my partner and my cats. And I also realise that I am able to buy heathy food to make for myself, that I live in a house that is near a park and the beach, that I work in a role that allows me a measure of flexibility with my time, that my kids are older now and pretty self-reliant, that my partner is supportive and does most of the cooking. I am, in many ways, privileged enough to do this kind of self-care without having to really struggle (to afford the food, the medication, the time). What of those who are not so privileged, who do not have support, enough money, a safe and warm roof over their heads, safe spaces to exercise in, flexibility at work? How do they build resilience, create their best lives, thrive?

I think perhaps each of us, in our own corners and in our own small but visible ways, can start redefining ‘productivity’, ‘success’ and work-life balance. Instead of just not answering emails after 5pm or on weekends and not explaining why, I can explain that I choose not to do that because that time is to unwind, to connect with my family, to do non-academic things. I can valorise that, instead of being always-available. I can help my students to make different choices about their work-life-PhD balance by talking to them about how they work and when they work and not just about what they’re working on; I can offer advice on strategies I have used to maximise my writing and reading time without taking time away from my kids and the rest of my life; I can encourage them to rest and not make that a taboo. Maybe there are other ways you can do this in your work space, to disrupt or at least put a question mark onto practices that have become taken-for-granted in many ways around publishing, teaching, meetings, email, “productivity”. Not only can we find more time and space to care for ourselves in doing this, we can also advocate for those around us who have relatively less power to speak out against work and study practices that diminish rather than build our resilience, that make us feel like failures when maybe, as Lorde argued, we are not the ones who are actually failing.

The exhaustion is real: a different kind of ‘ new years’ post

It’s January. A new year. New things to do and people to teach and papers to write and lessons to learn. Not, it seems, new places to go, unless I somehow find a space in my house I’ve never spent time in before (maybe the storage space/Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs might count?). And not, it seems so far, new energy and verve. I am tired. I have wished people happy new year in emails and in WhatsApps, because that’s the thing you do each January, and because I want it to be a happy new year. What am I going to write instead: Here’s hoping it’s less shite than last year? Holding thumbs that we all make it? This, as you may have guessed it, is not a typical ‘here’s to the new year’ post. But, I need to write it. And I hope it helps you if you are in a similar boat.

Usually, a couple of weeks of hard relaxing in December and early January – gin & tonic sundowners in the pool, feet up and head buried in a novel, walks and long lunches with friends, alone time, your pick here – are enough to recharge the tired batteries and give me a boost for the new work and life year. I come back ready to pick it all up again and get going. But, this year has been different. My two weeks was not long enough by any means, and the relaxing was curbed by a super-stressful news cycle here and abroad that was hard to turn off, kids missing their friends and unable to really socialise, adults missing their friends and unable to really socialise. It wasn’t very relaxing, really. So, I started January much the same way I ended November and December: tired, a bit sad, flat, cynical, angry. And I’m struggling to let go of those negative emotions and get excited about this work and life year. It all just feels like too much. And in the face of so much global panic and stress and dying animal and plant species and awful people and divisive racism, sexism, homophobia and violence – it’s like: What am I doing? No one needs another paper on higher education or another project or another blog post or another anything I do. Who cares? The world is on fire. I’m going back to bed. Wake me when it’s over. Except it feels like maybe it’ll never be over. The pandemic will – please gods – end at some point, but climate change? Racism? Misogyny? Divisive rhetoric, misinformation, disinformation, people just being horrible to each other – when will all of that end? Will it? And what I am doing about any of it that matters?

I have this lovely warrior friend who joins these awful groups on social media spouting nonsense about microchips in vaccines and satanic cabals stealing children and controlling Washington and more awfulness, and she takes on the liars and spreaders of disinformation and challenges them and tries to give them different information (truth and evidence, mainly). It is so inspiring. I am in awe of her ability to do that. I cannot. I just don’t have the mental strength to take on wilfully ignorant and stupid people whose lies and divisive rhetoric are quite literally doing harm to real people in the world. But, I feel like I should be doing something like that: not staying silent to protect my mental health, but being brave and taking on some of the awfulness and trying to challenge it, change it, at the very least add my voice. It is hard to be human when that means, as Glennon Doyle argues, advocating for others to have everything you want for yourself, not seeing yourself in competition with everyone else for rights, resources, citations, students, awards, recognition, but seeing yourself as an ally, a co-traveller, at the very least, a co-human. It feels, most days, like it takes more and more emotional and mental energy to be present, to be engaged … to be awake and dressed.

I cannot go back to bed. I have kids and students and courses to teach and papers to write and thesis projects to supervise and a journal to manage and people to talk to and be present for and with, albeit online. I cannot stop doing what I do – I cannot stop being me. So, what do I do? How do I turn this from ‘Here’s hoping but I’m not holding my breath’ to ‘Happy new year, let’s make it a good one’? How do I find meaning and purpose in the midst of so much chaos and mess and sadness and loss all around me, around us? How do I – we – hold on?

