How to Take Care of Yourself… in a Conflict with Your Partner

Accepting conflict

Every intimate relationship has to find its balance of harmony, conflict, calm, and passion if it is going to bring those involved mostly benefit.  “Mostly benefit” may not sound so thrilling, yet it is a worthwhile goal. Every partnership has its low moments. Every human connection has some form of conflict at some point.  Every relationship has its own complex actions and reactions based on the partners involved. To get through the difficult parts with a sense of safety and intact love and benevolence toward each other is a win.  This is what I would describe as “mostly benefit”: even with some conflict, there is a foundation of love and goodwill that you share.

Truck Couple
Seeing the process underneath the content

I am passionate about working with couples because studying these interactions and identifying ways that conflict can be minimized and love can be amplified is fulfilling and inspiring.  What feels so catastrophic to intimate partners during a serious conflict doesn’t frighten me as the therapist in the room, because from the outside I can see the intensity of the love between the partners… and also the subtext of the conflict.  I can help to slow down the interaction and untangle the words describing the content of the argument- the topic being discussed- from the tone of voice, the body language, and the emotion expressed that all comprise the process of how the disagreement is being conducted.

If we’re going to get to the root of the discussion in a conflict, we need to focus on the process.  The content that couples arrive to discuss is short-lived in the therapy room, because pretty quickly we get underneath it.  What are the emotional needs that are really being negotiated here? (To feel heard? To know you are trusted… or your partner is trustworthy?)  What resentments are not being spoken directly, but are being broadcast in tone and posture? (The affair that was swept under the rug? The time she brushed off your grief when you needed support?)

 

 

Introductory skills for uncovering process

It is very helpful to have a marriage and family therapist in the room when you are having these conversations, but if you feel safe and stable enough in your relationship and your communication skills, you can support each other to do the same thing when a conflict arises at home.  

Here are some tips that will subtly shift focus to the process of your disagreement, rather than the content.

  1. Slow your conversation down.  Instead of thinking about what you will say in response to your partner, listen to your partner.
  2. When your partner finishes speaking to a point, repeat, in your own words, what he or she just shared with you.  
  3. Look for the feeling or the emotional need under your partner’s words.  If your partner hasn’t explicitly stated a feeling or need, you can elicit his or her help in identifying it.
  4. Above all else, be kind.  This is not a war. You are on the same team.

Here is an example with just one person trying these strategies, still with beneficial outcome:

“I asked you to pick up my sister on your way across town, but you just arrived without her.  I swear that you never listen to what I’m saying.”

“You asked me to pick up your sister and I forgot.  You feel like I never listen to you.”

“That’s right.  And now my sister’s waiting for you and our family meal is ruined.”

“You went to all this trouble to plan a family meal and now it’s ruined because I forgot part of the family!”

“You’re an asshole.”

“You’re angry.”

“YES, I’m angry!”

“You need me to be better at keeping my commitments.”

“Yeah, it would be nice to be able to depend on you now and then.”

“You need me to be dependable.”

“Obviously.”

“I’m sorry that I let you down today.  I don’t want you to feel like this. Can we have a small snack now and put dinner in the oven while I go get your sister?  Is it too late for a do-over tonight?”

“We’ll be eating after 8pm… but I would prefer that than not having dinner together at all.”

“Okay, can you text her that I’m on my way?”

“Okay.”

 

Notice that the partner who is trying to make peace here is not engaging in a dialogue about the content their partner is introducing.  Yes, they are repeating the content to let their partner know they heard it… but they aren’t evaluating the legitimacy of the content nor offering alternative perspectives.  This person reflected back to their partner what they heard (“You feel like I never listen to you,”) rather than answering the statement (“I never listen to you?? What about yesterday, when I made those two phone calls you asked me to make??”)

 

Reaching out for extra help

This type of communicating is a lot easier if both parties are on board, and even easier when working with a therapist.  But it’s never “easy” at first. This is because the vast, vast majority of us are in the habit of ignoring the process of our communicating and simply addressing the content.  It feels very unnatural to not respond to the content and to instead address the feelings underneath the words. It feels unnatural to step up into a role of support for our partner to express their emotions and needs, even when that partner may be stuck in blaming or negative communication patterns.  This is actually a skill that parents can use to help their children learn language that identifies their feelings and helps them to get their needs met. Since many of us did not have parents who taught us these skills, we have the task of learning them as adults.

In addition to being in the habit of only looking at a conversation’s content, most of us become defensive when the person to whom we are closest brings up criticisms about us.  It takes repeated experiences of safety with our partner to trust that a critique today is just that… not a sign that our partner thinks we are permanently defective or would rather be with someone else.

The kind of conversation I’m describing will not be successful for some couples.  If the baseline sense of safety is not there, or if both partners are not invested in moving past your habitual conflict patterns, this will likely fall flat.  In that case, I really do recommend considering a couples’ counselor. When you discuss the counselor’s style before becoming his or her client, look for someone who can articulate using this type of dialogue.  It is sometimes called emotionally-focused therapy.

Whether you are ready to jump in at home and try what I’m suggesting, or you are ready to find the help of a marriage and family therapist who can guide this type of communication, I wish you the best!

