Many years ago and many miles from here, I had a wonderful therapist. Sitting down across from her, when I could drag myself in, was nearly unbearable. Shame and depression had me in a vice grip and I believed I was stuck, beyond help. I was desperate for this woman to fix me or scream at me or tell me to leave. Instead, I could very much feel that she saw me whole, even loved me.
The contrast was excruciating.
Elizabeth could see that I could scarcely hold my seat, so we would walk her dog together. Side by side and moving, it was easier to find words. We would walk down to the water and breathe the air.
At some point, she gave me an assignment. I was to keep my journal nearby and every hour, I was to jot the answers to the following questions:
1) How do I feel?
2) What do I need?
3) What do I want?
At first, this struck me as both ridiculous and extreme. I couldn’t imagine how it was going to help but it sounded easy enough.
Until I tried it.
At which point it became clear that these were trick questions. Hour by hour, I hadn’t the foggiest idea of how I felt, what I needed or wanted. Not one clue.
In the twisted paradox of addiction, I was both entirely self absorbed and completely bereft of my own attention.
I didn’t realize it at the time but Elizabeth was helping me learn to look after myself.
I’ve heard it said that the opposite of addiction is connection and I believe this to be true. I also believe that there are myriad subtle forms of addiction-perfection, approval, productivity, security, to name a few.
If you dig up the dirt around a rigid belief or dysfunctional pattern, you’ll find a scared kid there, wrapped around the roots.
This inner kid could be called the inner critic or the ego or one of our many “parts”.
I like thinking in terms of a child because we tend to be gentler with children, more patient and kind. And-here’s the deal, that kiddo just wants what we all want: to be seen, heard, and accepted-as is.
Maybe if all of our parents had known this and had the tools to practice, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I don’t know. But here we are, lots of us, unwittingly letting wounded five, eight, and twelve year olds guide our lives. Waiting on someone else to love us. Telling ourselves Stories of insufficiency. It’s not pretty.
It’s no wonder so many people feel bottomless and empty inside. There is no one home.
It is fully possible to mother ourselves back into wholeness. When we do the work of attending to ourselves with love and kindness, we reclaim our abandoned integrity. We can gather up that little one so that she becomes a working part of us, not a part that works us.
This is a deep process, well beyond the scope of a blog post. I highly encourage help-a great coach, therapist, sponsor or mentor.
Above all you need a daily practice, a means of looking after yourself. Unless you are very, very busy, in which case you need an hourly practice.
You can start in this moment by paying attention to your inner dialogue, to how you are looking after yourself.
How do you speak to yourself?
Would you speak that way to a child whom you loved?
Have you become so used to the inner mantra of not good enough that you scarcely notice it?
How are you about feeding yourself, putting yourself to bed so you feel good the next day?
What about saying ‘no’ when something doesn’t work for you?
Here’s a practice, if you are so inclined. Set an alarm to go off on your phone three times a day. When it beeps, check in with that little one:
-How are you feeling, sweetheart?
-What do you need?
-What do you want?
This takes all of thirty seconds and is especially useful in moments of discomfort or uncertainty and anytime you feel yourself getting pulled out of your own orbit.
Looking after yourself is your number one job.
It is the beginning of growing up.
*Photo by David Mao