Those of you who know me through my practice will know that I have a fascination (admittedly erratic) with language, particularly the kind that forms the casual shorthand we use when talking with each other. There are times when I will interrupt a discussion with a patient by asking for a more precise explanation of what he or she is describing.
‘Let it go’ is one of my least favorite phrases. Maybe once upon a time, when the phrase first entered common usage, it had a very specific meaning. Now it’s used so often, and as a catchall for a whole host of meanings, that it allows the user to only skim the surface of what should be a deep, reflective process. What does ‘let it go’ mean – to you? Why do you need to ‘let it go’? How do you ‘let it go’? How do you know if you’ve successfully ‘let it go’, or if that’s even possible? Using that phrase as we do is lazy, and assumes that your listener absolutely knows what you’re talking about. If you only skim the surface of your thought, you will keep repeating it, because you haven’t explored its depth, its richness, haven’t really mined it for that one nugget that will give you relief. Your listener will quite likely agree with you, and in so doing, has given you a pass on your work.
The phrase that’s currently stuck in my head (probably because so many people have included it in their New Year’s resolutions) is ‘I’m going to practice self-care’. This came to the forefront for me after getting a (fabulous) massage last month. The last thing the therapist said to me was ‘practice self-care’, and I shot back at him: ‘I have no idea what that means’ and left, a teaching opportunity lost. Luckily for me, my unfiltered, straight from mind to mouth response, was the most honest thing I could have said, and because it was unexpected, I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It does no service for us – healers, friends, loved ones – to toss these phrases around without making sure that our listeners have at least a passing sense of what they mean. ‘Self-care’ as it’s used now is a concept that is especially wretched because we use it so casually, never recognizing that it is also so very, very rich. If we just say ‘this year I am going to practice self-care’, we are letting ourselves off way, way too easy. We’ve done no internal research about what choices would really be useful and possible in caring for ourselves. Saying ‘I’m not going to get so stressed out’ and letting it go at that is useless. Even worse, we end up at some point asking ourselves – yet again – why don’t I take care of myself?
Why is the phrase as it’s used such a problem? Because we don’t know what it means – for us. Does it mean talk to ourselves the way we would talk to our friends who are struggling, showering ourselves with love and encouragement? Yes, it does. Does it mean treating ourselves with kindness and forgiveness when we mess up? Yes, it does. Does it mean eating a carrot instead of a piece of chocolate? Maybe. Sometimes the carrot is the best choice, sometimes the chocolate is, but we won’t know unless we ask ourselves the question with love, in play, and allow ourselves the choice. Mindfulness is a tool for providing care of ourselves, and it’s my current favorite, because it leads to the other choices in every moment.
The most important question, though, is ‘why do you feel the need to practice self-care?’ If you have a nagging feeling that is uncomfortable, unfulfilled, like you’re missing something, or that your life is really a struggle in this moment because of physical or emotional pain, and you say ‘I just need to practice self-care’, how is that possibly helpful? You don’t know what needs relief, or how to provide it.
If this year ‘I will practice self-care’ is on your resolution list, I strongly encourage you to dissect that phrase every single day. Take the time, follow the thought – or even better, the feeling that’s attached to the thought. Notice when you feel relief, and follow that idea for a while. You don’t have to take up jogging for the rest of your life, or give up ice cream forever. You just have to examine (lightly, lightly), reflect, allow, follow a thread. Sink below the surface of your personal shorthand. It will be worth it. I promise.