Well, I started by writing this, and in doing so by tacitly asking you to indulge me as you read it, because I needed to get this out of my head and heart and I don’t currently have a therapist. So, blog therapy. I drew a picture of what I want my inner PhDgirl to look and feel like going forward. I am acknowledging that, right now, I am not okay. But I want to be. I am tired, but I want to be energised and excited about my work and my life. I have said ‘yes’ to teaching and writing projects that I currently feel overwhelmed by, because I know they will add shape and meaning to my life and will give me something positive and energising to focus on and goals to work towards. I took a day on Thursday to have a swim, play silly games on my phone, and watch Netflix. I did not check email. I did not make myself feel bad about that. I am no longer telling myself I am behind. I am where I am, and that has to be okay so that I will be okay. I cannot live on a hamster wheel anymore, even one of my own making. I want to choose to make myself a priority in my own life and I want to stop apologising for that. So, I’m starting today. I am going to write this post and publish it, even though the shame voice in my head is saying ‘TMI! No one wants to read this self-indulgent crap! Just suck it up and get on with it!’ I don’t want to do that anymore. If last year taught us anything, it has to that it is okay to not be okay and it is okay to say ‘I was wrong but I am open to learning’ and it is okay to ask for help and take it and be grateful that there are people who care enough to help.

So, here we go, into a new year. I read somewhere on social media that January is the 13th month of 2020, so that means new year’s day in actually Monday, February 1st. I like that – it gives me a bit more time to work through some of this exhaustion and meh-ness so that I can really start this year with more energy and purpose than I feel right now. I do wish us all a happier new year, a safer and healthier new year, a less isolated and lonely new year. Thank you for reading this, and for being part of my global tribe. Your support means more than I can say.

Hitting the wall: Finding some space to have space

I read something the other day about surviving crises and how about 6 months after the initial crisis starts we hit the wall. We have adjusted, more or less, to a new normal but there is still no end in sight, and we’re not completely sure we can let go of the old normal yet. So we’re kind of stuck between accepting that this is our life now and not wanting this to be our life now and we’re tired. I think I have hit this wall. I have more or less made my peace with teaching online (but I long for face to face classes again), I have kind of liked not having to get on planes and go places and be away from my kids and my cats and Lovely Husband (but I kind of miss lazy evenings by myself in a B&B watching Netflix and all the hustle and bustle of traveling). I am in this in-between space, trying to find a way to have some space for just being.

Mainly, I just need a break. I need some actual proper space and I have been grumping around the house feeling cross that I have to get up every day and stare at my screen all day and be there for other people all day and, like, who is being there for me? Where is my time and headspace for being creative with my own writing? Where is my sleeping in and reading my chick-lit novel all morning in my PJs while my boys make me pancakes? I’m whinging, I know. But, I’ve hit this wall hard and I can’t have a break because I am teaching three courses right now and have heaps of student work to read and comment on and weekly teaching prep and a journal to manage and people to be responsible to and for and I just want it all to stop.

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So, I am grumpy and tired and I feel guilty all the time because I never get enough done in a day. And I feel bad for wanting everyone to go away and leave me alone, especially my students. But, one thing I have learned is to own my feelings, the ones that I am happy to share and the ones I am not, because pretending I don’t feel those feelings only leads to feeling invisible and therefore more resentful and grumpy. So, I’m owning them. I’ve hit the wall, I’m tired, I’m cross, I’m grumpy, I need some space in a part of the year where taking space for me makes me fall behind in my never-ending to-do list and then feel guilty and bad. It’s not good, basically.

But then, I have a day like today. I read bits of drafts that students on my writing course are working on and see them using feedback and patience and perseverance to create clearer, sharper, such interesting paper drafts. And I know I am so lucky to do this work, to be part of helping early career and postgraduate scholars to publish and share their research. I get to make creative and fun learning materials for students that will help them with their writing—something all students struggle with, some far more than others. And that’s pretty cool too. And I get to go the wool shop and buy lovely yarn to start a new knitting project with. And it feels like, even though I did not get right to the end of my list for today or yesterday, I had a bit of balance. I knocked work off my list, I went to Pilates, I bought wool and got to chat for 20 minutes about knitting and yarn colours to someone I don’t live with, albeit behind masks. I created some space and I feel a little less frantic, even though that may be temporary.

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I am also falling back on some old reflections and some new advice:

These little soundbites of wisdom really help me to hang on and work through the grumpy days. As does the knowledge that days like this come around and lift my spirits. I think I am mostly learning that in order to offer others my energy, creativity and help, I need to make and protect my own little spaces to recharge myself and feel like I’m not a slave to my screen. I’m still going to feel bad when I let people down by missing deadlines, and hopefully get better at setting more realistic ones. I am still going to struggle to say no, especially to exciting and interesting projects I want to be part of but have no time for if I want to actually move forward on my own new research—but I’m going to keep trying. We all need space, but more and more these days that space had to be made and protected, sometimes fiercely and sometimes from ourselves. And it’s important to give yourself permission to have that space. Take care out there.

