The Comfort of Coping versus the Discomfort of Healing

I’ve gone back into therapy.

I’m not embarrassed. If my arm was broken I’d go to the doctor. I’m proud that I make decisions that get me the help I need when I need it.

However, for years, therapy has not worked for me. Being that I am a pretty reflective individual, what would basically happen is the therapist would repeat back what I said, would ask if I had strategies to cope, I would describe my strategies, and they would end the session with, “Keep doing that.” It’s been a source of irritation for me but whenever I begin to really struggle I know my other choices are limited. So, in the times where I struggle most, I still try to have hope that whatever new counselor I’ve found will work.

What prompted my therapy this time were periodic bouts of intense anger that I’ve been having for a year and a half. They come on when certain things are triggered inside me. I know what these triggers are, with all the reflectiveness and such, so it’s always like standing outside a situation watching it without knowing what to do about it. If you have met me, you may say, there’s no way this can be true. You’re about the most level person I’ve met. That’s only because my self-management and coping skills are really, really solid. I haven’t had these bouts of anger since I was a kid and I’d go into my room and yelling and screaming to myself were my only option. I don’t ever get violent during these episodes, but I do blackout and say things that I don’t remember and when I’m told later what I said, I don’t typically mean what I’ve spewed. And as with many mental health issues, it has been the people I love the most who have gotten the brunt of this issue. I can eventually grasp control of it. I can realize I’m in that space, take deep breaths, walk away, calm down, but by that time the damage is done. In this case, the coping strategies don’t stop it from happening in the first place. That’s when I realized I needed more than coping. I needed healing.

After listening to some of what has been happening, going over timelines, my work, my relationships, and my episodes, my new counselor basically blew my mind.

“Mandy, I really think you are suffering from Secondary Trauma.”

Oh, you have got to be freaking kidding me.

I started speaking about secondary traumatic stress (aka secondary trauma or compassion fatigue) not because I ever experienced it but because I learned about the concept and realized how important it was in the education field and how it could negatively affect teachers and their engagement. I spoke on the topic during my mental health session no less than two weeks ago. Speaking about secondary traumatic stress has brought me pride in my job as I have always felt like I was bringing something to the forefront that not many other people were talking about. It fit my purpose. I was supporting teachers by educating them about that particular mental health issue, how to recognize it, where to find help, and how to support each other. But, I never had it. I would have recognized it if I did since I speak about it all of the time.

There is just no way, I thought. Maybe if I start talking about losing weight or winning the lottery I’ll contract that, too. This is ridiculous.

But, the fact is that all the puzzle pieces fit together. Secondary traumatic stress mimics the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Angry outbursts are a symptom of PTSD. I had not only been helping a good friend through difficult times when it started without any true way to fix what was happening to them, but I was also meeting amazing people who had gone through trauma and had mental issues who would tell me their stories because I had set up a safe space by showing my own vulnerability. It compounded my own issues. I took everything in and didn’t have any place for the emotional guck that had balled up to be released. I want to be sure to say here: this issue is no one’s fault. Not even mine. While I’m disappointed I missed the signs earlier, this is what I do for a living, who I am, involves those I care about, and I’m incredibly proud of it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

The type of counseling is non-traditional and I’m not ready to talk specifically about it yet, but the focus is healing not only the secondary trauma but also my other issues and not just coping. I have been coping a really long time. I sought her out because of the healing and while my brain tells me that this is the best thing for me that I’ve done in a while, I’m scared. I have lived my whole life in this state of feeling broken that I may be a different person when I’m healed. It reminds me of the concept of an abused spouse and everyone wonders why they don’t leave the abuser, only in this case I’ve been beating myself up for years. The feeling of being broken in itself can feel like a comfort zone because anything outside it feels uncomfortable. Even the feeling of being healed would be different. And I don’t know if people are going to like the person I’ll be in the after. I don’t know if I’ll like that person. What if I am literally a better person because I have these issues than I would be if I didn’t. What if everything is colored right now with my struggle and when I’m healed it’s nothing but grayscale? I discuss resilience as not being the same person you were before, but instead being okay and loving the person you’ve become. What if I’m simply not built with that kind of resilience? Those are the (probably irrational) thoughts that constantly run through my head. I am comfortable here. The thought of being healed is way outside my comfort zone because it’s a place I’ve never been. It doesn’t matter that logically it seems like the better place to be.

