The idea of self-care attracts so much scorn online. Our culture reflexively insults anything that sounds remotely like a woman thing, of course, but it goes beyond that. We actually confuse self-protection, self-acceptance, strong boundaries, and personal enjoyment with selfishness, particularly in women.
It’s no wonder so many of us start to associate pleasing ourselves with becoming some form of non-compliant misfit who takes too many bubble baths. But once you start to understand (and feel inside your cells!) that you actually deserve to seek out joy and satisfaction, a veil is lifted. Suddenly you recognize how you compulsively block your own path to happiness out of some misguided compulsion to stay small and serve others.
This is another huge topic, but I thought that, given today’s Ask Polly on addiction, codependence, and blame, it might be good to talk about the ways we punish ourselves (often without noticing) and also discuss how to resist those bad habits and treat ourselves with care instead.
I punished myself for years with not allowing myself things in the form of an eating disorder (about ages 14-25). Recovering from that set me on a path in my 20s where I had to heal physically...but the real surprise was that once my body was a bit better I had all these crazy, demanding feelings all the sudden where I didn't before. I had depression and terrible social and generalized anxiety too (which therapy and some time on medication helped to level out). Most of those crazy, squiggly feelings were encased in so much anger for a long time that it was hard to see much beyond all the ways I'd been wronged by people in the past and was being wronged by people in the present. Once things settled down more in my mid-twenties, I started to realize I had a big empty space inside that was comprised of a lot of fear and shame about a lot of things other than my body. My worth as a human, my ability to take up space emotionally, my ability to be loved and not neglected or left for trash. I was lacking hobbies that made me feel accomplished, knowing what movies or songs I liked, and just being able to discern what felt pleasurable. It's been a slow path back to those things, but I've been fortunate to have good therapy at different points for these things as I have learned (I can kick a bad therapist to the curb quickly - if they don't both help you feel safe sharing but also challenge and engage you on an emotional level it's moot), and I also have more good people in my life that are very "elephantine" and encourage me to feel all the things without judgment. I don't even really see myself as someone who had an eating disorder anymore, but I often check myself when I'm making choices that deny my own pleasure in favor of someone else's, or defer the hobbies that I enjoy in favor of not feeling like a failure or shameful. The most ironic thing is probably how I avoid the displeasure of starting something I will not be perfect at (like art or writing) to remain comfortable, but the pleasure of just working at these things almost always outweighs the initial displeasure of the fear. I'm learning how to engage more with that kind of displeasure, and not the other non-nourishing kinds- like the kind that tells you one of your avoidant exes is your person (let go of that one at this point!) or the kind you get from starving or going without. I had to learn some of this stuff to not die physically, since I got pretty close at 19, but I'd say a lot of it came out of dissatisfaction with a half-life of having an alive body that didn't know how to feel good and mostly felt terrible. Thank god for the displeasure that led me here. Thank you for doing these sharing posts, and contributing to community here when the internet is super divisive and terrible in a lot of ways. It really creates a pinpoint of light to see people reaching out to one another here. And I hope sharing this helps someone or gives them encouragement ❤️
I've gotten better at recognizing and shooing shame in acute situations—it helps to visualize a cauldron, inside which all of my stressors and feelings at a given moment are bubbling away, and it's about to overflow, and I'm holding a gigantic vial labeled "SHAME" with a skull-and-crossbones, full of something viscous and gross, and I stop to ask myself, "Okay, why in the world would I add shame to this?" It's a very specific thought exercise but it helps.
But, I struggle when I take the long-term view. I don't know how to deal with the cauldron when it's gigantic and contains years of stressors and feelings. I think that pouring in the shame is extremely justified, because I haven't finished the writing project I went to grad school for, and if I'd worked even a little bit harder I'd have so much more to show for it, and 31 feels abominably old when I compare myself to my peers.
It seems to me like everyone I'm close to has a different motivational engine inside them, but theirs are more similar to each other's than mine is to anyone's. This applies to creative work, but also exercise, house work, etc. I can't imagine my friends sitting on their butts as often as I do. I'm positive they don't!
And I know that comparison is the thief of joy, but I can't help but feel that I would be so much less prone to shame if I just knew how other people operated from hour to hour, day to day. I'm so fucking curious. I want the meticulous log. I want to compare my minute-to-minute behaviors with other people's so that I can either grasp a baseline for embarrassment or realize (with proof!) that everyone's so incredibly different that embarrassment is meaningless.
