Self-Care for a New Year

2021 is on its way. As we bid goodbye to a difficult year and welcome in the unknown joys and challenges of the next one, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on one insight this year brought me. 

As a therapist and a caring human, I understand the concept of self-care. Simple, right? Take good care of yourself. I know this is important, and that in order to serve others, I have to tend to my own basic needs first. 

If you know me, you know I have a lot of plates spinning, pretty much all the time. But coming down with and recovering from COVID earlier this year led me to take a look at and eventually come to terms with some aspects of self-care I hadn’t been as aware of. This is what I realized: I can give myself permission to do nothing, go for a walk, take a bath or a nap…and then it is also important to notice what my brain is doing. 

That’s why I want to ask you: When you intend to unwind, what is your brain doing? Of course, your brain is part of your body, but even when we’re resting, most of us don’t really get a brain break. In my case, I could be lying in a hot bath and still worrying about a list of things. I could be falling asleep, or trying to, while simultaneously problem-solving about any number of things, for instance a tough conversation, a difficult decision, or how to improve my online course. This habit led to considerable fatigue over time, and I had to come to terms with it in order to fully recover from COVID and keep my business, and my dreams, moving forward.

You don’t have to get sick; you can learn from my experience, and I sincerely hope we can all take many important lessons forward from 2020. So I ask you: Are you giving your entire body a break, including choosing kind thoughts that create relaxed feelings? Or are you still running that little checklist in the back of your mind, worrying about a client, friend, or relative, telling yourself about a list of “shoulds” or being mean to yourself about what it means to nap at 3 pm? 

I want to talk about this because I think it is likely that a lot of people, like me, may intellectually value the importance of recharging, while missing the most important aspects of it. Allowing yourself to really rest is a critically important part of functioning. Never completely unplugging, and running at a low-grade of worry all the time, is a recipe for burnout, not to mention ill health. But still, our to-do lists expand, and self care falls off the list. How can we bridge that gap between theory and practice?

I want to offer a reframe that might help. We tend to think of resting as “doing nothing.” But, knowing what we do about the importance of rest to physical and mental health, maybe we should reframe resting, and start thinking about it as “fulfilling our most crucial and basic needs.” It’s not the thing you do once you’ve checked everything else off your list; it’s an indispensable part of functioning. I’m sure none of this is news to you, but if you’re feeling fatigued, stressed, exhausted, and burned out nonetheless, I hope this message can be the reminder that encourages you to take a real break. 

To ring us into the bright and hopeful new year, I’d like to close with some tips for accessing your parasympathetic nervous system and getting a real break:

  • Take a nap
  • Meditate
  • Have an orgasm
  • Bask in a sunbeam
  • Listen to some beautiful music while doing nothing else
  • Do just one thing at a time
  • Get out your markers or colored pencils and make some marks on a page
  • Play with your child’s play doh
  • Go for a relaxed stroll just for the fun of it
  • Take a leisurely bath or shower
  • Ask yourself “what would feel positive, or at least neutral, right now?” and do it
  • Follow your emotional guidance system; choose the action that sounds like the most fun of the options before you
  • Practice thinking thoughts that bring you positive feelings, no matter what you, the weather, or your relatives are doing (or not doing)

Most of all, I wish you health, happiness, and true wellbeing. This is the season for consolidating learnings, rekindling hope, seeking inspiration, setting intentions, and moving together into the deep and beautiful unknown. I’m so lucky to be moving into the future in community with you.

The Most Challenging Part of Making a Repair

This is the third installment in my series about making a good repair. In the first installment, I walked through the process of preparing yourself internally for making a repair; in the second installment, I described the steps you can take in conversation with your partner in order to make the repair. 

In this third installment, I want to dig a little deeper into one aspect of making a good repair that tends to be especially challenging. I’m hoping to answer this question: What if I need to make a repair, but I can’t honestly tell my partner that I’m going to change my actions in the way they want me to? 

It’s challenging to choose honesty when you know it’s not what your partner wants to hear. If you’re feeling guilt, fear, uncertainty, or a desire to avoid the conversation, I hear you. 

I know that when your partner is hurt and angry it is especially difficult to disappoint them. But disappointing your partner in one moment is much, much better than making a promise you can’t keep. If you aren’t honest with your partner in this moment, you’re setting a trap for your future self, and your future relationship. When it blows up, it’s going to do much more damage than an honest but uncomfortable conversation. 

The first step is to get clear with yourself about what you honestly intend to do. If your partner has asked you for a guarantee, and you’re not sure whether or not you can follow through, this is a time for deeper reflection. Are there some aspects of the guarantee that you think you can follow through on? Which ones? Which ones are you sure you can’t follow through on? Which ones are you up in the air about? What would it take for you to get clear about any aspects you aren’t certain about yet?

Once you’re able to get clear about what you can and can’t promise, it’s a good moment to center yourself. Breathe deeply, calm your mind, and remind yourself why you’re choosing honesty over appeasement. For instance:

  • You want to be a person of integrity in your relationships
  • You recognize that the consequences of dishonesty down the road are likely to be much worse than a tough conversation right now
  • You want your partner to truly know you for who you are

Whatever your reason is, reminding yourself of it will help you hold steady through the conversation with your partner. 

