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Seven steps to feel better
My self-care checklist for challenging times
I haven’t really felt like myself for a couple of months. I’m languishing my way through spring right into the heart of summer.
But now I’m in Austin, Texas, a different place that’s supposed to help me achieve a different state of mind. I drove 1400 miles with Minerva over three days (with two National Park stops along the way) to begin ~*My New Life*~.
A year ago I had no idea where I’d make my new home, but I set a goal to figure it out and move out of my parents’ place by June 2021. Hey, I did it! I’m here in my perfect East Side sublet that I was selected to live in out of 50 hopeful applicants. I’m nesting, running along Lady Bird Lake, exploring neighborhood spots. I am happy to be here, and excited to meet new people—but other feelings are dimming my joy.
Over the past year I spent a lot of time alone. After driving the country solo for months, I got less scared of silence, of sitting with my own thoughts. But it’s been a lot harder to feel at peace with myself lately. I’m struggling with repetitive, intrusive thoughts that derail my day. They’re old memories that involve shame and pain, scenarios I’ve already worked through many, many times; which is why it’s so frustrating they bounced back with brutal force.
“Remember, healing isn’t linear!” she screamed as she flung herself into the ocean.
On the drive to Texas I once again listened to Mo Gawdat on the How to Fail podcast, an episode I’ve heard probably ten times. He lost his 21-year-old son when a routine appendix operation went wrong, and the way he thinks about life and loss fascinates me. He wrote a book called Solve for Happy in which he shares the happiness algorithm he created with his son: Your happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the events of your life and your expectations of how life should go.
Gawdat’s approach to lasting happiness includes controlling your thoughts, rather than letting them control you. When he has a negative thought (such as “Your daughter doesn’t love you,” an example he uses) he’ll stop in his tracks to directly address it, arguing with his own brain: “What proof do you have of that? That’s not true and I won’t allow that sort of thinking.” He allows only useful (problem-solving) or positive thoughts to stick around. Our thoughts will try to get us to believe all sorts of nasty things, and we have to have the awareness and courage to tackle them with truth. We are ultimately in charge of which thoughts gain our attention and energy—with a lot of practice.
Gawdat takes umbrage with the term “I think therefore I am”—we don’t equate other bodily functions to a sense of self (imagine saying “I pee therefore I am”), so why do we associate our brains with our very souls? Our thoughts are not our selves, but functions of an organ that evolved to survive at all costs. As Gawdat notes, if we stumble upon a wild tiger, it does us no good to notice how beautiful its coat and coloring are. Instead our brains scream “Danger!” so we have a chance to run. That’s why something like 70% of all our thoughts are negative. That’s why the brain is hardwired to replay the most painful experiences of our lives—from heartbreak to illness to trauma—so it can try to save us from repeating the same “mistakes.” But I know I have to overcome those brainwaves—over and over and over—in order to live a full and satisfying life, to infinitely try again and move forward, to never allow my fears and pains to hold me back. It’s an uphill battle.
I believe self-compassion and developing the cognitive skills to push back against negative thoughts can be literally life-saving. I have worked really hard on this the last couple of years, and I’ve come a long way. But recently, I’m struggling.
When I moved to New York in 2011, I was depressed. It took therapy to understand that I was overwhelmed by massive change hitting me from all sides, and to give myself the empathy I deserved. Ten years later, in a fresh season of massive change, I’ve learned some things! I recognize that I just experienced an intense seven months of family obligations, and I need some time to come back into myself. I understand I may have a challenging period of readjustment ahead of me, and that’s okay. I’ve learned that all of my emotions are okay, that shaming myself into oblivion for my feelings will never help. That I must extend the same gentleness and kindness to myself as I would any good friend. That there are basic steps to take to strengthen my mental health.
So this week, I’ve got a self-care plan. If you need some extra support, copy my list, borrow from it, or create your own:
Journal three pages as soon as I wake up. Thank you, The Artist’s Way.
Exercise outside every day. A long walk is just fine, though I’ve found weightlifting to be the most effective mood-regulator.
Eat foods I know make me feel good, physically and mentally—fruits, veggies, nothing processed. No alcohol.
Meditate ten minutes a day. Continue to develop a healthy relationship with my thoughts.
Approach my work with joy and enthusiasm, rather than dread and fear. Right now, this includes applying for jobs I’m excited about, pitching stories I believe in, and writing #1000wordsofsummer. And this newsletter :)
No mindless social media scrolling. Turn to other things that nourish me: reading, writing, painting, sitting with Minerva on our new patio, watching Will and Grace.
Connect with friends. I’m feeling isolated, and I’m making a pointed effort to reach out to my people this week. On Friday I got to hear my friend Mike Kelton’s engagement story, and it was delightful and made me believe in love a little more. (If you want to see his boyfriend’s proposal, which involves a haunted dresser, here you go.)
That’s it. That’s all I need to hold myself to this week. I can do these things, and I know that, eventually, they will help me feel better. Right now, just for today, do anything that doesn’t make it worse. We’ll get there.
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