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Today, for the first time in a long time, I took my dog on the half mile walk to the edge of our neighborhood.
Neither of us particularly like the cold or snow, but most of it has melted now. The sun was brighter and warmer than it had been in months. It didn’t take long before I began to notice how good I felt inside—and immediately started cursing myself for not taking more mental health walks over the long winter.
I could have been happier, I thought, and my mind began to overthink my level of self-care.
I know self-care is literally anything that is taking care of oneself, but to me the phrases of self-love and self-care make my skin crawl. I am not discounting the validity and importance of these ideas; however, in my experience, the representation of the practice of these ideas is often shallow—like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg.
Bubble baths with expensive soap, spa days, shopping sprees, and yes, even mental health walks come to mind. As if these fleeting moments undo all of the damage we inflict on ourselves every day.
After all, if we did truly care, or love ourselves, why would we push ourselves to the point of even needing days of respite?
Then I began to take an inventory of my own self-care, and depths thereof. Lost somewhere in the recesses of my mind, fixated in these hopeful, albeit self-serving thoughts, I suddenly noticed a small patch of crocuses just starting to poke up through the muddy thawing ground.
Seeing these tiny, fragile flowers forced all previous thoughts from my mind and I suddenly found myself worried that it was too early for them to wake. They would freeze by the weekend with the incoming storms, but there they were. I stood a moment allowing myself to become excited for the long-awaited thaw and the beauty that was waiting just a few warm breaths away. The early days of spring when nature shakes off the last bits of snow and cold and there is a sudden eruption of green laced with the colors of spring flowers.
Right then, the lesson of that moment appeared. The lesson that Mother Nature was teaching me was loud and clear: nature knows.
It wasn’t too early for those tiny, fragile flowers. Nature knows itself. Of course, she does. But this obvious lesson was immediately followed by a question. A question that has been asked by many people in many different ways, but a question I had never bothered to ask myself.
Can someone show love to themselves, or anyone else, if they don’t know themselves? Can I?
It seems like such a silly question. How could I not know myself? I am, quite literally, myself.
We definitely know things about ourselves, mostly in the context of our likes and dislikes: colors, foods, places, people, and so on. But do we know ourselves the way nature knows herself? In full trust? In the allowing the blooms to push through the dark and cold kind of way?
How could we know our souls when we can’t even stand in front of a mirror long enough to see past the surface structures we tear apart?
So, do I know myself? And if I don’t, how can anyone else know me? And if no one truly knows me, how could they love me?
My thoughts were taking over again. All these questions cut through me, isolating me and filling my eyes with tears that stung my cheeks in the cold air, pulling me back into the dark bitter of this long winter. I tried to push all thoughts from my head on my walk back to my house, but I failed. By the time I reached my door I had so many conflicting thoughts happening, the push and pull of realization and doubt. I was simultaneously allowing the thoughts to flow, while questioning if I was overthinking, which of course I was.
I found myself on the hard floor in front of my altar—the one place I have trained myself to breathe—to let it all fall away and be silent. I am often grateful for this training and the Pavlov-like conditioned response of this space.
After a few minutes, one thought surfaced:
Maybe I know myself and maybe I don’t, but there is only one way to find out—by actively trying to get to know myself. By slowly spending time with myself in the same way I would get to know another. By trying to find a best friend in this life, because after all, shouldn’t I be my own best friend?
And just like getting to know someone else, I started from the outside to work my way in. I thought and meditated and journaled, and came up with a plan on how to meet me:
Step One: Looking at myself, literally.
I set a timer for one minute every day and looked myself in the eyes in a mirror. It felt so silly and uncomfortable in the beginning. I found myself looking away…embarrassed.
Embarrassed of myself in front of myself. Which I realized was, in itself, ridiculous, but there I was. I forced myself to push through that vulnerability. After a while, I found myself talking out loud, like I was coaching a friend, “You can do it. Hold on, it’s just for one minute. Don’t look away.”
