I woke up one day last week feeling sick. I got up anyway, enjoyed my morning routine of tea with my husband, and walked the dogs. But as the morning advanced, I found myself back in my bed. I was scheduled to teach that evening, and in order to do that I would need to bury my headache and body aches under a thick layer of medication. Or, I could find a way out of teaching. This posed a pretty serious problem for me because I tend to compulsively follow through on all of my commitments, no matter how badly I feel, and I despise asking for help. I see myself as someone who serves others, so I don’t like feeling selfish or prioritizing myself.
My fear of self-care was imprinted in my midwestern Protestant work ethic upbringing. In my family of origin, my siblings and I were highly motivated to avoid the labels lazy and selfish and the dreaded, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself!” As an adult, I often find it difficult to know when to throw in the towel, rest, or take care of myself. My mom’s aphorism, “You can rest when you’re dead,” is a not-so-gentle reminder to never waste a moment of our precious lives. It was a valid concept, but one maybe more positively stated as “Carpe diem!”
I teach many women and men who have high profile or high pressure jobs, and I know that I’m not alone in my fear of never doing enough. For many of us, discerning when to take a nap or a hot shower and when to pop some more Tylenol and power through the pain, isn’t easy. My first response to the doctor who told me I would need to be in a walking boot for six weeks was to politely say, “No, thank you.” Even after she showed me an X-ray in which we could both clearly see that my metatarsal joint had collapsed, I refused to take her advice to let it rest. I left her office without the boot, only to return the next day (head hanging low) after reading horror stories online of what would happen to my foot if I didn’t stay off it.
The internal voice that says, “Don’t stop!” can be an echo from childhood, society, and even, if we aren’t careful, from our spiritual and religious practices. Those of us who are doing work in helping fields can be especially prone to pushing past our own physical and mental health boundaries. If we don’t do it, we tell ourselves, than someone will suffer. This voice often blocks our ability to take good care of our bodies, hearts, and minds.
Boddhisattva or Codependent?
In Zen Buddhist practice, we aim to live like a Bodhisattva — a being who dedicates her enlightenment to helping others. Thich Nhat Hanh describes a Bodhisattva as someone who has compassion within himself or herself and who is able to make another person smile or help someone suffer less. It’s a beautiful image, especially because Bodhisattvas are motivated by their compassion to reduce the suffering of others.
As aspiring Bodhisattvas, we may find that we are motivated to help others out of something other than pure compassion — perhaps guilt, fear or shame. We worry that if we stop and take care of ourselves, someone else will be angry or hurt. But if we try to contribute when we are unwell or emotionally unavailable, are we really helping, or are we simply generating anger and resentment? If we think are “helping” when we are really avoiding our own guilt or fear, we aren’t a Bodhisattva, we are codependent.
Feeding the Hungry Ducks
One simple rule-of-thumb that helps me differentiate Boddhisatva actions from codependent ones was put forward by Marshall Rosenberg. He suggests that we never take any action unless we can do it with the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck. A child feeds a hungry duck, not out of obligation, fear, or shame, but out of an authentic joy of giving and compassion for this one hungry duck. Think of all of the things you have done today or plan to do later — how many of of your actions can you honestly say you are doing with the joy of a child feeding a hungry duck?
“Love turned inward heals the scrapes and wounds you’ve accumulated through daily living. Love turned inward weaves a cocoon of protection, where you can recharge, rejuvenate, and restore. Love turned inward conjures a reservoir where you can tap into your own power and manifest the highest expression of yourself.” –SooJin Pate, The Radical Politics of Self-Love and Self-Care
I like the clarity of the Alanon daily reader, which says, “If our motivation for being thoughtful is fear-based and of any need to fix, caretake, control, manipulate, or avoid abandonment, we’re behaving codependently. If our motivation is a sincere desire to give to another person with no fear of shame, abandonment or neglect of our needs and boundaries, then we’re being thoughtful.” [a Bodhisattva]. It goes on to say, “When we find ourselves pleasing other people and behaving in ways that can be harmful to our needs, we should ask ourselves, ‘Have I taken care of myself?’ This question can help us discern our motivation to care for others.”
What is the Purpose of Your Self-Care?
Another way to check our motivation for resting or taking care of ourselves is to ask ourselves the question, posed by Yashna Padamsee of the National Domestic Workers Alliance: “What is the purpose of your self-care? Is it to do this for all of our lives, not just yours?” (This quote comes from New York Times article here.)
Padamsee’s question points to our ability to act out of avoidance and requires us to face the long-term consequences of our codependency. If I decide to drug myself up and go ahead and teach my class, it might benefit me by making me appear to be strong and resilient. It would also benefit me because I wouldn’t have to feel the habitual shame that arises in me when I ask for help. But does it benefit the group I am teaching? Not really. The best thing for the group is to have a teacher who can be authentically present and healthy to support the group. And for me to be well enough and inspired to teach another time.
And so, from my bed I texted a friend and asked her if she could cover for me. I paid attention to my feelings of shame at being lazy and unproductive, and I understood that those feelings were and are part of being embodied in this particular human form. And I reminded myself that if I want to practice like a Bodhisattva, inspired by compassion to make another person smile or help someone suffer less, I also must be willing to feel compassion for myself, too.
I stayed in bed for the rest of the day.