Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a very stubborn person. My parents always told me this, and I stubbornly refused to admit it. Out loud, that is. The overwhelming evidence of my stubbornness has always been a little hard to refute. It takes a big disruption in my life to jolt me out of the single-minded pursuit of…whatever the heck it is I’m pursuing. I’m not even sure what I’m after, but I’m heading there with stubborn intensity.
I work hard and fast when I’m stubbornly pursuing this thing (Success? Perfection? Some kind of gold medal? Who knows!) and completely ignore my body and inner self in the process. You would think that ridiculous amounts of physical pain in a very personal area of my body would have served as a sufficient wake-up call. While suffering from IC and vulvodynia, I spent hours upon hours learning what my body was telling me, listening to the messages of my inner self, learning how to rebuild my chi, and accepting my physical pain so I could learn what needed to be learned. The general message seemed to be, “For God’s sake, could you just learn to treat yourself with a little compassion?” I studiously applied that lesson for a while - at least a year, I think. Six months, for sure. Well, maybe three…
And then I forgot. So my body sighed, rolled its eyes, and mumbled to itself, “Here we go again.” Wham! I was struck by intense Achilles tendonitis that prevented me from running, my preferred form of exercise. At the time, I was determinedly running daily (and increasing my mileage) while also dieting and working constantly. Oh, and I was in school, too. The tendonitis pretty much hobbled me, forcing me to actually…get this…rest. With my feet up! Suddenly, struck by the irony of the new ailment, I had a light-bulb moment and went back to the compassionate self care routine I had discovered before. This time, I kept at it for a little longer. I think.
I know you’re not going to believe this, but you do not know the extent of my stubbornness. About a year ago, I picked back up the running routine again, delighted my heels didn’t hurt, and started adding mileage once more. I focused with great intensity on my coaching, put immense pressure on myself, spent my days rushing madly around working like a dog (actually, come to think of it, if I worked like my dog does, I’d be the most relaxed woman alive), and generally headed straight down the old road, AGAIN.
The early warning sign was an interesting flu that took me out for two weeks - I lost my voice and literally could not coach. The next warning sign was the second round of the same flu - during which I lost my voice again. Did I listen? Did I heed my body’s messages, like I tell all my clients to do? Ummmm…..no. Why not? Well, it could have something to do with that pursuit of perfection/success/gold medal of some kind…
So then my body started giving me rather embarrassing intestinal symptoms. I’ll save you the details. And then it threw in a daily mid-afternoon slump that left me practically unable to keep my eyes open between 4 and 6 pm. I started getting regular headaches. Getting out of bed in the morning felt like a huge project. (And yet, off I went for a daily morning run - yes, yes, I am insane.) Then I visited my GYN for that enjoyable yearly experience and admitted to him that, at the age of 30, I have been having hot flashes. I know, hot flashes! Crap, crap, crap!
So here I am again, back at school, learning the lesson. For the umpteenth time. I know, however, that I am learning it on a deeper level this time. Having coached myself quite thoroughly, I am recognizing the driving force behind my lack of compassion for myself, my utter lack of regard for my body’s limits, and my refusal to listen to all these messages. Apparently, I feel as though I should be superwoman, mortal being though I am. Apparently, I do indeed need to be perfect and drive myself into the ground, according to my slave driver self. Martha Beck calls this nasty little part of our psyche the Dictator. Mine is ruthless, obviously, and she really wants that gold medal. Who is going to give it to her, you ask? Nobody at all. She is pursing a ghostly, vague ideal that is completely, totally useless.
I am listening to my body now, finally, and the message is once again clear. Rest. Rebuild. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Have some compassion for the physical instrument that brings you life every day despite your stubborn ignorance of its existence. Stop putting ridiculous amounts of stress on yourself and enjoy what there is to be enjoyed, do less and love what you do even more. Sleep. Eat well.
I’m sharing this experience with you in the hopes that perhaps it will save you one round of classes at the University of Pain, my alma mater many times over. Learning to truly care for yourself, to treat yourself as a whole being with a mind, body, and spirit, is vital, especially if your body is screaming at you like mine has done so many times. Stop and look at the ridiculous pressures you are putting on yourself and recognize the stress that creates within your body. If you listen, it will tell you. You’ll feel the muscle tension, the anxiety, the racing heart, the feeling as though all your nerves are humming. All you have to do is check in and follow the wisdom of your body.
And if your first response to that sage advice is something like, “But there’s so much I need to get done! There’s the laundry, the kids to feed, the husband to water - oh wait, no that’s the plant…” then allow me to offer my favorite quote from The Art of Power by author and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “There is only one kind of success that really matters: the success of transforming ourselves, transforming our afflictions, fear, and anger. This is the kind of success, the kind of power, that will benefit us and others without causing any damage.”
Because if there’s nothing left of you to give, then you might as well throw your to-do list right out the window anyway. Your care of others suffers greatly if you do not care for yourself. We are not superwomen. We are mere mortals.
While visiting, my father once encountered my to-do list. After noting its immense length, he took the liberty of adding one last item.