Why self-care is my word of the year

As an avid podcast listener, I noticed an early-January trend among the episodes of various shows I subscribe to. Instead of setting traditional new year’s resolutions, many people were discussing their word of the year. At first it all sounded like baloney to me. How could I just pick one word? Both my real to-do list as well as my aspirational one were perpetually full. I didn’t think one word could help me accomplish all that I wanted to in 2018.

But then I read The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. I’d heard of the concept before and vaguely identified with it–after all, I’d always been more sensitive than most to external stimuli as well as my inner world. Reading the full book, though, was transformational. While most of what she wrote was familiar to me from my own experiences, her framing of it was new. Instead of apologizing or feeling guilty and flawed, or trying to compensate for  for our trait, Dr. Aron (an HSP herself) encourages HSPs to embrace their true nature and find the positive in it. She also emphasizes that it’s okay to take care of yourself–more than okay, it’s vital to happy and healthy functioning.

It’s hard for me to express how much this positive re-framing has changed my outlook. For the past few years I’ve developed a hobby of reading self-improvement books, productivity blogs, and the like. Hitting the books is my go-to method of problem solving, so I thought I could read away the aspects of myself I found defective in comparisons against others. Get organized, wake up before the birds, work after my kids go to bed, juggle more things than I can count on one hand without dropping anything. I wanted to be the sort of “Type A” person that is often the most visibly successful in American society. Never mind that I’m basically the opposite of Type A.

Now I think of myself as “Type HSP” and I’m ready to accept myself, flaws and all. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop striving to improve, but I’ve finally, thankfully, given up on the idea that I can be a different person. Once I realized this, it became clear that self-care would be my word of the year. Now that I examine problems and situations, and base my decision-making from the perspective of caring for myself, I feel truly energized, productive, and generous toward others. I’ve long heard people say that self-care isn’t selfish but now I see that truth in my own life. I’m a better parent, spouse, daughter, teacher, friend, and neighbor when I take the time to nurture myself.

Here’s a brief list of what self-care looks like for me right now. I’m sure it will fluctuate with the seasons and passage of time. How do you practice self-care?

  • Drink a glass of water before my morning cup of coffee.
  • Make time to exercise most days.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Limit my media consumption to a once-a-day news briefing. Read articles with intention, not for distraction. Mostly read books.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Ask for time alone when I need it.
  • Schedule time with friends.
  • Leave my phone in the cabinet when I get home in the afternoon/evening.
  • Be the parent I am, and do the activities I enjoy with my kids.

The requisite year-end reflection

All over the Internet, people are taking stock of 2017. Like many, I found it stressful to keep up with the news this year. However, the past few months have also brought important milestones in my personal and professional lives. Here is the requisite year-end reflection along with some intentions for 2018.

In 2017 my freelance writing work grew to the point that I had to scale back my teaching load. After a spring and summer so busy they left me feeling burnt out, I decided to give up a part-time academic job and dwindle my remaining fall course assignments down to one accelerated six-week class. When I made this decision in August I felt both scared and exhilarated. What if I failed? What if I succeeded? Would I like mostly working from home?

Four months later, life feels more settled, though there is always an element of unpredictability in the freelance life. I’m going into the spring with one class at Temple and a full roster of writing work. Just a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined this life for myself. Now I get to tell people, “I’m a writer,” when they ask what I do. I’ve written about my journey from brand-new freelancer to busy working writer in “How to Outsource Your Freelance Blogging Work with Integrity,” my Pitchfest-winning article for Be A Freelance Blogger.

So, what’s next? My challenge in 2018 will be to return to my Creative Writing roots. I put fiction mostly to the side when I had my first child four-and-a-half years ago. Now that my second child is almost two, it feels like time to dip my toe tentatively into the water. I’ve read more articles than I can count by women writers describing how they do (or don’t) balance motherhood with a writing life. But while these articles have shown me I’m in good company, they can’t really tell me how to find the balance in my own life. It looks a little different for everyone.

After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve decided the first step is to write regularly here on my blog. So expect one-two posts a week from me on whatever happens to be on my mind. It will be a little bit like creative writing, a lot like free writing, and give me a space to play around with words. After years of thinking I can’t have a blog because I don’t have one specific niche in mind, I’d like to return to the style of online journaling that first captured my attention in the early 2000s. On LiveJournal and elsewhere, I loved reading about other people’s lives in eloquent prose that captured ordinary details along with some wisdom. Many of the blogs I read were written by women older than me, and reading about their hopes, dreams, mistakes, and day-to-day routines gave shape to my wishes and plans for my own life. I shall strive to do something similar here.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Power of Reflection: 3 Reasons it Will Change Your Life

Power of Reflection

Reflection is a big part of my approach to teaching. On the first day of class, I ask students to reflect on their lives thus far as readers and writers. What roles have those activities played in their lives? What goals do they have for the semester ahead? As we move through the syllabus, students write reflections on each essay they draft. I ask them to write about the strengths they see in their work, as well as the challenges they faced, and the skills they hope to improve on in the next paper. At the end of the semester, my students reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown as writers throughout the term.

When they leave my class, I hope they will take the habit of reflection with them. It’s a habit I’ve practiced in my own life since I began to keep a diary in elementary school. As my life has gotten busier with the demands of adulthood and noisier with the everyday racket of the digital age, it’s harder to stop and reflect. But not coincidentally, the more pressed for time I feel, the more I benefit from reflection. Here are 3 ways to make reflection a powerful tool in your own life.

Know where you’ve been.