The thing is, up until I began having the angry outbursts, I didn’t think I was hurting anyone. Even when I was young the only person I ever yelled at was myself. I lived in my own head and kept telling myself that all my issues helped me to understand other people who are broken, too. The problem with that is that if there is a way for none of us to live in that space, it’s worth a try. It was really just a way to stay inside that comfort zone and not worry if people liked me or not because I could always fall back on the excuse that they just didn’t like me because of issues I couldn’t help. It’s so much easier to use other people as an excuse to keep the status quo. The truth is, I do care if people like me. I care what they think and I want to belong. Desperately. And that’s why it’s so scary at the prospect of becoming a different, healed person because what if my inner healed self is useless?

I speak about so many emotional issues on this blog. Forgiveness, vulnerability, empathy, mental health issues…and I hope I never give anyone the impression that growth in these areas doesn’t take determination and relentlessness because it is extremely hard. Sometimes, it’s scary and our own thoughts can be unforgiving. But, I believe we can do hard things. We can’t preach moving outside our comfort zones if we are not willing to do that in the most intimate of ways. If we want to love others fully we need to take care of our own issues so we have the capacity to do so, and sometimes that means acknowledging how scary some places are and going there anyway. If you need a reason outside of yourself to grow and move outside your comfort zone, tell yourself you’re doing it for the children. But, please, consider doing it just for yourself, too. You are also worth it.

Where Vulnerability Becomes a Liability (hint: it’s the place where courage is born)

Vulnerability is currently a hot topic in education. I find it’s commonly viewed in one of two ways: either people believe it’s the way to create deep connections and forge relationships built on trust or they feel that showing vulnerability is the equivalent to waiving your Achille’s heel in front of everyone while daring them to take a shot. I’ve been thrilled that most people are beginning to believe the former, and even if they find that vulnerability is a difficult concept, they see the value. For anyone who is working on their own vulnerability – I am so proud of you. It’s not an easy task to take on and at first, it can feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. She also describes it as the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity (Daring Greatly). If we dig down the root of so many of our social and culture/climate challenges, we will find the issue typically begins with the absence of one of these emotional connections. Many times, teachers or students will shut down from communicating when they feel like they don’t belong. When they lose their joy they become disengaged. When they forget to employ empathy they break connection. Showing vulnerability to another person who is receptive to that kind of emotion creates a connection that is not easily severed.

Maybe you understand this already. Or, maybe you’re working on being more vulnerable with the people around you. This is a worthwhile way to spend your energy. Vulnerability is a choice. A good one. But, it’s also a risk. And unfortunately, eventually, you may have your vulnerability used against you. It’s an unfortunate side effect of showing your soft inner belly while so many people still believe that vulnerability equals weakness or they don’t understand how showing vulnerability impacts a person on a deeper, personal level than just about any other emotion. This is not a warning issued against working toward this particular goal. Instead, by recognizing the potential for the situation you can be more prepared for it to happen and understand that just because someone doesn’t understand you, doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong.

In the past, when vulnerability has been used against me, this has looked like leaders questioning my abilities when I admit that I don’t know. It has looked like taking a risk just to be reprimanded when I failed. It has also been the perception of weakness when I show my vulnerable side. But, perhaps the most daring way I have had my vulnerability used against me is by someone who pointed out that I may have relationships that are forged and continued by people who pity me because I talk about my depression and former thoughts of suicide. All of these instances have angered me and absolutely gave me the right to armor up and protect myself from those situations happening again. Particularly the incident regarding mental health and the deep wound that it created in an area that I work so hard to expose and destigmatize, it would have been reasonable to expect that I would close myself off and change the way I operate. That would definitely be the easier choice and it’s natural to want to crawl into a hole and protect your wounds, especially after exposing yourself expecting connection and instead needing to retreat to attend to the unexpected damage.

Here’s the part that’s important to understand in these circumstances: when people themselves are not vulnerable they don’t understand vulnerability. Until they are able to change and accept the power of this connection, they will always look at humanity as a weakness. In some cases, I believe that one person showing vulnerability actually causes emotions in people that are too intense for them to handle so they armor up to avoid that discomfort. Either way, that is not about you. That is about them and where they are in their stories; their own life journeys. That is not a time to decide to be “tougher” and avoid being vulnerable. That is a time to continue to model and show others how it’s done.

There will always one person who is ready to push back against anything that feels uncomfortable. Sometimes that comes out as adult bullying or snide remarks or looks of dissatisfaction or disapproval. Sometimes, it’s a person who seems to feel like your vulnerability is a liability. There will always be these people. However, allowing that to bother you, or worse, change you, gives those people more control in your life than they’re probably entitled to. Part of owning your vulnerability is becoming comfortable with opening yourself up when you know there is the potential for someone to equate your actions with your Achille’s heel. When Brown speaks of vulnerability and courage, I believe it’s at the point where the courage is born.