I don't know how to let go of this need for the log, and the vague, abstracted shame I feel about being a more sedentary person who just doesn't find organic enjoyment in work as easily.
I experienced a revolutionary shift in perspective in therapy this week about parenting myself. It's something I had heard many times but I hadn't understood it.
It was simply that there is a child with needs inside me, and I have to be the adult that will care for her.
I can't explain it any other way that conveys why I suddenly understood it this time. But thanks for putting this topic out there Heather.
I think self care doesn’t always feel good at first. Boundaries are self care. Saying no is self care. Pushing yourself to exercise when you want to eat a donut and cry is self care. As someone who is coping with a breakup with an addicted partner, self care has been releasing any sort of responsibility for him. But also eating a donut and crying is good too. :)
You said in one of these threads recently something about the overlap between people who procrastinate and people who never reward themselves, and I've been thinking so much about this.
I'm 30 and just now realizing how my whole life I punish myself for being capable, smart, talented, etc. by treating success like it's regular, like excelling should be the baseline. I'm a star in a very bougie PhD department and I don't think I ever celebrated anything -- not publishing, not finishing my exams, not even getting accepted. I have never even gone to any graduation ceremony in my life! Let alone celebrated.
Anyway, I'm trying to build in more rewards for myself. I went through a tough breakup and bought myself a little gold ring. I love wearing it.
"We act like it’s normal to have to work hard even when we’re feeling anxious and miserable, because that’s how life was for us as children a lot of the time."
I was especially struck by this line in your column today. I can relate to the letter writer's childhood upbringing and have struggled off and on with feeling miserable about my life (but also engaging in behaviors that would probably not make it better) because I had believed I deserved to feel that poorly.
This year has been different for me personally in that regard due to the fact that my work and home lives have coalesced for the foreseeable future since my partner and I work at the same place, and now we both work from home. With no distinction between work and home, I ended up working very long hours and panic reading the news. I felt a lot of guilt as my job had not been affected and we were able to go home no problem, and in some ways it felt like I needed to spend my off-hours informed. Obviously, I burnt out quickly.
Eventually I had to start taking more time for myself and I have felt so much better since. I have grown a vegetable garden this year and it has been a wonderful salve for my anxious brain.
I am currently punishing myself for opening up your essay and email first thing this morning and ruminating on how I am the queen of self-punishment instead of just getting my work done. Narcissistic parents who screamed at each other-check; suppressing my needs and emotions to protect my younger siblings from said parents-check; over-achieving to the point of selecting only the hardest elements of my field to define my success-check; complete lack of boundaries with my avoidant husband for several decades-check; continuing to labor at “making it work” with said husband despite the recent revelation of his five-year affair-check. I could go on and on and on.
What has helped: 10 years of therapy; finding friends that I could be vulnerable and honest with; having two amazing kids who made me realize just how fucked up it was that my parents treated me the way they did; carving out weekends away from family and demanding parts of work to focus on what really drives me-designing scientific research; good books with deep complicated characters; running in the woods; listening to birds sing.
I’m likely 10 years older than you Polly, and still finding it hard to accept that I AM ENOUGH without self-recrimination. Happy to see all the young-uns trying to break these habits early; it gets harder and harder the longer you deprive yourself of your wants and needs.
Man, oh man do I struggle with this! I spend a lot of my work day getting distracted and I guilt trip myself all day long. Then once the day is mostly over and I don't have much to show for it, I end up thinking, screw it, I'm just having a hard time, so I'm not going to feel bad about this and I can try again tomorrow. But I don't think I actually believe that it's truly acceptable that I am not a perfect productive worker 100% of the time, because I have these icky feelings that I don't really know how to deal with. Once I finally have free time at the end of the night, I avoid all the self-care things that I actually want to do (read books, exercise, exfoliate my damn face, watch a show I've been interested in, drink hot tea), and instead I just end up spending two or three hours sitting at the kitchen counter reading the latest horrific news about what is going on in our country and getting worked up over the idiocy of right-wing ideology. I go to bed feeling awful because I didn't actually take care of myself and instead just let my brain stew in this negative state for a few hours, and then the next day I am in such a funk that I can't focus on work and I once again spend all my time looking for distractions and things to make myself feel temporarily better. Breaking that cycle feels so overwhelming, and I have not yet managed to find a way to snap out of it.