When you are just over it all: being nice to yourself vs being kind

I am tired. My skin and bones and hair are tired. All I want to do is mooch around in my PJs and read undemanding novels with happy endings, and eat pancakes. I’m pretty sure this is a version of the post-PhD funk, but this time round it’s post-book funk, and the lingering effects of not taking a proper end-of-year break. And maybe I need to eat more vegetables. But, what I am struggling with is what to do with myself so I can actually keep up with work, and not let myself and others down by missing deadlines and generally just flaking out.

All my life I have been an over-achiever, and a people pleaser. ‘A’ student, school prefect, in all the school plays and concerts, putting my hand up to get involved in everything I could, hardly ever saying no or drawing healthy boundaries around my time. The overachieving was tempered at university, where I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond, but the desire to be the ‘A’ student, and the best at everything, and make people pleased and proud, remained. This carried over into my Masters and then my PhD, where I wanted to write the best thesis ever, and be the best student ever, and write the most amazing papers ever.

It’s not easy to live and work like this: it requires the presence of what I have always called “the mean voice” in your head. This voice’s job, basically, is two-fold (for me, anyway): on the one hand, she tells you to keep going, and say YES (not no) and take on all the things, and she kind of makes you get down to it and work. But, this means, on the other hand, that she’s not always very kind when you are tired and need a rest, because she might well call you a flake, and tell you that if you say no that work will never come your way again, and that if you don’t finish the paper right now, people will be disappointed and cross (a people pleasing overachiever’s worst thing). She’s mean, basically, and if you let her be mean to you about work and writing, it’s not too hard for her to be mean about everything.

I got to a point where I needed her out of my head: I needed to learn to be kind to myself and mean it, and take proper breaks, and say no and not second-guess that, and let go of this fear of letting people down if I did say no, and draw healthier boundaries around my time and energy. So, I went to therapy and I worked hard, and that mean voice is pretty quiet these days, about everything. I am much better at saying no, and not stressing (too much) over that, and also giving myself time to go slower and take breaks. This is all great. But, I am discovering that I actually miss the mean voice – specifically, her ability to cheerlead (however bossily), and get me off the couch and away from the novels and focused on writing, and reading, and supervising, and emailing, and adminning and all that. I don’t miss the mean-ness, but I miss the pushing.

I have found, in quieting this voice and learning to be nice to myself, that I have slowly become less good at being kind to myself, in the more critical sense of kindness. There’s a difference between being nice, and being kind. Niceness doesn’t really require care. You can say nice things without actually meaning them, and you can be nice to people without really caring about their welfare or wellbeing. Niceness is not about others, niceness is about ourselves, making ourselves look good and feel good.

Kindness, on the other hand, is all about others. The act of being kind is about actually considering someone else’s interests or feelings or needs, and acting in a way that shows consideration. Feedback is a useful example. I often explain to my students that if I just said things about their work like ‘this is a good draft’ or ‘interesting points here’ and nothing else, that may be nice because it would make them feel good and would make me look like an engaged reader. But, how would they get to draft 2, and to a better final piece of work? If I rather say ‘this is a good draft, but there is still work to be done on supporting your argument, using more updated sources, and deepening your critical engagement with supporting texts’, they might think ‘oh no, more work, she doesn’t think it’s (I’m) good enough yet’, and feel a bit bleak, initially. But, that feedback is kind because I actually care about you getting to a more confident and capable place as a scholar.

So, back to me: I think, right now in the wake of this post-book slump, I am being way too nice to myself and not nearly kind enough. I am giving myself too many free passes, too much time to loaf-off, and the more I do that the harder it is to come back to a place of focus and productivity. I am not sleeping well because I keep dreaming about all the work and writing I am not doing. So, starting right now, as soon as I post this rather personal post, I am going to be kind to myself. I am going to make myself send three emails I need to send, read three pieces of student work I was supposed to read yesterday, and finish two outstanding pieces of work that are overdue. Then, I will have a proper lunch, and give my own work some time, with some reading and writing in my reading journal. Day done. Then, tomorrow the same again: making kind choices that show my care for myself, and also for others that I have a responsibility towards.

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I reckon this is not going to be easy, and I’m going to have to work at this for a while until I get myself back into a different, more productive, less ‘meh’ place that I am currently in. But, if not now then when? These lessons we have to learn about ourselves — who we are, how we work, what we need to focus and be productive, and have enough energy for ourselves and for others — keep having to be learned and relearned because as we get older, and we change and our lives change, the demands on us change, as does the way we respond. This can feel like failure – why don’t I know how to do this properly already?? But, I am trying to see it more kindly, as an opportunity to reassess and reflect, to make different choices if I have to, to grow. I feel like this could make me a better teacher, colleague, supervisor, writer, and also a better mother, and partner to Lovely Husband.

So, if you are also just over it all, and tired to your bones, and lying on the couch in your PJs in a pancake coma telling yourself you don’t have to work today, maybe try a small act of kindness: get dressed, make the bed, tidy up, make a small list and answer some emails. Day done. Tomorrow, taking a few more steps towards the bigger things you need to do will hopefully be easier. And pretty soon, you’ll be back on a path of kindness, and Getting Things Done. I’ll be right there with you.