By Sarrah J. Woods
I am blessed but also cursed with an excessively driven mind.
One night while I was lying in bed and trying to turn my brain off enough to fall asleep, I happened to ask myself this question out of curiosity: “Do I have any really deep fears, the way some people fear abandonment, loss, death, and so forth? What do I fear most?”
I expected to have to search around in my soul for a while to come up with an answer, but to my surprise, my mind immediately supplied one. “Without a doubt, what I most fear is stress—that pushing, endless, exhausting pressure that made me so sick when I was at college.” The extreme stress I put myself through back then—constant all-nighters and living off coffee and Ramen noodles, trying to meet not only school deadlines but also the impossibly high expectations of my school’s fanatical religious culture (which I have since extricated myself from)—still haunts my nightmares.
I lay there reflecting on this and continuing my inner dialogue. “I didn’t know how to take care of myself back then—or even that I should take care of myself. I had dedicated my life to lofty goals, and I thought self-denial and sacrifice were virtues. As a result, I was my own enemy…when I should have been my own protector.
“So what I really fear is…myself.
“Therefore, deliverance from my fear also lies within me. I need to develop a secure relationship with myself and an unshakable foundation in self-care. I need to be able to really trust myself to take care of myself, as far as it lies within my power.”
Earning my own trust is not as easy as it would seem. Despite the personal growth I’ve accomplished since my crazy college days (crazy as in mental case, not wild parties, which would have been good for me!), I still struggle with taking care of myself as I should, and too often my body suffers from the whims of my busy, driven mind. For example, I’ll tell myself, “I’ll take a break as soon as I’m done with this paragraph…I’m almost done…” and then another hour goes by, and I’m still staring at the screen—and when I finally stop, I have a massive headache, stiff and sore muscles, a hungry stomach, and a painfully full bladder!
Nevertheless, that nighttime realization that my deepest fear is internal, not external, meaning I have control over it, was empowering. With that new perspective in mind, a few days later I watched a new conversation happen in my mind that further illuminated the problem.
I checked my email after breakfast and saw that a book group I’d sometimes attended was going to meet that night. I would be alone that evening anyway, because my husband was out of town for work. And I’d already read the book to be discussed. “So,” I thought, “I should go.”
But as I got ready for work, I kept agonizing about the decision of whether to go to the group that evening. I began to realize that I didn’t actually want to go. Previously, I’d not felt any kinship with the particular group members or the general mood of the group. Plus, I knew that evening activities always wear me out significantly; most of the time it’s wiser for me to just rest after a long day of work. (Running my body into the ground in college really took its toll.)
“So,” I said to myself, “from a self-care perspective it would be better to stay home. But maybe I should go anyway…
“Okay, why ‘should’ I go? Well, other people might say I should, based on external factors such as the fact that I’ve already read the book and I’ll be alone tonight anyway, and that it’s good to be socially active and try to meet new people. But who is in charge of my life? Other people? No—I am! And I say I shouldn’t go.”
That should have settled it, but my mind stubbornly, absurdly continued to mull over the decision as I did my hair and makeup. “Why am I still thinking about this?!” I demanded.
Then I realized that it was almost as if I were waiting for someone else to make the decision for me.
So I said to myself, in a tone of parental authority, “Self, you’re not going to that group tonight. You just can’t go. I won’t let you.”
And then I was free!
This is what I have concluded: like a child, I need limits; and like a parent, I need to set those limits. I need to be able to say ‘no’ to myself when my natural tendency is to push my body beyond its limit or do things that would really not be best for me, despite what other people might think. I’ve got to set boundaries for myself to keep my Type-A propensities under control. I’ve got to be my own shepherd, protector, and self-care hero. I’ve got to be my own parent.
My hope is that by practicing self-parenting and cultivating it as a habitual mindset, I will become so rooted in self-care that I will trust myself as a good parent, and no longer fear myself as an enemy.
Sarrah J. Woods
Sarrah is from Charleston, West Virginia. Among other writing projects, she writes a blog called A Bringer of New Things, where she discusses literature, writing, and personal growth.