What an (unhelpful) friend taught me about self-care.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

The kids were at a summer camp, and I thought it would be the prefect time to tackle a few important but neglected tasks pending on my to do list. I started well, and plowed through organising half of my garage. But then the grief screamed. There was no trigger, no warning signs. Just the alarming feeling at the pit of my stomach and the closing of my throat that I have come to recognise as the rumbling before the volcano erupts. And there I was, once again feeling the weight of my husbands absence and the fight in my head to accept that he is actually dead even after these 20 months and 20 days…

When the phone rang I felt a surge of relief because being able to share what I experience has been one of the most helpful things in my journey through grief and in my recovery from mental distress. But as soon as I saw who was calling my hopes evaporated. This particular friend of mine is a lovely person but oftentimes self absorbed. I knew this friend would probably ramble on about some new problems that plague her life and how she has to deal with so much stress, and so many things happen that sucks all the joy from her life and so on and so on… I didn’t answer the phone. I couldn’t deal with one more meaningless conversation about someone else’s first world problems, not that morning when the grief of losing my husband once again re-surged with such stabbing intensity, awakening the all familiar and paralysing mental distress I have carried for so long.

For some people their mental distress brings them grief, for me grief triggers mental distress. At least that is what seems to be the case in hindsight, once I am able to calm my ever so edgy amygdala’s flight or fight messages and re-engage my slow to register rational pre-frontal cortex. Also in hindsight I really should have listened to my instincts and just ignored the answer phone message. But as the “once a good catholic always filled with guilt” person that I am, I called back with a lame excuse over missing her call.

Big mistake.

As I listened to my friend’s complaints they seemed so frivolous in light of what I was going through. I tried to pay attention, but I felt my distress escalating, my breathing faulting and all I wanted to do was to scream. Instead I listened on. After over 20 minutes I made up another lame excuse, and promising to call back, hung up the phone feeling terribly alone.

Why didn’t I listen to my own instincts? You may ask. Well, I began to ask myself the same question as I kicked myself over and over for being a crap friend to my friend. And then it became clear to me that I was being a crap friend to myself first of all.

That experience really sucked, but I learned something very important through it. I can choose to become my own best friend and to intentionally take better care of myself.

I don’t mean it in a narcissistic or selfish way, but in a healthy and proactive way. This mean setting clear boundaries to protect myself, to be gentler with my own heart and kinder towards my own body and mind, to say no to others in order to say yes to me, and to stop doing things out of guilt. Acting out of guilt or out of a sense of obligation can only lead us to burn out and resentment, and learning to set clear and healthy boundaries is vital for our own recovery from mental distress and a crucial tool to grieve well.

Photo by Alexandre Croussette on Unsplash

It doesn’t matter what comes first, grief or mental distress. They are so intertwined and so interconnected that if you have experienced one, you will undoubtedly at some point experience the other. And both of them require so much energy and take so much effort that no wonder we have no energy or patience to deal with other people’s woes. That is not to say that we must become selfish and isolated, we need safe people and authentic relationships in our lives in order to heal and flourish, but it does mean that we must develop the ability to recognise and implement the WHO, WHEN, WHAT, WHY, and HOW factors.

WHO — Who are the people we can run to in a crisis or in our vulnerable moments? Who are we able to engage with when things are hard? Who are the people we must avoid or limit time with? Most people are not bad people, but they may not be the best people to be in our lives during certain times, or through certain seasons. Everyone is struggling with their own battles, and often people don’t mean to hurt others, they are just trying to deal with their own hurts so they may not be able to be there for us in a helpful way. Not every one understands what we are going through and not everyone can hold the weight of our story, and that’s okay. However, it’s up to us to use discernment in choosing who are our safe people and who are not.

WHEN — When should we engage with others? When is a good time to extend ourselves and be there for someone else? When is it time to give ourselves space? When should we reach out? No one can determine any of that for us. It’s easier said than done, especially for those of us that have difficult family or work dynamics, but it’s important for us to know ourselves and become aware of our limits. If we are not in the right head space, then it’s up to us to chose the right time to talk with that lovely but aloof friend over the phone, or to postpone that coffee catch up, or to decide between showing up or ditching that family event. There are enough times when we have to force ourselves to engage, such as showing up to work and being present for our kids. It is cliche, but treating yourself as you would treat your best friend, with compassion and consideration will ease the sense of guilt and obligation. Choosing when to engage with others is our right and our responsibility, and it’s also a form of wisdom and self-kindness.

WHAT — What are the boundaries we have to put in place to make sure we are taking care of ourselves? What is the best thing we can do for ourselves especially during moments when we struggle with a new wave of grief or when we are drained by the constant mental distress? What are the things we can share with others? What are the areas that are none of anyone else’s business? What are we truly able to give to a friend when we are running low ourselves? What are we expecting from others? Often our expectations of others are either too low because we’ve been let down and don’t trust anyone or they may be too high because consciously or unconsciously we hold people responsible for our own well being? What if you and I were more honest with ourselves and with others and had clear boundaries and open communication without manipulation or falsehood? What if we became our best friend instead of our worst enemy?

WHY — Why should we set clear boundaries? Why is it vital for us to take responsibility for our own self-care? Why is it also our right to do so? Why should we keep on going when everything is so painful and so hard? Understanding our WHY will make all the difference in our ability to practice self compassion, to diminish self-stigma and to empower ourselves. We haven’t chosen to be struck by grief, nor have we deliberately decided to immerse ourselves in mental distress. Those things happened to us because they are part of being human. But neither are we victims of such circumstances and experiences. Even if our trauma and distress was caused by someone else, it is still our choice and our responsibility to take care, protect and nourish our own minds, body and soul. Discovering our WHY is a crucial step in becoming stronger to carry the weight of our grief and mental distress, and to change from being disabled into being enabledby our experiences as they often become the very things that build our resilience and empathy.

HOW — How can we become better friends to ourselves? How can we learn to listen to our instincts? How are we going to honour and care for ourselves? How can we communicate our experience and our needs to others in a way that also shows respect and kindness towards them? How can we be a good friend to others and maintain our healthy boundaries at the same time? It’s important to remember that people may forget what you said to them but they will always remember how you made them feel. Treating ourselves with care and respect doesn’t mean to disrespect others. So the HOW is a very important step because it reveals our true character and intentions.

Those are very important and personal questions. Only I can answer those questions for myself. Only you can find the answer for yourself. It may take some time. It will most certainly take commitment and intentionality. It may be frustrating or confronting. But what is the alternative?

For me the alternative will probably be to continue answering phone calls that make me want to scream, or engaging with people who may misunderstand me and make me feel judged, or even to perpetuate my toxic habit of doing things out of guilt, and then diving deep into a self-deprecation black hole.

Grief and mental distress won’t magically go away if we intentionally choose to look after ourselves and set healthy boundaries. But maybe if we became really good friends to ourselves and figure out our WHO, WHEN, WHAT, WHY and HOW, we may be able to reduce or own self stigma and in doing so reduce some of the suffering attached to the pain of our present grief and mental distress. We will certainly not be adding anymore unnecessary suffering and in my view that is worth a shot.