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Communication

Listening

Clarity

Partnership

Looking Deeply

Pausing

Habit-creating

Non-violent Communication

Self Awareness

Personal responsibility

 

 

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Are Being Bullied

Something I have heard from more than one client: “I spent so many years being told I was worthless… even though the abuser is finally out of my life, his voice is still in my head every day, cutting me down.”

 

You are enough

I wish I could face every child, teenager, and adult who has ever been verbally abused or bullied and say, “You are enough, just the way you are.  Whoever told you you were less than that is the one who is lacking.”

 

It might not be about you

The way a person makes other people feel is mostly a reflection on that person, not the people they are affecting.  If you are a relatively sensitive / observant person, try this sometime: pay attention to how you feel when you are around someone.  Later, in a quiet moment, reflect on whether that person is someone you would describe as how you felt with them. Very often, an anxious person can trigger anxiety in others.  A depressed person can lower the mood of those around them. A jovial person can make you smile. And a self-loathing person can make you feel bad about yourself.

 

Hurt people hurt people

In addition to the energy and tone of a person, there is how they treat us- the things they say to and about us.  Anyone who goes out of their way to hurt another person is a miserable person. That miserable person may appear to be the most popular girl in school or your boss who keeps getting promotions, but the fact is that they are miserable.  You see, a person who tries to hurt another is consumed with their own insecurity. They may even hate themselves. On the other hand, a happy person lifts up other people. A content, confident person walks into a room and makes everyone in the room feel seen and appreciated.  A worthwhile associate is someone who is generous in their perspective and looks for the best in others.

It’s sad: anyone who needs to pull others down was probably verbally or otherwise abused at some point, and that cruel voice of their abuser is constantly in their heads, giving them low self-esteem.  Don’t let that person who is stuck in their suffering pull you into the same boat. See them for the broken person they are, offer them healing, and then keep your distance. Hopefully, they’ll find a way to be happy and stop hurting other people.  In the meantime, surround yourself with a tribe that will see your wonderful qualities and appreciate them.

In the practice of forgiveness, there is an adage: “hurt people hurt people.” In other words, in order for someone to intentionally hurt another person, he must be in pain.  Happy people don’t hurt other people. When it comes to cultivating compassion and forgiveness for those who have hurt us, it is helpful to remember this. It is easier to forgive someone when we can see them not just as the person who hurt us, but as the person who has been hurt and carries that hurt around.

 

Take your distance

Whether someone you just met has attempted to bring you down once or you have lived for years with a verbally abusive person, it’s your right to set a boundary and not let that person speak to you like that.  For a lot more about setting boundaries, this past article of mine addresses things to consider when setting a boundary and ways to speak to make your expectations clear.

josh-boot-177342-unsplash

Heal

It’s possible you are living with the voice of the long-term abuser in your mind, holding you back with insults every day.  Another article I wrote on this exact topic explores daily practices you can incorporate as a response to that voice.

Remember: you are enough, just the way you are.  If any past or current voices are telling you otherwise, it’s up to you to refuse their narrative and make your own.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Healing

Looking deeply

Reframing

Assertiveness

Setting boundaries

Self-advocacy

Awareness

Clarity

Congruence

Compassion

Communication

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Have Downtime

A question raised by a client: “As soon as I get some days off of work, I Iike to jet off somewhere for a vacation.  Is there any better form of self-care?”

Travel can be an excellent option for self-care.  Whether it includes total rest or exploring new places, meeting new people, or learning new skills, you can support your mental, physical, spiritual, and social needs going somewhere outside of the places you ordinarily see.  A travel vacation is a gift to yourself.  There are also plenty of other ways to meet self-care needs and to gift yourself.  Other options are often less expensive than travel and can be as powerful of an experience.  Before you catch that plane or train or jump in that car, here are some excellent ways to care for yourself when you have several days that are unscheduled.   

Cozy Cabin

Reboot

Many of us have some changes we would like to make in our daily habits, and a few free days are a good time to practice incorporating the new habit or eliminating the old habit.  When you see the new habit in action, you can determine how practical it really is going to be in your usual, busy schedule.  You can also see how you feel without enacting the old habit.  You can identify barriers and scheme for how to circumvent those barriers.  Bringing a healthy lunch to work every day might be a challenge if you get home late at night and don’t have the energy or desire to prepare it before bed or in the morning.  These days off are a chance to explore some healthy soup recipes or even research some healthy-lunch hacks the food bloggers of the world can offer.  

Different from the conceptual making of a resolution to do something, creating a habit is done through nuts-and-bolts actions.  Do you want to meditate for 15 minutes every day upon waking?  Some down time is an opportunity to see what that’s like.  Of course, creating a habit is a multi-layered, longer-term endeavor.  First, conventional wisdom says that it takes about 2 months to establish a new habit.  So, after your few days of playing with the new habit outside of your usual routine, keeping it up during the busy periods will be a test.  It is very helpful to focus on the benefits of the new habit in that critical moment, or “choice point” at which you do the action… or you don’t.

