Self-care. It’s become a buzz-word, even a lifestyle, in our pop-psych world.
It’s defined as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”
It’s commonly recommended to us estranged moms by therapists, family, and friends.
And it can appeal to us moms who did so much for our kids, never really took time for ourselves, and are now lost in estrangement. Maybe self-care will help fill the void?
I'll say perhaps, because self-care only helps when it’s done with purpose, alongside some conscious mental effort about what you're doing and why.
Otherwise self-care is more of a temporary band-aid than a true path to emotional recovery.
When I met “Toni” she described the anguish of the estrangement with her 24-year-old daughter.
On top of her grief, Toni was frustrated. Toni believed she was doing all the “right” things. She took up a new hobby - gardening - something she’d always wanted to do. She made an effort to get out and have lunch with friends, something she'd avoided until recently. Toni was exercising, taking long walks out in nature. She began volunteering at her local women’s shelter.
It all helped. But she came to me saying “it wasn’t enough.”
Toni was still overwhelmed by sadness. While she agreed with me that her feelings are appropriate and normal, she really wanted to feel and function better. She couldn’t understand why she felt so stuck. In defeat she said that if her self-care efforts weren’t working, maybe nothing would.
As Toni described it, taking the time to exercise and garden was great. Being outside, moving her body, and learning new things was helpful. But she’d find her mind focusing on her estranged daughter. The empty mental space during self-care activities often led to greater despair.
Having lunch with friends was a big deal for Toni. She felt self-conscious about being estranged - it was a hit to her confidence. But Toni recognized that isolating herself might not be the healthiest option. So she pushed herself to connect. Toni found her friends to be sensitive and supportive. Yet she was acutely aware of how different her situation was from others’. Understandably Toni's friends would talk about their children, which pained Toni. She felt even more aware of what she was missing.
This experience carried over to volunteering. Other volunteers and women at the shelter asked about her kids. Toni didn’t always know how to respond. The women in the shelter would speak about their relationships with their kids. Toni felt envious and slighted. As she said, the women in the shelter had challenges, but at least they had relationships with their kids.
The self care that was meant to recharge Toni, left her feeling depleted.
Of course there were benefits to all that Toni was doing. She felt great when she stopped to appreciate nature during her walk, or when she brightened the day of a woman at the shelter.
But it didn't "stick." She felt she returned to the same sadness every evening.
Toni's self-care wasn't providing the lasting emotional relief she'd hoped for.
Emotional healing cannot take place at the action level. Real healing occurs in our minds.
Toni was trying to act and distract her way out of her pain. This never works.
To feel better we have to look at our thoughts. Our thoughts create our feelings. Our feelings inspire our actions.
Toni's thought was that self-care would make her feel better. She felt optimistic and took actions to follow through. But actions are temporary. Behaviors don't heal us, our minds do.
Our thoughts can grow into belief systems that can change our lives.
What if Toni gardened and walked with the intention of using that time to heal? How would things change if she adopted an attitude of abundance and appreciation? It sounds simple, but having gratitude for the gifts that nature has to offer, and her ability to participate in it, gives Toni's brain something more productive to focus on than ruminating about her daughter. To take it a step further, it's also possible for Toni to focus on gratitude for her daughter - for having that experience, however long it lasted. Training our brains to see the good that is available, rather than what's not, provides us with lots of options to think in ways that serve us.
While Toni enjoyed connecting with friends, her thoughts could make those lunch dates a mixed experience. What if Toni looked at her friends with so much joy for what they have with their children, rather than envy? One of estrangement's lessons can be greater appreciation for the sacred nature of relationships. What if that was Toni's focus, rather than her loss?
Feeling jealous, feeling despair - all emotions are a normal part of human life. Estrangement brings up the tough stuff. Negative thinking is our brain's natural default. We imperfectly react to it. Part of that can be to look for temporary distractions to avoid our pain.
The problem is, there simply aren't enough walks or lunches to really and truly release our emotional turmoil. Those actions - "going through the motions" - can't heal us.
For real, permanent emotional recovery, we must change our thinking.
So when you’re ready to feel better and create lasting change, your mind is the key. It's about consciously thinking differently. Catching unproductive thoughts and redirecting our brains to the abundance and beauty in this one present moment. It takes practice to rewire the old noggin, but it's possible. And the only way for lasting peace and a better life.
Live forward consciously, mamas.
Want to talk further about these concepts? Email me! firstname.lastname@example.org