If you are like me, somewhat of a perfectionist, then you may know what I mean when I speak of self-care becoming self-harm. Can you relate at all?
Back in the day when I struggled every month with debilitating period pain, I came to a point where I was fed up of getting a prescription of a different version of the contraceptive pill to deal with the issue. I agreed to try it one more time, went to the pharmacy, filled the prescription but when I got home I shoved the pill boxes into the back of my bedside locker, feeling very disgruntled.
That afternoon, I took out my laptop and began to search. I was raised in a family where education was very important and the way to be an empowered and independent person. I took that literally and wanted to take control, which I did, until one day a few years later I realised that acquiring more self-care and healing knowledge was becoming harmful. Rather, I needed to look at my inner relational dynamic to the role of ‘self-care’ and ask myself what the term ‘self-care’ meant to me.
My research began in the days when self-care, mindfulness and even work-life balance were a very rare public conversation, never mind the menstrual cycle. I was desperate to take control of my body, to find the solution and fix this problem once and for all. I read piles of books, listened to podcasts, watched online videos, went on trainings, went to therapy, tried all sorts of alternative healing methods from homeopathy, acupuncture, colonic irrigation and herbal medicine to shamanic healing, various forms of meditation and yoga, and work around birth trauma, to name just a few!
A few years later, and after eventually being diagnosed with endometriosis, I felt I more or less knew all there was to know about the cyclical ways of the female body from a mind-body-spirit perspective. But I had a big problem: I wasn’t practicing any of it. Or, at least, I wasn’t practicing enough of what I wanted to. I had intellectualised it all and my body was still suffering.
How was it that I had read all the books and acquired all the knowledge yet I wasn’t really applying it?
Answer: I was overwhelmed with a controlling perfectionist mindset aka a strong inner critic that wanted to acquire as much knowledge as possible and then use it against myself.
Now, it sounds vicious, doesn’t it? But this was a realisation that happened gradually over time and eventually set me free. Thanks to some great therapy in a process called CAT (Cognitive Analytical Therapy), my MCA practice (Menstrual Cycle Awareness) and enrolling on the Red School Women’s Quest Apprenticeship I a) realised that I was stuck in an inner critic cycle in relation to my health and wellbeing and b) I learned how to bring a more compassionate and gentle approach to the issue. This involved being aware of the issue and when the inner critic is not helping, getting curious with my inner critic, bringing self-compassion and finally getting clear on boundaries and how to assert myself with my own inner critic.
This can look like this:
Thought: Why am I not where I want to be in relation to my health?
Inner Critic: Because you haven’t been committed enough to your self-care?
Thought: Worry worry worry, what’s wrong with me?
Thought’s solution: I will just read more books and then I will have the answer.
Inner critic: Yes, now I feel in control. More intellectual knowledge. Perfect.
Ego: Yes, more intellectual knowledge is where I am comfortable so I can avoid uncomfortable emotions and don’t need to practice “surrender.” Yay - more control!.
Awareness kicks in: Oh I’m in an inner critic cycle. That’s interesting.
Inner wisdom: Listen to the critic and write down what they are saying but don’t act on it. Keep the space. Clarity will come in terms of what you need. Is there another option in terms of self-care instead of ticking more boxes? How can I meet my needs more compassionately?
Over time, I could see that my “self-care” practice was not actually very caring and so, I now take the approach of asking myself, “What do I NOT need?” or “What do I NOT need to do on my list today?” especially in the inner autumn and inner winter when less is definitely more.
If a new superfood or a certain type of practice or gadget becomes popular, I now have the default inner voice that tells me to be careful with getting into unnecessary wellness practices, supplements or whatever it might be. “Is that really necessary?” I ask myself. “Is it a distraction?” “Is my desire for that thing coming from a place of ego or my consumerist mindset that needs a fix for whatever reason?”
Often, it’s not the thing that needs to change but more our relationship with it.
At that turning point on my journey, I wrote a list of all the healing practices I was engaging in and the list came to a full A4 page. I didn’t feel comfortable with that! The list in fact was just adding to stress hormones! So, I cut out most of it. Now it’s more or less the following:
Menstrual Cycle Awareness (which decides more or less how self-care looks and when e.g. exercise, diet and sleep. I love it because it comes from our own somatic wisdom within!)
Yoga, meditation and prayer, exercise
Eat healthily in a non-controlling way. The only thing I cut out/eat minimally are eggs. Otherwise I take an 80:20 approach. I love a drink and the odd bit of junk food.
Around my premenstrual time, I take good care to eat for a happy gut: probiotics, water, fruit and veg and fermented foods like sauerkraut on salads. Get those bowels moving! I then supplement with magnesium for stress and pain management.
Laughter and social life: it’s easy to slip into isolation in our disconnected world and I think it’s especially true if one suffers with a painful condition. Spending time with loved ones is excellent for oxytocin and serotonin, both very important for mental health especially around the premenstrual time.
Listening partnership and peer supervision: I process out emotions in safe contained spaces. This is super important and something I will write on in more depth later.
Maya Massage therapy: this was the only alternative practice I kept on as it works wonders for my pain management. I highly recommend this wonderful practitioner based in Dublin.
In all, self-care for me has become about getting super clear on what I need and don’t need. Keeping it simple and not taking it too seriously either.
If you’re in a similar situation where you feel the world of wellness has become a bit overwhelming, you’re not alone! Make a list of the things you do/have and ask yourself what you don’t need. How can we simplify it? Perhaps make more space for laughter and life’s simple pleasures instead!
I highly recommend MCA (duh!) for menstruating women because your body then becomes the app. (We don’t need more things and apps that apparently are not helping.) All you need to do is check in with yourself every day to get clarity on what you need there and then based on your energy and hormones.
What are your no.1 self-care practices that you can’t do without? Share below!