Why Self-Care Comes First

Anyone who’s traveled by air has heard this pre-flight announcement: 

In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. 

When it comes to oxygen, flight attendants don’t get a lot of arguments.

So why is it so hard to treat self care the same way?

In my conversations this weekend with friends and family, pandemic was a big topic. “Is everybody healthy? How are you doing? What are things like where you are?”

Once we had the basic check-ins covered, two themes came up over and over: first, how pandemic has cast into stark relief all places our social safety net needs repair. Who is vulnerable? How easily people can fall through the cracks and get left behind, become homeless, and — especially our elderly — even die of loneliness. How differently governments around the world are providing leadership and financial support, and how much (or how little) difference that support is making for our friends and loved ones. 

We’ve seen incredible examples of human creativity in adapting and responding to life-changing circumstances in just about every aspect of the basic systems in our societies that support life and living: health care, communications, work, exercise, travel, supply chain, groceries, education.  

On the other hand, I can’t imagine what the phrase “doing the best we can” means for anyone whose profession is in food service, restaurants, entertainment or the arts. Sure, I’ve read news stories of artists forming creative performance bubbles, and dancers improvising ways to keep their strength and artistic edge. Olympic athletes must be going through an incredibly anxious time right now, trying to guess at whether or how the postponed 2020 games will happen in Tokyo this summer.

I’ve struggled to adapt many routine aspects of my life, with mixed success. What people see most of is my visual “game” on zoom and social: I’ve got a ring light kit and a great LIVE multicoloured backdrop (none of those wonky pseudo green screens for me!) that accessorizes with anything I wear. I’ve upped my lipstick game, patted down the shine, and found earrings that don’t dangle when I get animated while I talk. I went through three iterations of mics and earphones and audio mixer boxes to get as close as I could to professional “FM” quality sound for any broadcast I do. 

The online experiences I create for my audiences and clients are high-engagement. You’re not going to get death-by-powerpoint from me, nosiree bob! If you’ve asked me to speak for your group or lead a lesson, or work with your team, you’d better be ready to show up fully present, ready to work, think, speak up, be challenged, and take action.  

And I was “on” about six hours a day, four or five days a week, between internal team meetings across three times zones as well as client service and a heavy schedule of, in essence, promotional free teaching gigs for lead generation.

Slowly but surely, my lights were dimmer every day. Even before pandemic, when I’d finish giving a 90-minute webinar, I was wiped. I felt like I’d fallen off a cliff, and the event producers rarely called up afterward to say, “atta girl.” More often, I also took 15 or 20 minutes as soon as I got “offstage” to thank and give “soft landing” time to my guest and co-hosts, and let them feel appreciated so they didn’t have the crash.

Ever see a professional speaker, entertainer, or performer when they’re offstage after the gig is done? Like, after they’re out of the official backstage gladhanding bubble? They mostly don’t have a lot left. You wouldn’t expect them to. If you paid for the ticket, you expect them to give you all they’ve got, and then you both go home.

Ever thought about how it must feel to be a Broadway performer, with eight shows a week including matinees and evening performances? Ever thought about how carefully they have to manage their bodies and their personal energy and emotional resilience to be able to put it all out there for the audience in three hour chunks? And how much time they spend rehearsing, fine tuning, training, fixing the little stuff that breaks? And how much support they have from the crew and the house, all the people we as the audience rarely see, to put on that top quality performance night after night, day after day? And then there’s Monday: many Broadway shows go “dark” on Monday nights so that performers and crew can have a day of rest.

And yet here we are in pandemic, coming up on our one year anniversary next month of A Year At The Improv. Most of us started out as solo acts or cobbled together the best cast and crew and equipment we could. There was no script. We made it up as we went along; kept the bits that worked, threw out the stuff that didn’t. Nobody gave us “dark” days off if we weren’t savvy enough to take them ourselves.

Especially health care professionals, teachers, parents, and care-givers. They had virtually none of the preparation or training or supporting cast or massage or rehearsal or makeup or coaching that even the understudy feline in the Iowa production of CATS was getting  (up until March 9th of 2020). The utter urgency of absolutely every day is as oppressive as we let it be. 

The grind has been relentless, and many of us are only now acknowledging how depleted we are, and regrouping for whatever lies ahead.

Which takes me to the second topic that comes up if the conversation goes on long enough: “How are you really doing?” 

My answers are very much like my friends’: learning, later rather than sooner, the vital importance of treating work as something that needs limits rather than a perfect anesthetic to numb emotions that otherwise overwhelm. Not sleeping well, with no rational explanation other than the lurking presence of an invisible virus that’s killed nearly half a million people in the country where I live and is waiting for me if I don’t watch out. Whole body, whole spirit, fatigue. 

In late March of 2020, the place my husband and I usually visit for a week in the summer notified us that they were closing for the rest of the season, and our vacation would need to be rescheduled. We look forward to that trip for a full four months every year. In the early days of pandemic, that was the loss that hit me especially hard: the reality of losing a week of deep downtime and reconnection with my partner.  

I wrote to my friend Robert about feeling ashamed at grieving a lost vacation when thousand of other people were losing the livelihoods and incomes and  lives of family and friends.

“Why shame?” he wrote back. A pleasure is a good, and loss of a good is a proper cause for grief.” He comforted me with the encouragement to think of others’ losses not so much as “more worthy” of grief, but harder to deal with and needing more support.

It’s been easier to push aside and ignore the effects of grief compounded for the loss of a thousand small normal pleasures with a constant refrain of, “gosh, my situation is easy compared with so-and-so who’s lost family and friends and their job, and their marriage, and their graduation, and couldn’t be there for the birth of their grandchild or the funeral of their aunt…”

No. 

This has to stop.

I need to remember, every day, to put on the mask that’s going to feed me the vital emotional oxygen of self care and self compassion. I need to have faith that, just like that aircraft’s oxygen mask, even if the bag doesn’t seem to inflate, the oxygen is flowing. 

What’s in my mix of self care is almost certainly very different from yours. And it might change from one day or week to the next.  

Today, my mix included journaling, a sweaty, high-intensity TRX workout, conversations with friends and family, creative projects in editing and graphic production, and the pleasure of sorting through a couple thousand images I’d taken since 2019 of places including a Pacific ocean beach, Icelandic landscapes, underseas in the Cayman islands, Athens and the cliffs of Kalymnos, a ton of architecture and art and urban oases and parks and rivers and creeks… and, strangely enough, about 150 memes related to compassion and resilience! It was as if a little subroutine in my mind was storing these up so I’d have them for… well, now, actually.

The mix also includes self-compassion and a dollop of gentleness for the stuff on list that I didn’t get done this weekend: tai chi practice. Meditation. A batch of thank you notes. A shipment of mugs. 

It includes taking a moment to remember the best advice my dad ever gave me: “Be very kind to yourself.”

I hope you’re making sure to breathe deeply every day from your supply of self-care and self-compassion. Whether or not you believe it’s doing much good, that’s why it’s called a practice. Keep on breathing, and so will I, so we can both thrive and be there for the others in our lives who need us.

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