Over the next few days of this practice, I noticed so many different emotions came up, some expected and some not expected. In those moments, I realized that I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. How could I have feelings about myself without ever realizing them? Any time I would criticize myself, I made myself say three positive things, which again made me feel ridiculous.
This is something I started with my children when they were young and would tease or talk negatively about each other or anyone else. Three positives for every negative. By day five I found myself sitting there after the timer went off, becoming more comfortable with myself, with my internal conversations, and wanting to know more about what was behind the eyes and face I saw staring back at me.
Step Two: Making commitments to myself and keeping them.
I started out small so that I would actually be able to accomplish them. I knew the key here was the follow through. When we tell ourselves that we are going to do something and then don’t do it, it breaks trust. Even within ourselves. I read this somewhere, probably in a meme, “When we break commitments to ourselves, we are subconsciously telling ourselves that we can’t be trusted.” How can we love and connect with someone we don’t trust?
Gradually, the commitments became bigger, from making the bed and putting my makeup away to less screen time and more salads. I also learned to not make any commitments when I know I’m in a stubborn mood and won’t follow through. I was surprised to learn that I am far more stubborn than I ever imagined anyone could be, and usually it’s in a way that only serves to hold myself back.
Step Three: I move into grounding.
I don’t have a favorite type of grounding technique. For me, it wholly depends on my mood and the weather. The most important part of grounding is that it feels like coming home after a long time away. Sometimes it’s sitting in the grass or snow. Or going for a walk, hiking, running, dancing, gardening, cooking in my bare feet, taking a bath, reading a good book with my dog in my lap, holding a snake and watching it move through my fingers and up my arms. I have even hugged a few trees.
It’s finding the ground that holds me and sharing a connection for a few moments of silence in my head. Anything that helps me remember the magnificence of the world and the recognition that I am a part of that magnificence. This allows all the little things to fall away. It also helps me remember that no one will ever be as hard on myself as I am, but at the same time I cannot exist in a pressure cooker.
Grounding helps me turn the heat down on myself. And reminds me that the idiosyncrasies and blemishes that exist in the grass, in the snow, in movement, in plants, in bubbles, in food, in everything, serve a powerful purpose. It reminds me that mistakes are natural.
Everything is what it is because of mistakes. Every rock, mountain, flower, tree, bird, animal, and even humans went through millions of mistakes to evolve to where they are today. Without all the failures and mistakes, existence would be boring and un-evolved. Mistakes are the best parts of everything. The best parts of me. And so, I ground.
Step Four: Because I write, I wrote.
I wanted to pull my insides out—all of them. So, I got out a notebook. It wasn’t my gorgeously embossed journal that I sometimes secretly hope someone in the future will read and ponder over the circumstances of my boring but complicated life and mind—it was just a plain, spiral notebook. A place where I wasn’t telling my story. A place where I would be real, honest, tantrum throwing, cursing, wholly vulnerable, scribbling, and writing things that probably should be thrown in a fire when I am done.
I know this is called shadow writing in some places; pulling out all the darkness that lives under all the lies we tell ourselves to feel good. Writing out all the things I would never say out loud, the things I barely allow myself to think. Stopping only for a moment after every violent outburst to hold the one who wrote it, the one who thought it, the one who did it. Holding her like she is my best friend who just had her heart broken. Because she did, in possibly the most painful way, the pain of breaking your own heart, which is truly tragic.
There I was, after all of this, and for the first time in my life I finally felt ready to want to love myself. I finally felt like I wasn’t alone, that I am actually getting to know myself. And I’m not so bad to be around! I’m finally the best friend I would call when I was having a bad day. We’ve connected and found common ground and shared tears and discomfort, and even some laughs.
I don’t yet know my whole self—that will take some time—but I do know the depth of determination I have to dig into my core, no matter how painful. I now know how witty I can be when I feel cornered. I now know that my eternal optimism is absolutely exhausting and clearly only for the sake of my own survival. But I also know I wouldn’t change any of those things.
I feel relieved, like I finally shared a secret I have been holding on to. I feel excited to see how much more I can learn about myself and where this friendship goes.
I am learning who I am and as I come to know her, I realize how much I trust her and love her.