thebonesofferalletters: What do you consider the most important thing you do that falls under self care?
(Content warning for examples of negative self-talk.)
By far, by far the most important thing I have ever done for myself in terms of mental health is to practice employing techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy.
In my life, this means keeping an eye on my own thoughts and emotions, and – when they begin to spiral down – cultivating an inner voice that will speak to me and tell me the truth. Not saccharine platitutes, not brutal honesty, but the truth, gently yet firmly. So let's say I fuck something up, I miss a deadline and don't get some work in on time. My inner script wants to start up the tirade of "God, An, what the fuck, can't you do anything right? No wonder you're such a failure. At this rate you'll never do anything. Are you even trying? Are you just a lazy ass or are you actually broken? Well, we know you're not actually broken, because who do you think you are, thinking your problems are as serious as that?" That sort of thing. Which is probably familiar to everyone in my DW circle.
So what I teach myself to do is to notice that starting to happen, and to invoke that inner voice I'm cultivating. And the inner voice gives it a firm look the way you'd treat a heckler in the class, and then it turns to me and says "Okay, An. So, that wasn't ideal, what just happened. I know you're capable of this work because you've proven it many times before. I know you're feeling overwhelmed right now, but that's a problem we can start working on. We're not okay with this sort of thing happening, right? You might not be able to fix this issue, but you can take responsibility from here and work to repair your integrity. It will be hard, and you'll be challenged, and you won't get it all at once, but that's okay because that's how the work happens. So let's do this."
One of the ways I taught myself to do this was to use the two-column technique. I use a steno pad (they're perfect for this!), but you can also just draw a line down a piece of paper, or make a word document on your computer with two columns, or whatever. The idea is that as soon as those negative thoughts start circulating – or as soon as you notice the negative self-talk, which can sometimes take a while – you write down the thought that you're having in the first column. Not the "I feel awful" sorts of things, but the "I can't do anything right" things. And then in the second column, you rebut it. So I might have a row that looks like this:
|I'm such a fuckup. I can't do anything right.||I do plenty of things right. I keep my environment clean and ordered and I successfully navigated a tricky conversation with someone this morning. I've even gotten articles in on time the vast majority of the times that I've attempted them. I don't do everything perfectly every time, but no one does – it's not a reasonable expectation. I fuck up sometimes and I ace things sometimes. That's part of being human. And sitting down here to get myself into a space where I can fix things is a great thing; I'm doing this right.|
You don't go "Yeah, you're a fuckup, get your act together." But neither do you go "No, it's all okay! You couldn't be expected to do any of that. You should absolve yourself of responsibility." You look at the situation and tell yourself the truth.
In the beginning, it's really, really useful to write all of this down. For one thing, it gives you a record of the kinds of thoughts that come up, and when you're not being shaken in depression's teeth, you can look back and see all the ways that your brain distorts the facts and tries to make you miserable. For another thing, sometimes writing things down makes it easier to argue against those condemning thoughts without your depression-brain trying to talk back to you. So for several months, my self-care was to notice my depression, get my steno pad, and sit down to record all of this and gently talk back to my distorted thinking the way a caring teacher or beloved mentor might.
To move that back up one notch, I think that silent meditation has helped me lay the groundwork for the sort of self-awareness that helps me notice those thought cycles. The key breakthrough that stopped me from getting endlessly frustrated with silent meditation was this: it's not about clearing your mind. As you practice meditation for months and years you might find that your mind clears when you meditate, but that's a side effect of meditation, not the goal. The goal is to notice when you get swept up in your thoughts. And you're going to get swept up in them, because that's how our brains work. We get swept up in ruminations or imaginations or imagined arguments or rehashed arguments or tangential lines of thinking... or depressive recriminations.
Meditation is a practice space. For the course of three minutes – if you're just starting out, three minutes is a good, non-scary length of time to meditate. Hell, if it gets you started, meditate for one minute at first. You can build up to half-hour-long meditations laaaaaater – but for the course of three minutes, sit and breathe, and thoughts will come into your mind, and they'll catch you up, and your job is to notice that it's happened and gently untangle yourself and come back to breathing. The more you get caught up in your thoughts and notice that it's happened and disentangle yourself, the better you'll get at it in your everyday life. So those thoughts that keep cluttering up your pristine meditation mind aren't the enemy, they're the coursework.
So the most important thing I do is to use skills I learn in meditation to notice my negative self-talk and gently-but-firmly shed the light of truth on it. Because the truth is that none of us can be perfectly good, so holding ourselves against that standard is not a good game. And the truth is that none of us will ever be perfectly bad or evil or worthless, so throwing our whole sense of self out – I am a fuckup (as though that was the sum of my being); I can't do anything right – will necessarily be based on falsehood.
It's all a skill, and I'm still practicing and getting better at it. But I notice that my mental health tends to soar when I'm actively practicing this, and dip back down when I'm not.