Once you’re clear on what you intend to do, and clear on your reason for expressing it honestly to your partner, it’s time to sit down with your partner and share it with them. Although honesty is key, how you express your plan may make a huge difference in how able your partner is to take it in. If you can let them into your perspective, explain the reasons this feels important to you, and demonstrate that your decisions and beliefs are really about you, not about them, it will probably feel a lot better to them than if you simply assert “this is the way it’s going to be.” 

If you’re a therapist guiding a client through the process of making a repair, watch out for any signs of emotional collapse that may lead to dishonesty and appeasement. Slow the process down, so that your clients have the time to really figure out what they think, believe, feel, and prefer, rather than leaping over the discomfort to make their partner feel better. 

Repairs are an important aspect of mending past hurts, and building a trusting, secure relationship. But there is nothing worse than following up a beautiful repair with lies and deception. It is really hard to come back from a breach like that. This is why it is so important to help your clients get deeply honest with themselves and their partners. Every relationship includes differences of opinion, but those that also involve deception or broken agreements are unlikely to survive in the long term.

Making a Good Repair, Part Two: Five Steps for Speaking to Your Partner

In the first of this series, I described the internal steps you can take to prepare yourself for making a repair in your relationship. Once you’ve taken those steps, the next project is actually sitting down with your partner and having a tough conversation. This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of making your repair. 

Anyone can say a quick and half-hearted “I’m sorry,” but if you want to make a repair that lasts, it’s worth taking the time to do it well. A good repair can go beyond fixing the problem; it can lead to a new level of intimacy and trust between you and your partner. 

In this second blog post, I’ll be describing the steps you can take in conversation with your partner to help you address what went wrong, understand your partner more deeply, and set yourself up for a strong and lasting repair. 

  1. Access curiosity about your partner’s experience. This part is not optional, and it is the part that usually isn’t done sufficiently deeply to facilitate healing. Your goal here should be to understand your partner’s perspective well enough that you really get how this was so hard for them. You want to be able to rephrase what they say, and have them let you know what you missed. Ultimately, you want to get it so right that your partner agrees that you understand how they feel. The key here is that you want to go deeper than the facts of what happened; you want to know how your partner perceived what happened. What is their perspective on it? What about it was hard? How did they interpret the situation? How would they have preferred you to handle this situation, and why? It can be challenging to stay grounded and steady while you hear your partner share in-depth about how they were hurt by something you did (or didn’t do). Keep your feet on the ground, breathe steadily, and maintain your curious attitude. Focus entirely on putting yourself in your partner’s shoes. This isn’t the moment to try and explain your viewpoint, tell your partner their perspective is wrong, or patch things up with a quick apology. The deeper you’re able to dig into this conversation, the more likely you are to be able to make a strong and lasting repair. Stay with the conversation until you have a feeling of “Oh, of course! Knowing you as I now do, It makes perfect sense that you felt that way.” Note: this is NOT the same as agreeing, nor is it the same as coming up with action steps. All you are doing is understanding your partner far better than you did before. That’s all.
  2. Show empathy. Now that you’ve gained a deeper understanding of your partner’s experience, this is the moment to show your compassion: “Oh!! I see now”. When it goes well, it sounds something like this: “I now understand that when I did (x), this is what happened for you (description of your partner’s internal experience in depth). I see how you felt (x), and it makes total sense to me that you would feel that way, given the combination of what I did, and what it meant to you.” This is easier for some people than others, and it’s easier in some situations than others. Don’t lie. If you don’t feel it, don’t pretend. Instead, go back to step 1 and try again to really understand your partner. Making a good repair is tough, and it wouldn’t be surprising if you need the help of a coach or therapist.
  3. Apologize. Explain to your partner why you are sorry. Focus on their experience, and resist the impulse to explain your perspective. It will be much better if you save your point of view for later.
  4. Explain what you plan to do differently in the future (if anything). The “if anything” is important here; if you make an agreement now that you can’t or don’t want to follow through on, all the work you’ve put into making a good repair will be for nothing, and the next conversation you have will be even harder. This is not a moment for appeasement. This is a moment to be very, very honest about what you think, and what you intend to do, even if it’s not exactly what your partner wants to hear.
    • If you do intend to behave differently in the future, be very specific and very honest about how you intend to handle future situations. This should go beyond “It was a mistake, and it won’t happen again.” Exactly what happened, step-by-step? What were the individual moments in which you made a choice, and how might you make those choices now? Why is it important to you to change the way you handle similar situations, if that’s what you intend to do?
    • If you don’t feel like there’s anything you want to change in handling future similar situations, you will have to say so now. If that is the case, can you help your partner understand your perspective without getting defensive? An impasse at this point is another great opportunity to find a therapist or coach; that’s a far better strategy than sweeping it under the rug with a blithe but empty promise.
  5. If you’ve expressed a plan to act differently in the future, acknowledge that your partner might have some doubts about your ability to follow through effectively with your plan. This is a concept that comes from Pete Pearson, whose mentorship has strongly influenced my practice. It will probably be hard for your partner to believe that your actions will really change just as a result of one conversation. You can take responsibility for your choices while demonstrating real empathy for your partner’s position by acknowledging that they may be wary to trust you–especially if recurring dishonesty has been an element of the problem. It takes a lot of strength to acknowledge that your partner may have legitimate doubts about your follow-through, but by doing so, you’ll be showing them that you’re paying attention, you care, and you don’t plan to sweep this under the rug. Taking responsibility for your choices and actions is the underlying concept in a good repair, and will go a long way to strengthening your relationship.