A Case for Positive Self-Talk

A friend of mine told me the other day that I have a really positive outlook. I nearly laughed out loud. My go-to defense mechanism for anything happy, anything sad, pretty much anything in life has always been sarcasm and negativity. I could blame this on a lot of things. It could be my self-esteem or the way that just being was modeled growing up. The fact of the matter is it really doesn’t matter what caused me to be like that. A few years ago I made the choice to not be like that any longer. I decided one day I didn’t like the way it felt. And it may seem like it was an easy choice. Something that would only make sense if you want to be happy you need to be more positive. But it actually took a lot of work. I had to change the people I surround myself with. I had to decide how much negativity I was going to allow affect me. I’m still learning. One of the ways that I’ve been continuing my journey to become more positive is focusing on my self-talk.

If you would have told me even five years ago that I would be trying a gratitude journal or that I would be talking about positive self-talk in any other way besides how ridiculous it was I wouldn’t have believed you. I really thought it was a bunch of hooey. But when I’m unsure about how something makes me feel I go back to the Neuroscience of it. Also, it just makes sense. If you tell yourself positive things you’re more likely to be positive. The concept really isn’t that hard. Yet, when I was starting out it seemed silly and an insurmountable task. There are a few things I’ve learned that I thought I could pass on. 

You talk to your kids with that attitude?

In last week’s post I discuss how I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. When she was discussing positive self-talk she said you should never say anything to yourself that you would not say to your kids. Why would you treat yourself any differently than you would treat your own children or students. Sometimes, we get down on ourselves and think about all of the ways that we screwed up and how we should be better. But would you ever say to your kids You’re such an idiot! How could you not have done better? Or would you ever look at your daughter and say Holy crap you look fat in that dress. It sounds ridiculous when we say it that way yet I promise you my self-talk has said those very things. I even spend an exorbitant amount of time telling my dog how pretty she is. Yet, I don’t talk to myself with that same respect.

Humility vs. Self-deprecation

There’s a fine line between self-deprecation and humility, but there is still a line. I feel like so many people are afraid of seeming boastful that they error on the side of self-deprecation in order to seem humble. Learn to accept the compliment instead of excusing it. Appreciate it. Believe that it’s true. Feel gratitude for the person who went out of their way to tell you. There’s no reason to balance that out with saying anything negative about yourself -either to the other person or to yourself. Humble people still understand how to appreciate themselves. There is nothing saying that you have to believe negative things in order to seem humble and kind.

I actually understand why some people do this. I can be incredibly self-deprecating and I can tell you that it makes me feel good when people then call me humble. I like being called humble. It makes me feel kind. But the ironic part of it is that by being self-deprecating I’m actually not being kind to myself, and I would much rather be kind than just give the illusion that I am.

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are neurons in your brain that mimic what the brain senses going on around it. They allow you to fit in with your surroundings and behave in what your brain perceives is a socially acceptable way in order to survive and thrive. They’re how you pick up the mannerisms of the people you are with the most or develop an accent if you move to a new place. When you know that your brain is constantly trying to mimic what is around you, you become very aware of what you surround yourself with and what the people around you experience when they’re with you. With positive self-talk, mirror neurons can work both ways. If you are around people who model positivity, a healthy self-worth, or even positive self-talk you are more likely to do the same. On the flip side, if you are practicing negative self-talk and it shows in your emotions other people are likely to pick up on that as well. This includes our own children, our students, or our colleagues. 

I’m lying to myself

Dr. Jantz on Psychology Today says, “Positive self-talk is not self-deception.  It is not mentally looking at circumstances with eyes that see only what you want to see.  Rather, positive self-talk is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself. One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes.  To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic. To expect no difficulties in life, whether through your own actions or sheer circumstances, is also unrealistic.” 

Let’s pretend for a second that you doubt Dr. Jantz and you believe that positive self-talk is just trying to convince yourself that you’re a certain way. Who cares? Being able to imagine yourself how you’d like to be is one powerful way of making it happen.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about going through any kind of adversity is you can absolutely choose to live within that space and allow it to dictate how you feel about yourself. Adversity, trauma, depression, anxiety… None of those are a choice. The choices lie in how you decide to heal and create the life that you envision. If becoming more positive and thinking about yourself in a healthy way is one of those goals, then choosing to work on your positive self-talk may be one place to start.