I love the idea of self-care but I'm having trouble identifying what it would even look like for me. It seems like nothing helps me feel rested anymore—I can't find it in me to write, going outside and smelling the smoke from all the fires is just stressful, even hanging out with my girlfriend feels like work. Beyond that, I'm behind on multiple projects (again) and I feel guilty for resting at all.
Growing up with some undiagnosed mental health issues meant I was constantly punished for falling behind. Even when I was doing my best, it wasn't enough. I'd just like to be enough for the neurotypical world, even for one day, so I can relax without shame.
Wow...these exact themes surfaced in my morning pages this morning...self-protection, joy, and most importantly, the intention to START TAKING UP MORE SPACE. As women we are conditioned to live small. You said it first, and best, but I second it. Cheers, Polly!
I am going to read this to two of my eating disorder clients this week. They need to hear exactly this. Thank you
I love that letter and I love your response. I really relate to creating crisis so I can solve it. (I currently have a shoulder impingement that got very painful because I ignored it when it was just a twinge.) I'm also often on other people's side of the street. Part of this is a deep desire to understand but it's also about avoiding doing the things I need to do on my side. I would like to have a life where the word "pleasure" did not sound illicit and where I was as good at expecting wonders as I am at expecting problems. It is definitely a practice.
Superficially, I'm great at self care. If you look a little closer I am AWFUL at it, because I am a tyrant to myself. Anyone else read Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror? The Always Be Optimizing chapter could be about me...
I think you can read it here, too: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/aug/02/athleisure-barre-kale-tyranny-ideal-woman-labour
Polly, a year ago you selected my letter about my eating disorder, and my shitty ex, and my drinking problem, and my respectable career, and my running injury, and told me
1) not to confuse my own formidable ambition that I am somewhat ashamed of with an attraction to grandiose, self-confident men,
2) and not to confuse productivity with purity,
3) not to confuse resting with weakness (or something like that).
and to feel my way forward and basically learn to understand when I WANTED to exercise, and when I WANTED to rest (and not just follow my seventh half marathon training plan to a T and wonder why I want to sleep and am angry all the time).
I am still working on it but I gotta say things have improved. And there was a while there that I WAS POSITIVE your advice was not working bc for so many months I will still lazy, still not fitting into my clothes, still moody, still hurt from my injury, still hurt from my ex. But then I let go and felt my way forward and things shifted almost GLACIALLY SLOW but they DID shift. and they are still shifting. There are days I eat way too many tortilla chips but instead of punitive action the next day?? I am just like, oh darn, k.
I had three glorious delicious gourmet pancakes on my birthday two weeks ago and a spicy ass bloody mary, and then a nap, a bath, and a shit load of sushi. But I also eat beautiful salads many nights a week bc I want them. I found a physical therapist that I like, respect, and connect with and she has me doing amazing things for my running form and I really feel like I can finally ACTUALLY FEEL when I'm sore and shouldn't push it and when I have glucose to burn and should push it. I am not yet in my pre-injury form, but I am so beyond confident I will get there and this time I'll get there eating pancakes when I want to. I lost the post-breakup-drinking-problem-comfort-eating weight but yet I am still magically eating pancakes and having blood marys, I cannot even stress how important of a victory that is to me as a former anorexic/bulimic.
Moving forward I really want to eke out just how much diet culture bullshit I can banish from my brain (seriously, Jia's piece is SO good) while also still honoring the part of me that DOES see myself as an athlete and a hot girl.
I echo the people who've said it's so hard to know how to feel good about anything we've achieved, or how to relax after. I'm coming off a 4 and a half year intense marathon of writing a novel (which I got a book deal for, with a small advance but still, yay!) alongside day jobs and I have no idea how to feel any sense of satisfaction, joy or achievement in finally finishing it. Instead I'll wake up the morning after the final manuscript is in and worry that I'm 39 and haven't had a baby yet. I just want to know *how* to appreciate the work I've done and the time and care I've put in, but instead all I know is an empty inner voice that says get over yourself, you wanted a family just as much and now you're fucking that up. Argh!
