Self-Improvement vs. Self-Care
Updated: Feb 18
Today, while T was at school, I had two things on my to-do list:
After I dropped T off at school, I immediately turned the car around to head back home for a nap. On the way in the back door, I had to fight off the familiar wave of pressure that washed over me - I needed to be doing something. I held my breath as I walked past a pile of dirty dishes, fought guilt as I ignored the food scraps on the table from T's breakfast feeding therapy routine. I tried not to think about yesterday's Whole Foods run and the fridge that was now full of raw material for all the healthy meals I planned to make. I moved up to my bedroom willfully ignoring the laundry basket of dirty clothes in the hallway. As I put on under eye cream, because I was too tired to think of it last night, images of packed boxes in the basement tried to derail me from my slumber. But I stubbornly climbed into bed, determined to sleep off the fever dreams that had harassed me the night before.
Like most millennials, I have become hard-wired to work constantly and exist in a permanent state of trying to achieve. This has been compounded by becoming a mother, as this second aspect of my identity opened up new front lines of accomplishment: the professional sphere and the home. During any spare moment I have, it feels as if I should be accomplishing tasks that will benefit the family as a collective. Grocery shopping, post office-ing, getting T's excel spreadsheet of his learning foods updated for the week. Or working for the world in general, figuring out how to compost in my new town, ordering new tupperware so I stop lazily using zip-lock bags for school lunches, listening to the impeachment proceedings (you, know, because me doing so will have such a profound impact on the outcome).
Even when I have time that I have purposefully set aside for myself, I feel I should be working to improve something about myself. For example, if I putz around, its aftermath is accompanied by a mix of guilt about inefficiencies and thinking about "what I could have gotten done with that time". It is not surprising that these are my thought processes, they have entered my mind and soul through a lifetime of osmosis from the way I was parented, schooled, cultured, all mixed into an unfortunate cocktail with a dash of generalized anxiety and panic disorder on top of it all. And what's more, even the wellness influencers are there to remind you that taking care of yourself should be in service of something. Do yoga... for more mental clarity at work. Sleep better... so you can perform better professionally. Use these life hacks and eating habits... to make you more productive and use your time more efficiently.
So when these annoying narratives fly around in my head, and I am turning a blind eye to mountains of dishes and land under those soft covers, I remind myself what a wise friend once told me: Self care and self-improvement are not the same thing. (Might I also add that this same friend listened carefully when I told him that I was a woman who would have died on the Oregon Trail because of the emergency C-section with T's birth. He said the following, Casey, we all would have died on the Oregon Trail. Look at us, we are all blind as bats and need glasses to see anything).
So anyways, this friend of mine taught me that self-improvement is engaging in activities in order to secure a particular outcome: better memory, more calories burned, more knowledge accumulated, relationships strengthened. Conversely, self-care is engaging in anything that is nourishing to you in the moment, without an explicit outcome or goal in mind. Think, the "dolce far niente" scene from "Eat Pray Love".
Self-improvement is going for that run to improve your strength, endurance, speed or to burn calories. Self-care is going for that run because it feels nourishing in that moment. Or you allow yourself to decide, actually, today I think I'd enjoy a walk more. They can look the same, but I think it is the intention and the honesty behind it - do I really want to run right now? - that comes from self-care. Letting go of the "should". Now, don't get me wrong, I personally enjoy self-improvement, but I am working on distinguishing between the two and not always giving sweet old self-care short shrift.
This brings us to my second "goal" on the to-do list: To float.
On my first day when T was in his new school without me for the first time (I had spent over a week staying with him the entire day in the classroom to help him co-regulate through the transition to a new set of kids, teachers, etc), I decided to join a nearby wellness center. It was nearly four weeks - and three living situations later - when I finally found three glorious hours to myself with no kids. And I realized as I entered the building, that I had absolutely no desire or strength to workout. I almost walked out. But I forged ahead and then those nice mid-western ladies showed me my own slice of Michigan Nirvana: the ladies locker room. I walked in and it was clean and calm. There were no cell phones allowed. No loud music playing. Most of the women were between 65 and 80, some with walkers. No one was moving quickly. There was towel service. An enormous hot tub. A steam room, with eucalyptus steam barreling out. A sauna. Free Q-tips. Spray to clean my glasses. Shaving cream. "People" magazines next to "the New Yorker".
And when I saw the hot tub - without the bubbles on - I realized exactly what I needed in that moment: to float. That first day I got in my bathing suit and felt some of the weight I had been carrying on my body lift slightly. I allowed my ears to just dip below the surface of the water so that I couldn’t hear the water aerobics echos floating in from the pool or the ladies in the locker room talking about church luncheons or impending surgeries. And I just let myself be.
And so my new daily routine began - I would drop off T and head to the wellness center. First, float in the hot tub and then when the retired ladies piled in after water aerobics, I would head to the steam room and say some prayers - (G)od/Universe, give me strength to get through this time, (G)od/Universe, give me the patience to support my son, guide my steps - smelling the eucalyptus and enjoying being completely enveloped in the quiet hiss of steam and heat. Disappearing. Then I would head to the sauna and lay on my stomach on a towel on the bench, as if at the beach, reading my book about trauma, sweat dripping onto the pages about brain science and EMDR. Then I would shower and slowly get ready to go pick up T. I did this "workout" routine for a month. I burned no calories, I gained no physical strength. No errands were done and many boxes remained unpacked. But it was the first time I had felt quiet and safe in a long time.
Psychologically, the wellness center also quickly became a tangible indicator of why we moved. A concrete reminder of why the hell we were doing this. I needed this reminder desperately during the first weeks upon arriving in Michigan, when everything felt worse and harder than it had been back in D.C. We were in the thick of the short term pain to get to the eventual long-term gain for our family.
This new wellness center was everything my gym in D.C. was not. It was situated in the woods, the trees were snow-covered and sometimes deer ran by. My D.C. gym was situated directly above the metro station and played loud techno music, had dark interior walls with florescent trim and strobe lights. My Michigan wellness center was quiet, there was no music, and there was natural light. In DC, too often, I would be on the treadmill and a preening, attractive, and too-beefed-up 20-something would lift weights too heavy to sustain and he would drop 100s of pounds of weight onto the floor just above my head. My heart would leap into my throat and I would imagine a bomb going off in the metro station below. Or a shooting. (You will understand why this was my response when I eventually get around to writing about my birth story). Finally, a family membership to the Michigan wellness center cost $115 per month. In DC that would not have gotten me five yoga classes at the nearest yoga studio. Just sayin', quality of life.
So finally, after weeks and weeks of floating, I have finally started to rebuild a little strength. I stepped back on that treadmill just a few weeks ago, and restarted the couch-to-5K app I had begun last summer and abandoned through T's breakdown and the chaos of the move. I have lost all my strength, but I know I can build it again. Especially if I leave ample time for some floats, prayers in the steam room, and beach reads in the sauna.