Leading From the Heart

Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead is one of my top five must read books. As I’ve always been a huge fan of talking about the uncomfortable things to make them more comfortable and dispeling the myths that they shouldn’t be spoken about, I think Brown’s take on emotional topics and relating them back to leadership is nothing short of awesome. You want the psychology behind why you armor up and treat people a certain way that you may later regret? Let’s grapple with vulnerability, trust, shame, and empathy. Don’t like speaking of such topics? Gives you a little heartburn and feeling of anxiousness in your heart? You are not alone. All the more reason to recognize and accept the feelings and their impact on the way we relate to others.

One of the areas that stuck out to me was her discussion on armored leadership (leading from hurt) versus daring leadership (leading from heart). She says:

Armored Leadership (Leading from Hurt)
One of the patterns that I’ve observed in working with leaders is that many people lead from a place of hurt and smallness, and they use their position of power to try to fill that self-worth gap.

She goes on to say:

Daring Leadership (Leading from Heart)
Like most of us, most of the daring, transformational leaders I’ve worked with have overcome hurtful experiences – from childhood illness and painful family histories to violence and trauma. Many are in the middle of deep struggles like marriages that are failing, children in rehab, or health crises. The difference between leading from hurt and leading from heart is not what you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing, it’s what you do with that pain and hurt.

I wrote about adversity and trauma with a similar message in The Fire Within. So many of us have struggles. We have gone through adversities or trauma and have either decided not to allow it to define us or we have struggled to see how the way we feel about ourselves can projected onto others and cause them pain. Even if the adversities are similar, the experiences very real and raw, it is not the adversity itself that defines us. It’s the way that we choose to live our everyday and if we understand that we have the power to write the end of our stories. When we decide to embrace the fact that we have that power, it’s the first step to moving toward healing.

Even with this understanding, however, there can still be underlying issues to address. The challenge with self-worth is that it cannot be filled with or by someone else. Nor can exerting power over someone else fill that gap. I think many of us struggle with finding it within ourselves to give ourselves grace and not base our self-worth on the people we work for or even on the people we love. The people around us, their successes or failures, do not give us self-worth. Our loved ones and how the praise us or ridicule us, do not give us self-worth. It may impact how we feel, but it is not the same as how we value ourselves. When we can’t find it within ourselves, we don’t know where else to go to get it so we look outside ourselves for someone, anyone to fill that hole. But self-worth is an internal struggle. And typically I’ve found that if someone is treating you poorly, it’s more a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about you.

And this holds true for leadership. Leadership that is based on compliance and micromanaging is typically, deep down, unsure of themselves and the job they do as leaders and is scared to have difficult discussions with the people that need them for the culture to be stable and positive. Leadership that operates from a space where they are at a minimum comfortable in their ability to utilize their teams to make sound decisions and in their willingness to learn from failure and grow are more likely to support and empower than try to create a culture of compliance and control. Effective leaders understand their own weaknesses and do something about it. They value their own self-worth enough to know that the areas where they are weak will only get stronger with growth and not that it is a hole that needs to be covered so nobody notices it’s there.

Grappling with any emotion that will make us better humans can put us in a vulnerable position that has the potential of making us uncomfortable. However, especially in education, we are constantly, repeatedly asking all the people around us, adults and students, to be better. And if we are not able to deal with the rawness and uncomfortableness of that, how can we expect to give other’s feedback on their growth and expect them to take to heart what we say? It brings me to possibly my favorite quote in the book by Brown (based off a quote by Theodore Roosevelt):

If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgment at those who dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’e not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in what you have to say.

We often say in education that we need to be modeling behavior. It’s the nice way of saying putting ourselves out there and being ready for our own butts to be kicked because as any risk-taker knows, if you put yourself out there, that will eventually happen. If we are going to ask for vulnerability, we need to be vulnerable. We need to be in the arena. And if we are not, we better quickly find out how to get ourselves there instead of hurdling advice from the sidelines. Ironically, finding our way to this place may involve looking within ourselves at our own self-worth and dealing with our own stories so we are able to grow and move forward.

Any kind of adversity and certainly trauma can impact the way we feel about ourselves. Building resilience, practicing positive self-talk (my next blog post), and becoming aware of how our own thoughts and feelings impact others is not only an important way to begin to heal, but also can create opportunities for us to be better educators, mentors, and leaders.

Tell Me How I Can Help

After I retired from my district position, I was a little lost. It didn’t matter that I had made the choice to leave, there were pieces of leaving that made me feel like a failure. Like I didn’t finish something I was meant to finish. And I’m anything but a quitter. Quitting makes me crazy. In fact, I’m more likely to hang onto something for too long convincing myself that hard work makes everything OK than understand the value of letting it go. I knew I could consider doing all the things that kept me working long hours the last few years: consulting, EduMatch, writing, the Teachers Aid podcast, teaching at the university…and whatever else consistently found its way on my laundry list of to dos. I didn’t honestly know what my problem was. 