It might in part be because my parents made it clear to me until my mid-twenties, when they realised I wasn't going to change my mind about it, that spending my life trying to write fiction was selfish, self-indulgent and would only end in failure. In part they were trying to protect me (from the financial difficulties of it), but I'm sure the fact I can't feel good on any deep level about achieving something I've put years of love and time and energy into stems directly from that.
Oh, man, Heather, this one hit so close to home I had to backtrack and make sure *I* didn't write it.
"Because you had a narcissist for a mother, you feel neglected a lot, whether people are neglecting you or not. You also neglect yourself. You also neglect other people. You also give way too much of yourself without noticing. You also want to solve everyone else’s problems all the time. You also can’t stand it when someone else is doing something THE WRONG WAY. You want things done THE RIGHT WAY, always."
I mean.... Fuck! Last time you opened a thread I said I feel like I alway have to try so so hard to be a GOOD daughter, wife, friend. I try to help everyone and when then don't follow my (PERFECT AND WELL-THOUGHT) advice, I get grumpy and feel neglected. "Why did you ask, then?" It's a lot.
For the better part of the 2018 and 2019 I felt like I was getting so much better in giving myself what I deserve, in reparenting myself, both letting myself feel all the things and also making myself do the things I didn't want to but knew would do me good (exercise, therapy). Then at the tailgate of 2019 I started neglecting myself again. Stopped exercising, left therapy. Then... Covid. And I'm still on this whirlwind of "WHAT THE FUCK SHOULD I DO" with no end in sight! It's the worst being stuck in a 1-bedroom apartment. I can't get the exercise I like to do. I hate the thought of therapist-shopping through Zoom or whatever. I'm getting takeout a lot. I'm also considering if my husband would be better without me. I don't know, I just relate a lot.
I have an addiction of my own - takeout food which always tastes better than homemade food. In your column, you write "Forgiving yourself means learning to enjoy your day instead of working yourself into the ground." What if your addiction is how you enjoy your day and relax from working? What if the letter writer is trying to enjoy her day and alcohol is the easiest way to do it (while for me it is takeout)? The punishment only comes later and that's the problem. I'm still young so I don't even feel heavy-ness or stomach upset with takeout food. But the punishment is coming in a decade or so when I'm unhealthy.
I guess the answer is to enjoy the actual day and not your drug of choice. But what about the day is there to enjoy? Work takes up most of the day and is tiring and annoying. 30 minutes of TV? (meh). A hobby that mostly leaves me more tired since I was already tired from working? (also meh). The only thing that makes me feel excited, relaxed, and happy is my drug of choice - takeout food. Nothing else seems to compare.
Slightly off-topic to start, but: it often spooks me, how many of us daughters of abusive, narcissistic mothers and enabling, raging fathers end up in the climate/environmental field. Can you let her know that she's not alone, and that I'm willing to share contact info if she wants to connect?
More on topic: I really struggle with self-care. Not just because of how far it's traveled from its revolutionary roots within BIPOC/queer/feminist communities, but also because--as a type 1 diabetic--self-care isn't soothing and doesn't feel good. It's work. It's needles and blood tests and frustration. I end up resentful of the time and effort I need to put into keeping my body operational, and doubly resentful that I'm supposed to enjoy it--or meant to find something else in addition that I can squeeze into my day and enjoy that. I also am becoming increasingly frustrated and disenchanted with its emphasis on individualism, on atomisation, which is very often the roots of the problems causing our distress in the first place. I think a lot now about community care and how we can build working models of caring for each other, particularly for those situations when 'self-care' either sounds like or is, "tough luck lady, you're on your own."
Hi Heather. Every time time you do this I always end up writing thank you because I just feel such gratitude in feeling connected to you and to others like me in this space. It’s so weird because for so long I felt like you were a part of my life but I never could talk to you. I had your words highlighted in your books and would refer to old blog posts, as if you were my oldest friend, the one who was always there when I needed you. When friends were sad or hurting, a quick google search with Polly + their problem always resulted in some beautiful wisdom and I would send it their way. I often thought of you and worried about your energy. You give so much. Anyway, you’re here now. We’re all interacting, chatting almost and I love COVID for that. I love that it made this accessible. I kind of always viewed you as this writing goddess, an unattainable kind of wisdom, and in responding and interacting with you I’m realizing so much of that already lives in me and these forums give me the opportunity to express that and I was receptive to your beautiful words because I AM a beautiful person. That said, you are still a goddess to me!! But now I am too!!