For example, if you are laying in bed and deciding to get up to go sit on a meditation cushion, you may rather sleep for another 20 minutes instead.  At that critical moment, it’s important to recall how serene you felt for the rest of the day yesterday when you gave yourself the gift of getting on the cushion.  In fact, viewing the new habit as an indulgent treat you give yourself makes the “activation energy” of the behavior a lot easier to mount.  You are really loving yourself when you set aside time for meditation, feed yourself food that nourishes you at work, coach yourself through a vigorous workout that will keep your cells thriving.  Feeling cared-for is a lot more motivating than feeling cattle-prodded.  The choice in perspective is yours.

Sometimes there are some deeper psychological barriers to adopting a positive new habit / eliminating an old habit.  This course by Kelly McGonigal is an excellent choice if you want to address those elements of change during your time off.  I recommend it.

 

Dive In

Sometimes we have some unresolved experiences or feelings that keep calling for our attention, but it never feels like the right time to really look into them and do the work of “processing” the feelings or experience.  A few free days are a great time to safely look at difficult situations and allow the process of resolution to unfold.  This can be as simple as sitting down with a journal and writing out our thoughts and feelings about the experience, then going on a bike ride.    

Scheduling a retreat at a local church or meditation center is a way to delineate the time during which you are going to “sit with” the unresolved experience.  These venues also offer teachers / spiritual leaders who can offer support if your processing brings up some feelings you aren’t prepared to manage.

You can also bookend your few days of delving into your heart and psyche with appointments with your personal psychotherapist.  He or she may also have suggestions for exercises you can do during your time to welcome movement and healing in your journey through the difficult situation.  A therapist can also help you interpret what you experience, to integrate what you learn into your self-concept and your understanding of your life until now.   

Connect

A few free days are an excellent chance to reach out to loved ones near and far.  In our everyday lives, it’s easy to deal with what’s directly in front of us and mostly forget our web of support- all our friends and family!  With some free days, you can make plans to visit some of your loved ones, either locally or even a short flight away.

You can also plan your days of connecting as a “stay-cation” at home: days of relaxation and other self-care, punctuated by writing letters to distant loved ones and a few hours on the phone.  A whole day free makes it easier to ring up the people who cross your mind often, but with whom time-zone differences tend to prevent contact.  Maintaining the social fabric of your life is an act of self-care and loved-one care, at the same time.  Connecting with others is a basic need we all have to feel secure and seen.  Offering connection to others helps those in our lives who may not be as skilled at reaching out to receive those benefits, as well.  

 

Enjoy your downtime!      

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Communication

Looking Deeply

Habit-Creating

Rest

Creating Community

Healing

Journaling

Share Your Experience
How do you use your time off for self-care?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!

How to Take Care of Yourself When… There is Suffering Everywhere

In the words of one of my clients: “The state of the world makes it hard for me to feel joy.  Even though things are going alright in my life, I feel overwhelmed by the daily news of violence, environmental degradation, poverty…”

 

It is undeniable that there is great suffering on this planet.  The main news outlets are mostly filled with accounts of both local and international suffering.  Of course, logically we know that beautiful, joyful events are also happening everyday- and yet it can be a challenge to even find information about these examples of progress, generosity, kindness, and hope.

So, how do we cope with the pain of the awareness of the great quantity and depth of suffering impacting people and ecosystems all over the planet?  Like all pain that we experience, the best response is twofold: acknowledging the pain and then proactively addressing its source.  

 

This Hurts

Contrary to the messages of polite society, there are no emotional nor social benefits to being a robotic automaton without sensitivity to the pains and joys that roll through this life.  On the emotional front, anything pushed out of awareness only comes back in worse form- exaggerated reactions to pain in the future and / or physical illness, for example.  On the social front, others will find you cold and lacking personality- and deep interpersonal connection will be elusive.  An authentic, fully-developed adult recognizes and allows their own pain and processes it- allowing it to transform- in a responsible way.

If you are in pain, hold that pain for as long as you need.  Get intimate with it.  What does it feel like in your chest cavity when you see the city cut down a thriving 80-year old tree because its roots are causing problems with the sidewalk?  Where in your body are you impacted when you hear news of a serious accident in which lives were lost?  Sometimes, we only need 10 seconds to allow painful information to work its way through us.  Other times- especially when the suffering is especially deep or near to us, we need to hold and process our experience of it more deeply.  This can look many ways.  

One form of processing is to strike up a conversation with a loved one about the situation.  Just hearing another person say, “I know- that is really sad!” helps to not feel alone in holding the suffering of the world.  On a similar front, bringing the situation up in your own personal therapy can be helpful.  A therapist will likely direct the conversation towards the personal significance, to you, of this particular situation that is impacting you.  Some people find ceremony helpful.  When I hear about brutality in the world, I find the time to light incense, meditate, and pray for the victims and perpetrators to find freedom from their immense suffering.  

Golden Hour

Coming home to our beautiful planet is the best medicine.

In addition to other people and your source of spiritual life, you can also find support from the Earth.  We all came from and return to the Earth- which is able to create and absorb anything that we humans can imagine, and more.  One of my teachers takes daily walks in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, a place filled with beautiful geologic formations.  When she sits there, she feels her troubles being held not just by herself, but by the Earth that is reaching up and holding her as she sits.  When we can transcend the illusion of isolation and see the various entities- human and otherwise- that surround and support us, our burdens become much more manageable.