I went to all my summer conferences feeling anxious and unsure. To top it off, for the first time in years I didn’t get a session accepted for ISTE (I mean, it didn’t stop me. I just made my own). I felt like the professional God’s were punishing me for quitting and taking their anger out on my ISTE submission list. What were people going to think of me? Were they going to think I was inept? Was I inept? My self-talk was horribly negative.  

But I continued to do what I do relying heavily on the fake it til you make it strategy and I smiled and chatted with people about education and I struggled to get through my sessions talking about my own mental health knowing the sharp pinning of the road I was on was reeking havoc on me emotionally. I’ve spoken so many times on this blog about my mental health issues. Maybe some are tired of hearing it. I know I’m tired of feeling it.

I’ve spent a lot of my time since I have been speaking about mental health issues defending people who come out with their own stories and trying to give away some of my strength when others would come to me crying after a presentation. I felt like I was completely drained at this point questioning my very purpose and core beliefs that I have worked so hard to develop and live by. 

Then something miraculous happened. 

There was a person who reached out to me and said, “What can I do to help?” And then another with “What do you need?” And then from another “I got you. Tell me what to do.” And while some of these people were my best friends, some of them I had never met before in my life. Like seriously, never. I bet I heard a version of these words 100 times. Some would say, “I know we don’t know each other well, but I believe in what you do. If you need me, I’m there.” 

And with each person’s support I felt like one was picking me up, one was dusting me off, one was getting me a glass of water, until I was able to finish on my own. If you want to know the power of a PLN, there it is. 

Last week I was speaking to someone who was struggling with a tough situation and I said, “Tell me what I need to do to help you,” because when I needed it, complete strangers did it for me. Even if they did nothing else for me but just say those words with complete sincerity in their eyes, I will be forever loyal to these people. We can create kindness. We have the ability to ensure we have support systems that are empathetic and ready to pick us up when we need it. We are so much more than the situations that pull us down, and thank goodness for people who for no real reason say, “Tell me what I can do to help.”

Define For Me How Good Teachers Feel

If you are a good teacher, you are grateful for your job and you live for the first day back.

If you really cared about your students, you wouldn’t be dreading going into your room to get it ready for the beginning of the year.

The best teachers know not to count down to a break – ever – even in their head. We should be treasuring every minute of every day with students so they understand how important we believe their learning to be.

When I was a teacher, and even as an administrator, I was a swirling mix of emotions this time of year. I was excited for the first day of school, as excited-nervous to meet my students as they may have been to meet me and I couldn’t wait to open all the new school supplies. I loved getting my room ready because I counted on the physical space to support the emotional connection that I was anxiously waiting to make with the students. I had a couch. The kids loved it. They always sat on it right away when they came in the room to visit.

So, that made me an amazing teacher, right?

I also dreaded going back to in-service. I disliked the sweaty mess I became after putting all the desks and furniture back because the air conditioning wasn’t turned on during work days. As excited-nervous as I was to meet my students, I was also nervous-nervous that I wasn’t the teacher they were hoping to have that year. I’d imagine their disappointed faces when they figured out I was their teacher and cringe. I knew I’d desperately miss spending time with my own kids during the summer and my days of trying to regroup after the previous year were prematurely over.

What did that just say about what kind of teacher I was? Nothing, actually. I believe it just proved I was human.

There is so much power in being positive going into a new year. New year, new beginnings, new students who will become like family. But, the way we feel going into the year doesn’t dictate how good of a teacher we are. When we don’t recognize that some people struggle with the change while some relish in the day to day structure, some people are coming back to school sad after finding out a loved one is sick and some are coming back elated after a perfectly planned and executed summer, and some feel both grateful to be there yet exhausted still from the year before and all of this is okay it leaves people with the impression that they are wrong or defective. Our first inclination is to believe that all we should feel is positivity and gratitude and if we feel anything besides that then we should also feel guilty. But, there should always be a balance in everything we do and feel and a piece of self-care is understanding that feelings like this are normal and it certainly doesn’t make us bad at our jobs.

Awhile back my friend Amy Storer posted this image that really resonated with me:

We can feel all these things. We are educators but we are also still human. Our humanity is what makes us awesome and innovative and kind and nurturing and empathetic to our students. It is also sometimes what makes us yearn for the summer to stay and dread the inevitable get-to-know-you beginning-of-the-year activities. All of those things are okay. So, be excited to see your students. Also, be bummed that the summer is over. You are an amazing educator both ways.

Four Types of Self-care

Watch the video review of the Four Types of Self-Care here.

