How To Do Self-Care Correctly

Self-Care for Multiple Sclerosis. I wanted to do this presentation because it’s a theme that shows up often in my practice – how to do self-care correctly? To begin I wanted to talk about the two types of MS clients that come to my office:

Styles of Self Care

The first type of client comes in with a lot of fear that they’re not doing enough. They’re hard on themselves because they can’t seem to stick to the recommended diet and what they’ve been told is good for them. They say things in the first sessions such as, “ Why can’t I stick to the diet?” and “I should be exercising more but it just hurts too much. Why am I not exercising enough?” There is all this guilt and shame and fear that they’re not doing enough. And that they’re not doing it right.

And on the contrary, I have other disciplined clients that are very frustrated with their bodies. They say things such as, “I am eating all the right foods and I’m exercising six days a week even if it hurts; even if I’m tired. I am doing everything I should.” They are mad and ask me, “Why am I not getting well if I seem to be doing everything right? Did I miss anything?”

Why aren’t don’t either of these two styles of self-care work?

The Story of Care

To talk about self-care for MS, I always use the story about orphanages. There have been many studies in the early 1900’s on how young children in orphanages, hospitals, and institutions die at a rate of close to 90% even when the children are fed and get exercise.  This is especially pronounced in children that are two or younger.  And it isn’t that these orphanages were terrible places that tortured the children. On the contrary, they nurses do everything right, yet the children do not thrive and oftentimes die.

What this researchers discovered is that these institutions were missing nurturing attachment. Children don’t just need to eat and exercise, they need to be loved. To nourish is not only to take in food and to move regularly.  We need loving care, nurturance, to grow and be healthy.  Nurturance is necessary for our physical and mental health.  It is also necessary for growth and creates resilience to stress and self-confidence.

So how to we bring more nurturing and less regimenting to our self-care?

Turning Nurturing Childhood Style Care into Self-Care

self-care for MSI wanted to continue with a personal story.   When I was little, my mother taught us to be good professionals.  She would tell my sister and me that we were going to have to be tough and work hard to excel in the professional world of men. I remember as a child that she would never let me stay in bed on the weekends. She would tell me that I couldn’t stay in bed unless I had a fever.  Feeling melancholic, sad, like I just wanted to relax and listen to music, or just needing to recover from the week and sleep just a little longer, wasn’t excuse enough. 

I imagine many of you had different yet similar experiences.  Your mother was also not a super nurturing-permissive-caring-mother-figure. My mother meant well of course, by focusing on preparing us to be successful professionals, but she wasn’t teaching us how to nurture ourselves.  I remember the message I got from her indirectly was that I needed to be doing something all the time to have value in this world! Does this sound familiar?

But as my mom got older and wiser, her stance changed. By the time I was in my mid-thirties, she had radically changed her tone with us.  I worked in a foreign country and I was working hard and had a lot of responsibilities. I would come to visit her one weekend a month and I would be exhausted. She could see how much I was working and how much I pushed myself. And she changed how she treated me completely.

I have this memory of going to her house one weekend, perhaps only a few years before she died. I remember her actually telling me, “Eva, why don’t you just sit on the porch. Relax in the sun on a lounge chair. Just rest for a while.” And she poured me a glass of wine and made me a plate of cheese and crackers. And she said not to worry and that there was nothing I needed to do. She wanted me to just sit, enjoy, and relax. My week was hard enough as it was.  And I sat there with my glass of wine, with my cheese and crackers, in the fall sun…. and it was blissful. And it was such a contrast to who she was and how she was with us as kids. And maybe because it was so shockingly different that I remember that moment so well.

Bringing Nurturance into Our Self-Care

It was so incredible, so special, that I now do it for myself.  I check in with myself and, if I am tired, I stop everything and lounge.  I have adapted that internal, older mother that I experienced those few rare times. I ask myself by the end of the week, sometimes even the end of the day, “how am I doing? Is everything okay? Am I happy?” And I bring that blissful self-care to myself in as many delicious ways as possible. Why?  Because life is hard enough as it is, we don’t need to keep pushing all the time.

And that’s what my mom realized as she grew older –  life is hard enough as it is.  We don’t have to add to that hardness ourselves by pushing, forcing, and demanding more of ourselves.  To deal with what life brings us, to deal with stress, to have resilience and confidence, we need nurturing self-care.  And it doesn’t matter if you are two years old or 50 years old.  To stay healthy, we need to nurture ourselves as a mother would.

Self-Care is Self-Nurturing

To conclude, I want to invite you to think about and ask yourself, “Am I treating myself and my body like a child in an orphanage, just focused on doing all the right things? Or am I treating myself like Eva’s older and wiser mother because it’s hard enough out there, so no need to be hard on myself as well?” When you think about self-care and healing, think about how you are treating that inner child.  Self-care is really self-nurturing and self-loving. And that is far more important than the diet and exercise regimen you follow when considering self-care for multiple sclerosis.

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