We can also harness the mind-body connection and use physical ways to process our emotional pain.  Take a walk, do yoga, go on a run, surf, swim- do whatever it is that centers you and also increases your literal “flows” in your body, via the many systems (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, etc.) of the human body.  Another benefit of some of these activities is coming into direct contact with the natural world.  One thing I do when I run through the forest where I live is to become aware of the sweet smell of the ponderosa pine trees, the fragrant earth after a rain, the slightly oceanic smell of the creeks and rivers.  I use my sensitive scent palate to find healing.  When I deeply inhale the exhalations of nature, I take them in as healing agents, filling my body with the life-force of the earth, working their way into every corner- including the places in my heart that hurt.  I’m aware this is a practice in imagination- and also that our minds have much sway in our physical health.  If there is a way you can incorporate positive imagery into your practice, why not try it?

After holding and allowing your pain to transform, one outcome may be a resolve to make a difference in the area of suffering that hit you hard in the first place.  If so, read on.      

 

I Have the Choice to Do Something

There are people working on every issue of injustice and suffering in this world.  Are you already, or are you meant to be, one of them?  This is something only you can decide for yourself.  The key concept here is “I have the choice,” not “do something.”  A friend of mine recently made reference to his “ego-based belief” that he needed to make everything alright.  It can be very empowering to see a need and to address it- you see a homeless and potentially hungry person and you offer the person food.  You visit the beach and pick up the trash you find there.  It is good and feels good to be a force of love and healing in the world.  

The challenge is that if you stopped to address every injustice and every place of hurt that you saw… you would have a hard time functioning in this world that requires that most of us spend most of our waking hours working, usually in careers that are not directly addressing these areas of need.  This is why so many people are actually blind to the great magnitude of suffering everywhere- in our own neighborhoods, schools, homes.  It is overwhelming to be aware and to have the kind of compassion that actively works to alleviate all of the suffering around us.  Unless we are able to let go of our worldly ties and dive headlong into service, like Mother Teresa, we have to choose when to address suffering and when to not address it.  If you are reading this article, chances are that you have the blessing and the curse of clearly seeing much of the suffering in this world, and it can get you down.

Many years ago I asked a spiritual teacher what I should do when I saw a man hit a dog.  I had been traveling in a developing country the week before, and I had become upset when I saw a man on the street hit a dog.  My teacher gave a long answer, but the first observation he made was, “It sounds like you are attached to the idea that the dog shouldn’t suffer; that all beings should be free of suffering…” This observation was correct.  I was operating on the assumption that a paradise of freedom from suffering for all beings was possible and that I had an obligation to correct unnecessary suffering that I saw… even though I know that suffering is a key piece of life and that there is no freedom from suffering if there is no suffering (non-duality.)  My teacher also spoke to practical approaches in the situation I presented (such as addressing the suffering of a man who would hit a dog,) but my primary take-away was the reminder that there will be suffering, and that it’s not my job to fight that fact.  It turns out that there is great freedom in relinquishing responsibility for the happiness of all beings on the planet!!  

I bring up this story to remind us that, while we can work for freedom from suffering, we must do it without attachment to the idea that we will eradicate suffering.  Like my friend who became aware of his ego-based need to make everything alright, we need to be aware of our actual position in the cosmos.  We are each one being in an infinitude of beings on a tiny planet in one small corner of the universe.  We can only go about making change in the world in a healthy way that preserves our own emotional and spiritual health when we recognize that the journey of other people’s lives, of animals’ lives, of the life of the planet are their own journeys, directed by infinite factors.  No one person’s effort- and maybe not the efforts of every human on the planet- can “fix” a single person’s life challenges or the challenges of the Earth.  In other words: let the weight of the world slide right off your shoulders, because you are not the boss of things.       

With this awareness, is there a way that works for you that you can address the world’s suffering?  You could choose one area of focus and then choose how deeply you want to dive into it.  For example, you may decide that child abuse is something you want to help reduce.  On a small scale, you can bring awareness to Child Abuse Prevention Month via social media.  You could donate to local non-profits that work with at-risk children and parents to prevent child abuse and neglect.  You could become a volunteer court appointed advocate for children in foster care.  You could go to school to become a social worker and work in child welfare.  You could do as Mother Teresa and join a monastic order dedicated to caring for impoverished children!  

Another approach could be to have a rule for yourself regarding how you address the suffering you come directly across.  For example, you could decide that if you cross paths directly with someone suffering- a hungry or homeless or distraught person- you will stop what you are doing and offer help.  You can decide that you will donate money once a month to a specific charity and that you will otherwise not get involved with strangers on the street.  At the same time, you can decide to not follow social media or the news because being aware of the suffering of the world- when you can’t directly change the vast majority of it- is hurting your mental health.

The person whose well-being you have the most ability to support is yourself.  When you make the choice to acknowledge and care for your own pain related to the suffering of the world, you are more able to make a difference through action- in the appropriate, thoughtfully considered way that you choose.        

