The Rebellion of Self-Care


Recently on the podcast, we have been wrestling with some of the challenges and pitfalls of leadership—including the reality that so many leaders do not receive the care to sustain a healthy life, even as they help others learn to care for themselves. Here, Jenny McGrath explores how this struggle is particularly pronounced for women, who are often told that their bodies are to be feared and subdued, not cared for. Jenny invites all of us to pause in the midst of everything we’re carrying and offer our bodies—and our whole selves—a moment of care.

Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “Doctors make the worst patients.” I used this sentence recently as I met with a naturopathic doctor. I stated it before I quietly mumbled that it has been three years since I have been to any form of a doctor—at all. While I would like to claim that this is because I am in perfect health, the truer reason is that I have a deep ambivalence about what it means to care for my body. I recognize the irony of this, as my specialty and focus in my practice is on bodies, somatic interventions, and movements. But this dichotomy also points to another deep belief: where we have experienced the deepest woundings is often where we are the most beckoned into healing.

The ambivalence of my body did not start with myself. I come from generations, a culture, and a religion that, frankly, have not known what to do with bodies—especially women’s bodies. The sensuousness and eroticism that the female body invites have been labeled as “too much” or “dangerous” for so long that it has been impossible for women not to internalize the message—not only in our sensuousness, but also in our needs, our desires, our wellbeing. It is more socially acceptable for a woman to drain herself of all of her resources than to take time to herself, to replenish her tank, and maybe even to bask in some forms of self-care.

Where we have experienced the deepest woundings is often where we are the most beckoned into healing.

This struggle is just as real for men; it just takes a different form. Men are often told to “man up” and “be strong” and shamed for any tenderness they afford themselves (as illuminated in the documentary The Mask You Live In). But as a woman, I am going to speak from what my own experience has been in terms of self-care.

My husband was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease a few years ago, and I plunged head first into books, online trainings, and interviews about how to find the best diet for him, what changes we needed to make in life, and how to build sustainable wellness practices for him. All the while he would gently remind me, time and time again, “You do know that your digestion issues are not a sign of good health right?” and “I would really like you to find out how we can help your IBS.” I ignored him for about three years until my body would not let me ignore the symptoms anymore. My eczema has been progressively worse, and digestion has been a constant issue for me since at least seventh grade.

I can sit in my office chair day in and day out and give helpful tips and advice to my clients. I can refer them to other professionals they can see for self-care, and I can recommend body work that will give them a felt sense of support in their healing journey, but often it is hardest for me to practice what I preach. I say this not as self-degradation, but because I really believe that what I am saying is true more often than not for other counselors, nurses, pastors, mothers, and anyone in serving roles. And my hope is that as I continue to care for my body, it will offer hope for others to care for theirs.

One of our core beliefs at The Allender Center is, “We cannot ask others to go further than we are willing to go ourselves.” For me it has been easier to enter into stories of harm and darkness, and to be able to bring clients or Story Workshop and Training Certificate participants into those places in their own stories, guided by my belief that goodness and light can be seen even in the darkest of places. It is much harder for me to bring myself into places of goodness, rest, beauty, and care. Those often feel too audacious, too extravagant, too sinful. But I know that unless I am willing to name my body as valuable and worthy, unless I am able to step into the rebellion of healthy living, then I can’t ask others to do so either—at least not effectively.

I recognize that there are many commodities these days sold and marketed as “self-care.” And although there can be benefits to yoga, massages, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, or other types of body work, I realize that these modalities may not be accessible or affordable to many. The good news is that self-care is a way of living, not a commodity.

The good news is that self-care is a way of living, not a commodity.

One of the most defiant ways that we can learn self-care is to set appropriate boundaries for ourselves. It can be hard to have a sense of “here and now” in a day and age where I can post a picture of myself from yesterday that will send to people all over the world all while typing an email to someone in a different state and texting my husband in another part of the city. Technology can be a valuable resource, but it can also take us out of the boundaried gift that it is to be flesh and blood. We have lost touch with the physical boundary of skin, and with the reality that we aren’t able to (and shouldn’t be) all things to everyone at all times. We can feel obligations to answer phone calls, emails, texts, and messages all within a few minutes of receiving them, and our fast-paced way of living leaves our body in a chronic state of stress and hypervigilance.

Our autonomic nervous system has two forms: parasympathetic (rest and digest) or sympathetic (fight/flight). These two responses are like a lightswitch. They do not occur simultaneously. We are either in a state of stress or a state of rest. We need our sympathetic nervous system; it is what allows us to survive when we are in immediate danger. But our nervous system is built for short, quick-response stressors—we are not wired for the long-term, chronic stress that so many of us experience day to day.

Take a moment to listen to your body and notice where you are in the dance of rest or stress. Is your breath low into your belly and slow? Is there a short break between your inhale and exhale? Is your breath fast and only in your chest? Is your heart rate slow and relaxed, or is it beating hard and fast?

Right here and right now, you can give yourself a moment of self-care by taking low and slow breaths: allowing your diaphragm to expand all the way into your belly, and breathing out through your mouth with a relaxed jaw, as if you are breathing out of a tiny coffee straw. (This is a helpful image/tool that I learned in a recent biofeedback workshop with Dr. Debbie Miller.) This will enable your breath to slow down, which allows your body to shift into parasympathetic dominance.

By training our body to return to parasympathetic dominance, we are enabling ourselves to shift into rest and digest mode. This will literally impact the way our body is able to break up and absorb nutrients from food, the way our immune system will function, the amount at which our body can produce fresh blood cells, and many other incredible things that our parasympathetic nervous system enables us to do. So please take a moment, as an act of defiance in this busy, crazy time, to take care of your body through your breath. I will allow myself to do the same.