Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Welcome to the first in a series of articles about self-care at Swarthmore! It is my hope that this column will help start a conversation about the importance of self-care at Swarthmore and that anyone going through similar struggles of loving and caring for themselves will find solace in the knowledge that they are not alone. This column will stem directly from personal experiences, although some articles will be more informational (perhaps sharing a new technique), while others will be more raw and emotional. Feedback, questions, and comments are always welcome, and I look forward to continuing these conversations outside of the Daily Gazette.
I have decided to write a regular column about self-care this semester for two main reasons. First, self-care is very important in my life right now, and I know that writing about my own self-care journey will help keep me accountable while providing a constructive outlet. Second, I have noticed that a number of my friends and classmates at Swarthmore are also struggling to determine what self-care means and how to incorporate it into their lives, and I hope to be a part of their journeys as well. In this first installment, I want to discuss what self-care means and give an introduction to my own experiences in caring for myself.
When asking myself, “What does self-care mean?” a few answers come to mind:
1) Taking frequent breaks to just breathe, meditate, or look at the clouds, even when I don’t feel I need them.
2) Treating my body with respect — through exercise, food, sleep, hygiene, etc.
3) Seeking help from friends and mentors as well as professionals.
4) Forgiving myself for procrastinating on my homework or writing this article because I was hanging out with friends or taking a nap.
5) Loving myself because of my inherent worth and caring for myself out of that love.
Self-care is physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. It is a journey in which we often question ourselves and wrestle with guilt, shame, or feelings of inadequacy. We all have parts of self-care we are good at and parts we struggle with. I’m good at stopping to look at the clouds on a beautiful day, for instance, but I struggle with loving myself as much as I love others and considering my own needs and wants. This makes me a great friend and support to others, but it’s not sustainable.
I learned this the hard way. After opening my heart to so many people who were hurting, I suddenly felt very alone and scared. I was acutely aware of just how much suffering there was in the world and just how little I could do make it all go away. I began to feel that my own pain was inconsequential compared to the hardships I witnessed in others’ lives. I ignored my pain, fear, and loneliness while constantly seeking out the company of other people. That way, I could focus on loving them and being with them instead of being alone with myself.
As time went by, I fell in love with someone who happens to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (a.k.a. a bucketload of pain and struggle). As I opened my heart to her pain, nothing in the world seemed as important as giving her all of the love and care I could — not classes, not sleep, not even my friends and family.
While this is great material for a romantic fairytale, it doesn’t actually play out very well in real life. I began experiencing symptoms that were eerily similar to hers — shaking for no apparent reason during the day, insomnia at night, bodily convulsions linked to stress, and eventually mild panic attacks and dissociative episodes. After initially freaking out, I did some research and discovered that secondary traumatic stress is a real thing. It usually occurs in people with careers in the helping professions (e.g. social workers, crisis counselors, and even teachers or environmentalists) who witness trauma on a daily basis. It is also often found in very empathetic people who care deeply about a person (or persons) who have experienced trauma. (That’s me.)
It’s amazing how relieving it can be discover that something you are thinking or feeling has a name and that other people feel it too. More research on secondary trauma coupled with an examination of my own life led me to the obvious conclusion that one must care for oneself before caring for others. Over the past several months, I have experimented with various forms of meditation, exercise, journaling, energy work, and other health and relaxation techniques. My goal was to become a self-care master so I could get back to caring for others, which is what I would much rather be doing. Apparently, it’s going to take more than a few months. Rumor has it this may be more like a lifelong journey. So here I go — wish me luck.
Featured image courtesy of www.metoffice.gov.uk