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Boundaries

Looking Deeply

Generosity

 

Share Your Experience
How do you handle the suffering of the world?  How do you process the deepest suffering?  How do you decide when to act, and when to not act?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

 

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Are Ill or Injured

“I’ve had a recurring sinus infection for months, and it’s sapping my energy.  I’m ready to be done with it!”

Our bodies are of the nature to become ill and injured, at times.  Everyone’s been there, but some of us certainly go there a lot more than others.  We all say we want to be healthy, yet we may struggle with staying healthy.  Many factors go into this- our environment, our socio-economic status, our access to nutritious food and medical care.  Ultimately, the daily choices we are able to make- and we all have choices to make- can sway our health.  Are you making choices that lead to health and healing?

 

Temple or Trashcan?

When you get right down to it, self-care is a spiritual enterprise.  It is the attitude of reverence and respect for our bodies and minds that allows us to prioritize caring for ourselves- the same kind of reverence and respect for the body that various religious traditions speak of when describing the blessing of being born human.  When you recognize the great responsibility that has been given to us by our ancestors, Great Spirit, the Earth- or however else you identify your reason for being- it becomes clear that great care must be given to your body.  When you consider how dependent you are on your body to get around and do all the things you do every day, it becomes even more clear that great care must be given to your body.

Juicing Veg

Green Juice in the Making

When we are making choices throughout the day, we all need to ask ourselves, “Is this the choice for a Temple, or a Trashcan?”  For example, am I putting whole, nutritious foods (temple) or processed, high-sugar foods (trashcan) into my body?  Am I training my muscles to become more flexible and strong (temple) or ignoring them (trashcan?)  Do I allow my body regular deep rest (temple) or do I run myself into the ground (trashcan?)  Am I putting toxins like alcohol (trashcan) or nutritiously-dense green juice (temple) into my body?  This 1977 quote from Swami Muktananda frames our options pretty well:

“If God made heaven, he also made hell. Remember both. Don’t go by what God has created but by what is good for you. Who created poison if not the same God who also made honey? What shall we eat, poison or honey?”

In my words: our experience is a mirror of our consciousness- it all comes from the same Source, but what are we choosing to cultivate?  Heaven, or hell?  This is the same question as temple, or trashcan?  Awareness of the quality of your choices is the first step towards lifting up your overall quality of choices.  The second step is interpreting the drives underneath your choices.  Most of us have some drives for treating our body like a trashcan rather than a temple, though the further along in your self-care practice you become, the less and less desirable the trashcan-choices will become and the more and more desirable the temple-choices will become.  When you deeply believe you are a manifestation of the Divine, you treat yourself that way.  Our choices are a reflection of our mental and spiritual state.  If you are recognizing repeated, unhealthy choices, it’s time to acknowledge that you are suffering with sickness at the level of the heart.  Your malady may be self-hatred, from internalized misogyny or homophobia or racism.  It may be addiction to food or sugar or alcohol or another substance / behavior that you use to soothe anxiety or depression.  We have access to nearly unlimited ways to briefly escape our suffering.  

Does any of this sound on target?  You may think, “I don’t hate myself!  I have good self-esteem.”  However, you don’t need to love yourself to have self-esteem.  Maybe you know you’re a good realtor and parent, and you have self-esteem around those traits.  You can still have underlying, unprocessed shame that is calling the shots when it comes to making choices about your health.  If you are making unhealthy choices and treating your body like a trashcan, you’ve got work to do.  The work may be deep and uncomfortable, but I’m going to posit that your growth and health are worth the work.  Don’t despair- there are many ways to get started with this work.  Personal therapy, prayer and meditation, group therapy, 12-step programs, and seeking support from elders in your spiritual community are all great choices.

 I begin this exploration looking at daily choices because it is the years of positive choices that build up our health or the years of negative choices that break down our health.  The sooner you start putting clean and nutritious fuel into your body and training your muscles for strength and flexibility, the sooner you will see that you are less likely to become ill or injured.  We can prevent illness or injury just as well as we can respond to it when it happens.    

 

The Ill Body’s Message

First- as described above- illness and injury are potential alarms that the way you have been treating your body may not be the most gentle, caring, and supportive.  Second, illness and injury are telling you exactly how to heal: you are naturally less able to do as much when you are sick as when you are healthy.  Your body is telling you to slow down and take it easy.  Our culture rewards working through illness- we even have over-the-counter drugs meant to clear up congestion and keep us awake!  This has always seemed wrong to me, as congestion is part of our body’s process of defending against pathogens and our need for greater sleep is meant to conserve energy for healing.

We don’t all have sick days at work or the savings to afford the luxury to rest when we are ill or injured- this is one part of how socio-economic status can prevent us from making the decisions that will lead to our greatest health- but if you can, your body is telling you to take it as easy as possible.  Some illnesses require several days in bed or not leaving the house.  Give your body what it needs.  I know many people can’t be still, can’t allow themselves time away from work for healing.  Sometimes these people think that their work is irreplaceable or that they are just that committed to their work.  I’d like to propose that the real challenge is that most of these people simply are uncomfortable sitting still, maybe to the point of being afraid of what they might see in themselves if they simply stop and spend time alone.