Self-care is becoming as much of a buzzword as social-emotional learning, yet we are really in the beginning stages of this new “initiative” where we use the buzzwords but really don’t have a good grasp on what they mean or how to put them into practice. So currently, we look at each other in staff meetings and when we find someone who is particularly exhausted we ask them what they are doing to practice self-care. Inevitably, they look at us with exhausted eyes and mentally scan their days for proof of anything that may resemble their ability to take care of themselves. When they come up empty they make a joke about drinking wine or emphatically say, “I DO practice self-care” *cue guilty look* probably trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else.

There are a few aspects of self-care that make it difficult to practice. First, self-care can’t be done for you and when you’re most exhausted you’d do just about anything for someone else to be able to help. Unfortunately, self-care at its core is about bringing you back to feeling like you and you are the only one who can do that. It’s that fleeting feeling you get when you’ve settled into a moment and it feels like home. Nobody can do that for you. Second, it’s difficult working in a profession where our entire efficacy is wrapped up in how someone else is doing yet we need to move from focusing on them to focusing on us. Third, we don’t know what to do. This is especially the case if it has been a significant amount of time since we have taken time for ourselves. We forget. Literally, we have no idea what to do.

Self-care needs a proactive approach. Figuring out what works for you and practicing those activities will keep you healthy on a daily basis. Knowing what works before a very stressful time will help you fall into these routines when it may seem like too much work to think about self-care. Also, understanding the different kinds of self-care can help to create a holistic self-care routine that hits multiple areas. Below are the four areas that I’ve identified:

Emotional
Emotional self-care includes things that help you feel balanced. This can be seeing a counselor (which is appropriate even when you’re not struggling), keeping a journal, spending time with friends who build you up and make you laugh, meditation, or focusing on the little things that bring you joy. It can also be practical activities like improving your organizational or budgeting skills which can help reduce stress. For this type of self-care, it’s important to reflect on what makes you happy. Sometimes we fall back on what other people tell us will make us happy instead of reflecting on what actually does.

Physical
Physical self-care is anything you do to support the way your body functions. The most common recommendations I hear for self-care are yoga or running. Exercise is so important and if you’ve never tried yoga or running, I highly recommend finding out if that is something that would work for you. However, there are so many other types of exercise and physical activities for self-care like walking the dog, dancing, swimming, horseback riding, gardening, hiking or water skiing for example. What type of activity you’re doing is less important than the way it makes you feel. I enjoy mowing the lawn with the push mower. It makes me feel accomplished and I enjoy the sound of the mower. While mowing the lawn might be work for others, for me the peace I have while I’m mowing is a type of self-care.

Physical self-care can also be taking care of your body in ways besides moving. Attending to dental needs, staying hydrated, eating healthy, and getting regular physicals are practical ways to attend to self-care.

Intellectual
If physical self-care is supporting your body and the way it functions, intellectual self-care is doing the same for your brain and thought processes. Examples of intellectual self-care are playing board games, reading a newspaper or the news online, doing a crossword, participating in a stimulating conversation with another person about something you find fascinating, or learning something new. When you feel like your mind is expanding and you are thinking deeper about a topic that you enjoy, that activity would probably fall under intellectual self-care.

Spiritual
I often think of spiritual self-care as the things I do that help me feel like I’m striving to be a better person. Usually, these are activities that center me and allow me reflection time to see my growth in any area over a period of time. I also think that self-care in this area can remind us of our purpose or guide us down the path to finding it. Some people may practice their religion as a part of spiritual self-care, but doing activities like taking a moment to feel gratitude, communing with nature, or volunteering for a cause you love can also fill your spiritual cup.

It helps to make lists of what definitely works for you and anything new you would like to try. When you’re feeling good try something new to see if you can add the activity to the “works for me” column. When you’re stressed, you’ll have the list of activities that you know will provide the self-care you need to get back on track. Some activities hit multiple areas of self-care. For example, if you’ve never been kayaking and you try it, you are supporting the way your body functions (physical), learning a new skill (intellectual), and if it makes you happy (emotional) it fulfills three types of self-care.

When we understand how to provide ourselves with what we need to be ourselves, we are more likely to do those things. Yet, there still has to be a high amount of intentionality to ensure we are fulfilling all areas. Creating lists and being prepared will help us continue the self-care when adversity strikes and we’re not sure how we’re going to fit it in. We must promise ourselves that we will take care of us, and it can no longer be acceptable that we are the first ones that we break our promises to. In any profession where other people are the focus, like education, we must be strong in order to provide the best care for the ones we work with.

