Listening to my body

I’ve been sick recently, which has caused me to miss work and miss social events that I really wanted to attend in order to respect my body’s need to rest in order to heal. Listening to my body’s needs and taking care of myself when I need to do so is generally not one of my strengths, but this time I listened to my body’s needs early in the process and likely avoided what would have been greater illness if I had continued to soldier ahead. I believe that one thing that helped me to do better at listening this time is that I have been surrounded by messages recently about how important this is—not just for our physical health but also for our overall well-being and productivity.

Havi Brooks of  The Fluent Self recently talked about the importance of listening to the needs of one’s body and acting on them in her post The unhosile takeover. As she points out, it is very easy to think that we know what our body needs when, in reality, we are not listening at all. We get so caught up in our plans and agendas that we push ourselves to do more than our body may be equipped for at any given time. One of the things I loved about Havi’s approach to this is her emphasis on cultivating practices, like yoga, that will help her stay more in touch with her body’s needs while at the same time finding ways to objectively assess the messages she’s getting to ensure that they are really from her body and not just her mental projections of what she thinks her body might say.

I also like the approach that Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project talks about in her post called Treat Yourself Like a Toddler. Although she is specifically talking in terms of finding ways to honor her needs while traveling, I think her suggestion can apply to everyday life as well. She points out that we don’t hesitate to consider and plan ahead for the needs of toddlers when we travel with them. We plan around their sleep times and nap requirements. We consider their food needs and make sure we bring along toys to keep them occupied. But how seldom do we give ourselves the same kind of consideration! It may be helpful to think of ourselves in the third person, as she demonstrates with her examples of “Gretchen needs …” in order to be at her best. But it also requires us to get to know ourselves well enough to know what our limitations are for us to be the best self we can be.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer recently discussed this topic in a post entitled Beneath Denial, in which she explores one item of much needed self-care that she has been in denial about for a long time. This self-care is something that places limitations on her ability to do some other things that she really enjoys, but her denial of this need has caused her much suffering when she violates it. She talks about coming to the place of recognizing that the limitations that this places on her are less onerous that dealing with the consequences of not treating herself the way that she needs to. Her honesty about this struggle and the challenges it creates for her is humbling.

All three of these bloggers point to the fact that the first step in being able to honor the needs of our bodies is to know what our own personal needs and limitations are. Each of us is unique, but we tend to think that we should treat ourselves in the same way that the people around us treat themselves. We start to see things like never getting enough sleep as “normal” and “just the way things are” when we see others around us getting by on little sleep too. I like Havi’s idea of creating a Book of Me where I record my unique needs and limitations as I discover them. This not only makes it a conscious practice, but it can also serve as a reminder over time of the needs I have discovered so that I can be more intentional about honoring them even (or maybe especially) when I get pressure from others to do otherwise.

However, I also see two enormous temptations that it is easy to fall into as one works through this process. The first is to think that as I identify my own needs and preferences (and this goes not only for my body’s needs but other needs of Self) that other people I care about need to fall in line with the same things in the mistaken notion that those I care about are just like me. Havi addresses this in her The Book of You post when talking about how my me-ness does not impinge in any way on your you-ness. My decision to honor my body’s needs should affect only me and my own self-care decisions. When I try to apply those requirements to another and pressure them to live by my Book of Me, I am out of line and not honoring the other person’s sovereignty as person. It is up to the other person to determine what their body (or soul) needs, not me.

The other temptation as I work through this process is to feel that it is my duty to point out to others that I observe not taking good care of themselves that they are in denial about their body’s needs. Again, this is not my place. Even if someone else is in denial about their body’s needs, it may be exactly where they need to be right now. As Grandmother Waynonaha Two Worlds points out in her Giving the Freedom to Live: Accepting the Journeys of Others post, each of travels our life journey at our own pace and in our own way. When I try to force another to be at the same place in their journey that I am in mine, I deny them the blessings of the learning they may need to do along the way. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about them; it means that I give them the freedom to live their life in the way they need to live it at the point where they are in their journey.

One concept I found most useful in this discussion about other people being in denial about something is one that Oriah talked about in her Beneath Denial post I mentioned earlier. She quotes New York psychiatrist Mark Epstein as saying that when he saw people being in denial about something as being “caught in an old sorrow.” As she points out, this is a much more compassionate and non-judgmental stance to take with others. And it is a great reminder again that I need to allow them to make their own journey in their own way and to do it according to their needs, not mine, because their sorrows are not mine to dictate.

As a recovering codependent, it is challenging for me not to try to force others to take care of themselves (or allow me to take care of them) because it “feels” like the way to demonstrate my love for them. And yet, I hate it when others do it to me. I so desperately want to be seen as a whole and competent person capable of knowing how to best care for myself, and when someone else feels like they need to control me because I am not doing a good enough job, it does not make me feel loved. It leaves me feeling disempowered and belittled. So if that’s how I feel when it is done to me, I should not be doing it to others. I need to give others the same respect that I so desperately want. I need to remember that there is an enormous difference between caring for another (which is an emotional concern) and taking care of another (which is really a means of controlling another unless they have asked for my assistance or are truly incapable of caring for themselves) even if they both feel like caring to me.

This is not going to be an easy habit for me to break, but as I listen to my body as I consider laying down this load of needing to take care of those around me, I hear a huge sigh of relief from the lifting of a burden that I have been unwittingly carrying. I think that’s an entry for my Book of Me: My body needs me to focus on taking of myself, and I can’t do that well when I am spending myself taking care of others. I harm them and myself when I do that.

2 thoughts on “Listening to my body

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