Have you ever drawn a blank on a Monday morning when a friend asks “how was your weekend?” Too often we rush from chore to activity and back again without repose. You may have been trying to cram a weekend’s worth of fun memories into your Saturday and Sunday, but what good is fun if you can barely remember it the next day?

Build little breaks into your days so you’re not just sprinting from one thing to the next. Even if it’s just sitting in your car a few minutes before you get out, take the time to think about, talk about, or write down what you did and the ways it contributed meaning or value to your life. For example, after a family outing at the zoo, ask each family member to name their favorite part of the trip before you go home. Or before you leave your desk for lunch, think about what you accomplished that morning.

Keeping a personal or family diary of happy memories is another way to benefit from reflection. Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin describes some of the ways we benefit from recording and rereading memory logs. If writing things down feels like an imposing task, keep the bar low. Set an interval, such as weekly or monthly, that works for you and make it short. Tell yourself you only need to write one sentence. If you end up writing more, that’s great, but you’ll be less intimidated by the smaller expectation.

Go into your future with intention.

Knowing where you’ve been helps you articulate where you want to go. So many of our dreams remain abstract images on the horizon because we don’t stop to figure out what we need to do day-to-day to achieve them. Instead of idly dreaming about writing a book or starting a business, use reverse engineering to plan your goal and keep yourself moving forward with reflection.

Let’s say your dream is to write a novel. Maybe you haven’t started yet because you never have three hours to sit down uninterrupted and bang out that perfect first chapter. First reflect on how much time you can devote to novel writing in a day or week. Can you get up earlier? Stay awake after everyone else has gone to bed? Even if you can only write one paragraph or one page a day, you will reach your goal a lot faster than by writing nothing at all.

Plan your writing sessions with a few minutes at the end to reflect on your progress. You may want to record how much writing you did, whether less than, more than, or exactly your target. Why did you write as much or as little as you did? What will you do differently or the same tomorrow? And finally, remind yourself how this individual session, though seemingly insignificant, brings you closer to realizing your bigger dream.

Calm your racing mind.

Buddha used the term “monkey mind” to describe the loud and chaotic environment our thoughts create. I’ve dealt with anxiety all my life, but I’ve felt more mentally stressed since having a child. Part of it is the constant multi-tasking and anticipation that is part of caring for a baby and young toddler. And it also stems from giving up the regular yoga practice I had before I became a mother, as well as the increased ways I use technology in my daily life. But no matter the origins, the best way to calm a racing mind is to take a timeout.

That’s right — treat your brain like the unruly toddler it’s acting like and force it to sit still for a few minutes. This timeout can take the form of meditation, which I’ve recently incorporated into my morning routine. Or it can consist of writing down the thoughts swirling through your mind, especially things you’re worried or upset about. The act of writing is powerful. Many thoughts lose their power once you get them down on paper.

Building reflection into your daily life is a powerful way to improve your mood, act with intention, and decrease stress and anxiety. How do you make reflection part of your routine? Have you noticed any positive changes since you started?

The Empty Seat at the Table

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

This Thursday my family will spend our first Thanksgiving without my brother Robert, who passed away in January from melanoma. Many other grieving families will face the same specter: the empty seat at the table. So how can we balance the grief we still feel with the feelings of gratitude and joy Thanksgiving invites?

Celebrate the things that bring you joy in your daily life.

Holidays are notorious for making people feel pressured to be happy and have fun while doing unusual amounts of shopping, eating, cleaning, cooking, and socializing. Give yourself permission to step off the holiday rat wheel and you’ll have space to honor your loss while still celebrating simple pleasures. My mom decided not to cook and host the Thanksgiving meal this year. Now instead of stressing out over cleaning the house and cooking, my mom can visit friends, play with her granddaughter, and slow down the usual pace of her life in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Last year my daughter was born, the first grandchild in the family. She’s brought us boundless joy, and has been a welcome light in the darkness of Rob’s illness and death. I’m not sure she’s old enough to “get” Thanksgiving yet, but she’ll no doubt make us smile on Thursday just as she does every day.

Instead of expecting yourself or your grieving loved ones to muster over-the-top holiday joy, turn to the things that make you happy in your regular life. Eat your favorite foods on Thanksgiving instead of the traditional foods that many people don’t even care for. Watch football if that makes you happy. Or go for a walk. Curl up with a good book. End the day with a hot bath. Do whatever relaxes and nurtures you. Skip the malls and the websites. Curl up with loved ones and appreciate a day off from work, a day to rest and enjoy the company of family and friends.

Create new traditions.

With my mom off-duty, we planned to go to a restaurant instead. We made reservations at one of our favorite places and looked forward to the treat of a delicious meal without prep or clean-up. But an invitation from a family friend was even more appealing, so we will go to their house on Thursday.

If you’re dreading the prospect of sitting down at a familiar table without a beloved familiar face, consider changing the scenery entirely. Go to a restaurant, ask a different family member to host, or see if a friend will have you over. Make new traditions at a new table and eliminate value judgments–different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.

Change won’t eliminate your grief but may ease it. However you spend the holiday, find a meaningful way to honor your loved one.

I’m grateful that Rob was in my life.

This year I’ve decided to honor my brother’s memory by focusing my gratitude on having him in my life. Rob was a wonderful companion to share childhood with. He looked out for me. As an adult, he inspired me with his many achievements and the quiet determination with which he overcame major obstacles. We bonded over my pregnancy, as Rob looked forward to being an uncle and teaching his niece how to play tennis. Throughout his illness and treatments, Rob never complained of pain. Now when I think of him I’m inspired to work harder, follow my dreams, treat others with love and compassion, and appreciate this life I’ve been given.