My Own “Life Rules” For Building Resilience

One of the characteristics that people pick out most often about me is my level of resilience. Some mix it up with tenacity and they do go hand-in-hand, but it really is just the ability to keep moving forward when things get difficult and I seem to get pushed backwards on whatever journey I’m walking. I don’t think that I was born with this level of resilience, but I was born with certain personality traits that made me more adaptable therefore building my resilience. For example, if I have a problem and I ask for help, I am truly open to what the other person is saying and will consider how I can use the information. I have always understood that part of being resilient is understanding that when I make a mistake I must adapt and be better, whatever that means for the current situation. Sometimes, I am able to figure this stuff out in my own head. Sometimes, I need other people to shift my lens for me.

I’ve lived my life by setting up rules for myself in my head – something that I usually only tell my best friends who understand how my particular kind of brain weirdness works and are willing to excuse it. For example, my rule for relationships is if someone makes me sad more than they make me happy, it may be time to reevaluate the energy I put into that connection. These rules are usually constructs of adversities I’ve gone through in my life. When something happens I create a rule to help guide me in the future. It’s both how I’ve built my level of resilience and how I continue to maintain it and move forward with my life. More of my life rules for resilience are:

Will this matter in a year?
Awhile back, I was sitting with a co-worker friend of mine who happened to be sitting in front of me when I decided to break down about some difficult personal issues that I had going on at the time. For anyone who knows me at all, I wear my heart completely on my sleeve and if there is something bothering me it’s a significant amount of effort for me to school my emotions. I received an upsetting message while we were working and I broke down and verbally vomited my situation onto her lap.

I remember her being supportive and placing our work aside and giving me the time to spew. I don’t remember the specifics of what she said until she said this: Will any of this matter in one year? Five years?

At the time, I thought back a year and fast forwarded to where I was. Nothing seemed the same. She even told me that sometimes when adversity strikes, she would begin counting back from 356 days and would eventually forget why she was counting before she hit 1. I really took to this line of thinking. Even if what happened mattered, I would surely begin healing before the year was up. Five years out and it was possible that even the worst adversity would be just a memory. My resilience helps me understand that with anything that happens I will move on. Time will help me heal and grow, and I will become okay with the person I become.

Grieve today, move on tomorrow
I have found that some people get caught in one or the other; they either only grieve or they only move on. Grief shouldn’t be reserved for major disasters. Sometimes, grief needs to be felt and recognized over little disappointments as well. Grieving the failure of a goal or relationship recognizes that it was important and that it didn’t work out the way you hoped. Moving on recognizes that it’s important to continue to live your life according to the trajectory that you hope to set after that failure.

My general rule for failure is grieve today, move on tomorrow (in cases where it’s not a major catastrophe, of course). While sometimes I feel like it’s the emotional equivalent to rubbing dirt on a bruise, it still gives me the permission to feel bad about what I was hoping would happen. I like the timeline of one day because timelines and structure make me feel safe. When I don’t have them, I create them. So, one day I allow myself to grieve, the following day I begin to pick myself and move forward.

Take control of what you have control over, let the rest go
Learning to decipher what you can and cannot control and letting go of what you can’t is part of building resilience. The more you practice being able to quickly categorize pieces of a situation into controllable and uncontrollable the quicker you will be able to act on the things you can. You don’t need to be a control freak to desperately cling to the choices you have the right to make when it seems like everything around you is a whirlwind. Also, sometimes moving forward and making the choices you can will encourage others around you to do the same. So, while you can’t control what they do, you may be able to influence their movement. When you realize what you do have control over, it will help you become more okay with situations that are difficult.

Learn to take time to respond
This realization has come to me a with maturity and the knowledge that when I can take control of an emotional reaction to an emotionally charged situation, I am both steering the conversation and giving myself back something to control. I have a crazy temper. When I was younger I was quick to strike back at people who would irritate me for whatever reason. I was nearly proud of my quick wit and ability to burn people speechless. As I became older, I realized that I needed time after that initial irritation to simmer before I would respond, and that whatever I wanted to argue was so much more effective when I could respond with less emotion and more strategy and intelligence instead.

Practicing this change built resilience in two ways. First, I may be, in any situation, the one person who responds rationally and in the end I am positive that I will be satisfied with the way I responded and have no regrets that I fired back something I would later have to apologize for. Second, by responding rationally, I have less of a chance of further angering the other person, therefore moving past the issue quicker and with less drama.

Building resilience helps to get past adversity in a healthier state. The quicker that you are able to understand a situation, deal with the feelings from it, and move forward, the quicker you are able to really recognize your purpose and meet your goals without getting sidetracked. Also, building resilience before a major life event by working on the little adversities that can happen everyday will help prepare you for something massive that seems like there would be no preparation. While it might seem like resilience is about “getting through”, it’s really about moving forward and becoming okay with the person you’ve become in the process.