Be Still and Heal

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Very little in the world is so important that it can’t wait a few days.  Let the work sit- undone or delegated- while you are healing.  If you are afraid of appearing weak or somehow incapable at work, I will propose that not tending to your needs now will just make even more incapacitating illness occur down the line.  Just like in so many areas of life, there aren’t shortcuts.  We need to go through the experience of being sick.  If you don’t allow yourself thorough healing- if you don’t stand next to your body and her need to heal- how can you expect your body to stand by you, for the long haul?  This is my favorite recording of a laying-down, body-scan style meditation practice from the Plum Village tradition called “deep relaxation.”   It’s 45 minutes long, so listen when you are truly laying down to do some deep relaxing!

The beauty, radiance, and resilience we wish from our bodies all come from our careful cultivation of these qualities through our own loving choices.

 

Invite the Care of Healers   

Aside from the baseline self-care of good nutrition and exercise and the special effort to get rest when you have fallen ill or injured, it is always good to identify a team of healers in your life.  Medicine women and men are all around us!  These may be friends who can give you consultations when you have health concerns, or professionals you only ever see when you have a formal appointment.  Healers come in many stripes: massage therapists, doctors, nutritionists, nurse practitioners, acupuncturists, herbalists, Reiki practitioners, chiropractors, and so many others.  Who has come into your life?  Your friend-circle is a great place to start; you can ask informational questions to learn about a friend or friend-of-friend’s practice, to see if you’d like to try his or her work.  I recommend getting familiar with the types of healing available in your life at any point- whether you are feeling healthy or ill.  Make appointments to meet with those whom you feel drawn to work.  Money invested in learning about health and healing is wisely invested.  Just like seeing a financial advisor, seeing a health-practitioner can help put your mind at ease about having the tools necessary to make the best decisions for yourself, should you ever be ill or in an actual health crisis.         

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Looking Deeply

Personal Responsibility

Seeking Healers

Rest

Healing

 

Share Your Experience
What have you learned about self-care from illness or injury?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Have Illegal Compulsions

“I’ve been arrested for exposing myself in public… more than once… and I struggle regularly with my compulsion to do it again.”

 

Humans have compulsions to engage in all kinds of behavior.  Some people compulsively eat snacks when watching TV, other people have compulsions to smoke a cigarette every hour, and some others have compulsions to expose themselves to non-consenting strangers.  There is a wide range of social, cultural, ethical, and legal acceptability among human compulsions.  Addictions are a type of compulsion.  I would argue that every one of us has one or more addictions and / or compulsions.  Even people who are substance-free and live lives above-board legally may need to decompress in front of the computer or television as a matter of habit… and compulsion.  It’s just what they feel they need to do, and they do it without really thinking about it.  

If you look deeply, you might realize you have a compulsion to overeat, to surf the internet, to spend money, or to gamble.  Maybe you have been aware of your own compulsion for some time, because you try to keep it a secret or risk potential ridicule or judgment from your romantic partner or family.  Cross-dressing, hoarding, self-injury, and consuming pornography can be such compulsions.  Some compulsions are shared by much of the US population, some are shared by few… some can cause you to lose romantic partners, others can cause you to lose your last penny- and still others can cause you to seriously harm others, become imprisoned, and prevent you from ever finding secure employment. 

Peeking Out

There is healing on the other side

Some compulsions are not especially distressing to the person who has them.  Others cause the person distress, as they do not fit into the person’s view of his or her ideal self.  These compulsions are called ego dystonic.  It’s a matter of perspective: one person’s “distressing compulsion” could be another’s “harmless habit.”  You already know you have a compulsion if it’s an illegal one, because you’ve had to make the choice of whether to pursue it and face serious consequences… or not.  Most people with illegal compulsions also find them ego dystonic.  The illegal compulsions I’m aware of include paraphilias– abnormal sexual desires- that involve partners unwilling or unable to give consent, such as strangers rubbed up against in frotteurism, or minors exploited in pedophilia.  Other illegal compulsions would be to murder people (as in: serial murderers,) addiction to scheduled substances (such as heroin or prescription medications for which you do not have a prescription,) and kleptomania (in which items are taken from non-consenting individuals or stores.)

The most negative consequences of any compulsion only comes to those who act on their compulsions- and not all people do.  In researching for this article, I read a piece written by a celibate pedophile called, “I’m a Pedophile But Not a Monster.”  The author bravely and vulnerably shares what it is like to have a compulsion that goes against his own wishes for himself, and causes him to be reviled by complete strangers… even though he has chosen to never act on his pedophilic compulsion.  Those of us who are not afflicted with illegal or self-harming compulsions often don’t and choose not to understand them nor to have compassion for those who suffer with them.  The important thing to realize is that most people who have such compulsions would rather not have them.  As a society, we push away the things we don’t want to understand… which only makes those situations worse.  The societal and individual habit-energy is the same: push away what makes us uncomfortable.  Push it into the recesses of consciousness and pretend it doesn’t exist.  Every time, those dark places decay into a major problem.  We need to shine a light on all sides of ourselves as individuals and as a society in order to understand and heal.  

If you have illegal compulsions, you can take care of yourself.  As of now, the wider culture will not support you in this and seems almost complicit in your committing a crime by ignoring you until you have committed that crime.  This is not an excuse to not care for yourself.  Some of us have a harder road than most to realizing self-care, and those of us who are likely to have experienced trauma as a child (as have most people in the “illegal compulsion” category) and who are criminalized by the wider society (all people with illegal compulsions) and who are misunderstood and villainized by most people (again: most people with illegal compulsions) have the hardest time of all.  Here are some concrete steps any of us can take- and those of us with illegal compulsions most need to take- towards self-care:

 

Take a Look

Very few of us turn our awareness onto our behaviors to look deeply and understand what compels us to do what we do, and to take responsibility for our choices.  And fewer, beyond that, make the choice to not escape uncomfortable feelings through compulsive behavior- to instead sit with discomfort and befriend our challenging thoughts and feelings and transform them into insight and compassion.  I refer to these types of skills as those of the psychological superstar.  The opposite of a psychological superstar is moving through life as if asleep, not really aware of what motivates you or even what you are actually doing.  Most of us, of course, are in the middle somewhere.  When you have illegal compulsions and are blind to your motivations and actions, you find yourself, at best, at risk of legal repercussions.  At worst, you hurt yourself, hurt others, and can lose everything dear to you.   

The first step to becoming a psychological superstar is to realize where you aren’t expressing the superstar-potential that lies inside you.  This is where recognizing your own addictions and compulsions comes in.  Recognizing is the first step to healing.  All of the illegal compulsions involve the violation of others’ rights or the consumption of substances that are known to cause physical damage to the user- barring a few substances that are scheduled due to political reasons rather than science.  If you look closely and see that you are compelled to hurt yourself or others, chances are that this is an ego-dsytonic fact- and yet, your baseline feelings are worse, because this compulsion is a kind of self-soothing action you have learned to turn towards when you are suffering.  The truth is that every compulsion- illegal or not- causes temporary relief, but does nothing to address the underlying pain that brought the behavior about in the first place.  Add the potential shame for having engaged in the compulsion, and you have a greater mass of pain in your consciousness to compel you into the behavior again.  

If you have identified your own illegally compulsive cycle, it’s time to take action to free yourself.  You are the best person to do this job; as I mentioned before, our wider culture has not prioritized helping you to get free; our wider culture only acts as a judge and executioner.  You need to be your own friend, your own counselor, so that you never see that real-life judge nor executioner.  You can identify places where you can make new choices and you can get yourself to the resources that will preserve your health, integrity, and future.  Reading this article is just the first step.

 

Own Your Isolation

All people with illegal compulsions feel isolated.  Social isolation and the anxiety it feeds worsens the compulsion, and having the socially-unacceptable compulsion pushes you further into isolation.  This cycle can be broken.  Underlying thoughts that fuel the cycle are along the lines of, “Why would the healthy/normal/beautiful people want anything to do with sick/weird/disgusting me?”  Anger at being isolated can fuel the acting-out of the compulsion… but we’ve already determined that acting out the compulsion is only going to get you into trouble and increase your self-hatred, feeding a self-destructive cycle.  You don’t need to self-destruct.  Just because you had a disturbed childhood or otherwise inexplicably violent / intrusive thoughts and feel worthless, which has led to behavior that puts you in an isolated place- which would make anyone resentful and angry- leading to further isolation… does not mean all hope is lost!  Isolation, like any emotion or experience, is impermanent.  

You need to see, name, and own your isolation.  See how it comes from the outside, but also from the inside?  Do you see how your choices reinforce it?  The choice to not make eye contact when walking down the street?  The choice to over-share inappropriate information with strangers?  The choice to not make friends, but instead go straight home after work and not reach out to anyone?  These are examples of ways that people who feel shame and isolation push others away with small but significant actions.  Your life happens to you, to a degree.  Beyond that degree- the cards you have been dealt- you have the freedom to make a choice in every moment about how to live your life.  

Every.  Single.  Moment. Is a chance to think and act in ways that are likely to bring greater health, happiness, and freedom into your life.  It is courageous to own your isolation and decide to make different choices moving forward.  The next two sections, Seek Care and Seek Community, describe ways to change your relationship to the world around you.        

 

Seek Care

Much compulsive behavior is cyclical.  There are uncomfortable feelings, followed by a ritualistic planning and then engaging in the compulsive behavior.  The compulsive activity leads to temporary numbing or mild relief, yet the relief is never as good as had been hoped when fantasizing about engaging in the compulsion.  Then, there are negative consequences in both the external world and the mind and heart of the person with the compulsion.  The frustration, shame, and overwhelm from these consequences feed into a repetition of the cycle.  Breaking this cycle is not easy, and having help from a mental-health professional who understands this process is a good idea.    

Addictive Cycle

While all licensed therapists have studied this cycle to some degree, there are many clinicians who specialize in addiction or even specific addictions, such as gambling or sex addiction.  Sex addiction- specialists are likely to be most prepared to treat people experiencing paraphilic compulsions.  Very few therapists would consider themselves prepared to work with a free (not in prison) murderer… and very few (if any?) serial murderers seek treatment.  The limits of confidentiality, at least in California, state that a therapist must protect his or her client’s confidentiality.  Even client reports of past murders are not reportable by the therapist.  However, a client’s statement of developing plans to harm someone in the future must be reported, to protect the potential victim and also the client.  A client who has homicidal urges- regardless of an acting-out past- who wants to heal and does not want to harm others may have to take the risk of seeing a therapist and honestly reporting homicidal urges, understanding that the clinician will use her or his best judgement to keep the client and a potential victim out of harm by involving law enforcement or a psychiatric hospital.  In the end, is it better to have legal attention or psychiatric hospitalization before a crime is committed, or after?  Most of us would agree that legal and medical intervention without having committed a crime is best. 

Whether your own compulsion is legal or not, there is help.  I am aware of resources in public mental health systems (meaning: for those with the lowest income) for substance-abuse recovery and basic group therapy, but there is not always the option for individual therapy.  This means that, if you have a paraphilia that is illegal or if you have homicidal urges, you may have a difficult time finding treatment.  If entering a public health system is your only option for treatment due to low income, a good way to frame your needs during the intake process would be, “I believe my particular symptoms would not be well received in group treatment.”  At the same time, you need to have symptoms of a specific mental illness in order to receive any treatment at all.  Chances are, you probably do have symptoms of at least depression or anxiety- so you need to express those symptoms in order to be approved for treatment, while not disclosing your specific unwanted thoughts if you do not feel comfortable disclosing them.  If you feel pushed by the intake clinician to specify the content of your thoughts, you always have the right to decline.  Speaking from experience, knowing that a client has “unwanted / intrusive thoughts” is just as good as knowing that a client “has thoughts about exposing herself in public” when it comes to the data needed for diagnosis.  Only share what you feel comfortable sharing.  Once you are working with a therapist whom you trust, you can dig deeper into your story.         

 

Seek Community, While Also Protecting Your Privacy

There is nothing quite as healing as communicating with people who share your experience.  An otherwise isolating experience can turn into a community-building experience when you look for others who know your struggle.  The more rare or socially unacceptable your situation, the harder it will be to find community.  It’s still worth trying.  The author of the previously-mentioned article writes about finding a community of pedophiles online, and finding some who shared his perspective that it is best to not act on the pedophilic compulsion.  He also made the choice to be open about his real identity, which led to him being harassed and now publicly known as a pedophile.  For the purposes of self-care, I would suggest cautiously seeking community, while being smart about what information you share online.  

For less complicated compulsions, such as substance or behavioral addiction, there are 12-step programs available- in-person in larger cities, and also by telephone and internet.  A lot of people have hang-ups about 12-step programs on account of the spiritual component.  All I can really say to that is that recovery requires humility, and letting go of what you think is the answer.  If you attend a meeting and see people who have recovery that you want to have, why not look a little deeper?  If you attend a meeting and don’t see people with the recovery you want, I suggest attending more meetings.  It’s true that 12-step meetings are not for everyone- but then, recovery is also not for everyone.  Many people are on a path to die because of their addictive and compulsive behaviors.  If you find humility and surrender to guidance from outside of your own head impossible… the prognosis is not good.  Are you more afraid of accepting that you don’t have the answers, or of living another day doggedly pursuing relief from a substance or action that will never deliver the relief you seek?

Finding others who know your struggle and sharing resources and mutual support on the path of recovery has saved many a life.  

 

Develop a New Ritual

Between the stages of emotional pain and acting out in the compulsive / addictive cycle is the preoccupation with the substance or behavior, which can be described as a kind of ritual.  The heroin addict thinks about how great it will be to get high, locates the heroin and the implements needed to use it.  This could be a 10-minute or multi-hour ritual.  The exhibitionist fantasizes about the reaction of the victims to his self-exposure, about how great the orgasm will be when he sees their expressions.  He then finds the right place to do the exposing and masturbating, and waits to find the right victim.  This could be a 1-hour or a multi-day ritual before acting out.

As mentioned earlier, every moment offers us the chance to make positive choices- and there are many moments in these sequences at which a different choice can be made.  The earlier a different choice is made, the better.  If fantasies are entertained for any significant time, the enchantment of the substance or behavior will win.  Therefore, it is important to create a new, soothing ritual to begin at the first sign of heading down the old ritual’s road.  The support of a recovery community and / or therapist is very helpful in this.  The first thought of, “I just want to get high” is the red flag waving, saying, “it’s time to pay attention to what’s happening here” and initiate, instead, a crime- and self-harm-free ritual.  Best of all would be a self-care ritual!  

Maybe you don’t have a self-care regimen at all.  This is the time to identify 2 or 3 actions you can take for yourself that you find soothing.  They can be anything from getting outside for a walk, to listening to spiritual music, to meditation, to speaking with your therapist or 12-step sponsor.  All you need is something you can do in response to the earliest signs of fantasy, in order to short-circuit the pattern you have had over the years or months, and create a new pattern.  Instead of the first moments of fantasy leading to preparation and acting out, now the first moments of fantasy can lead to making positive choices for your own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  

Self-care is within reach for anyone- every moment is an opportunity for the situation to make a turn for the better.  What are you going to do to help it along?  

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Creating Community

Looking Deeply

Personal Responsibility

Seeking Care

Recovery

Share Your Experience

If you have experienced healing around compulsive behavior, please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!