Self-Care That Goes Beyond Mindfulness

There is no doubt that I am terrible at taking care of my body physically, and lately I’ve been suffering the consequences of years of body-neglect. Usually, when we think of self-care in relation to our bodies we immediately go to yoga or exercise of some kind. While I am definitely not a natural runner, my body reacts favorably to the endorphins I get from running and I understand why exercise should be a part of our weekly routines. What I didn’t realize is how other aspects of what we do (or don’t do) that seem insignificant can affect us physically and even go as far as causing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Because I’m always trying to find strategies to deal with these two issues, I have found some ways to implement self-care that surprised me. This definitely doesn’t mean that all anxiety and depression are linked to these or that these are a cure-all. Goodness knows I’m neither a doctor nor a mental health professional, but because I learned about these in my own journey of healing and they’re somewhat easy ways to implement self-care, I felt it was worth mentioning.

Your body may be lacking essential vitamins
Several years ago I went through about a year where my depression was in full swing. My body hurt, my brain was foggy, and I felt out of sorts most of the time. When I couldn’t stand the pain in my legs anymore, I went to the doctor and found that I was severely deficient in Vitamin D (thank you, Wisconsin). At first I was actually angry at the doctor for “pretending” all my ailments could have been from something that seemed so innocuous, but I began to take Vitamin D and the anxiety, depression and pain started to feel better.

This Mayo Clinic article says, “The new findings appear in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. The new findings “add depression to the spectrum of medical illnesses associated with low vitamin D, and people with depression probably should consider a blood test to see if their vitamin D is low and whether supplements may be needed,” says researcher E. Sherwood Brown, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.”

I have found this recently again when I was tested and found to be Vitamin C deficient (Psychology Today article on Vitamin C deficiency). Overall, when I am faithfully taking Vitamin C and D, the change I notice in my mental health is pretty significant. I’ve read that deficiencies in Iron, Magnesium, and B Vitamins can have similar affects. Either testing for vitamin deficiencies or taking a multivitamin may help.

Sleep: It’s more important than we think
I’ve been in a six week sleep challenge with my friend Sarah Thomas since January. The idea is that we would go six weeks straight with getting eight hours of sleep a night to see if it made a difference in how we feel. Neither of us have been successful for even a full week, which has done nothing but prove to me that we need to focus on sleeping more. I know many people that feel like sleep is nearly a luxury, and even more that don’t sleep well once they’ve gotten in bed. I know that for me, looking at my phone or the computer close to bedtime causes me to lay awake, so I’ve become accustomed to staying off from them prior to sleep. A lack of sleep, even the slightest dent in the number of hours you get, can cause everything from depression and anxiety to weight gain. Sleep is when our body recharges and it needs that time regardless if you’re referencing mental health issues or not.

As for depression and anxiety, this is what the National Sleep Foundation says, “If you’re feeling low, you may not realize that lack of sleep is the culprit. But even small levels of sleep deprivation over time can chip away at your happiness. You might see that you’re less enthusiastic, more irritable, or even have some of the symptoms of clinical depression, such as feeling persistently sad or empty. All these alterations to your mood can affect not only your individual mental health, but your relationships and family dynamics as well.

The link between sleep and mood has been seen over and over by researchers and doctors. For example, people with insomnia have greater levels of depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally. They are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety. The more a person experiences insomnia and the more frequently they wake at night as a result, the higher the chances of developing depression.”

While it may seem like a pain or even impossible to make time to go to bed earlier, in the long run the rest allows our bodies and brains to run more efficiently and therefore healthier.

You may be dehydrated
A few months ago my doctor told me I was dehydrated. I didn’t feel thirsty. But I know it’s a struggle for me to drink water and it was entirely possible. She told me I had trained my body not to tell me when I’m thirsty because it’s forgotten how. Since then, I’ve been reading about the effects of being even slightly dehydrated and I was surprised by what I read.

Drinking water helps your brain function. In this UConn Today article they discuss studies that were conducted where participants experienced fatigue, adverse changes in mood, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating at even a mild level of dehydration.

In reading the book Micro-Resilience by Bonnie St. John she recommended drinking a glass of water prior to and after each meal in order to get in a minimum of six glasses a day, which I thought was a great tip.

There is so much about self-care and mental health that comes from an awareness of certain things, and what makes it difficult is not only the time it takes but also that every single person is different. Our likes and dislikes vary. Our individual habits are different. The way we take care of (or don’t take care of) our bodies, what they are missing, and how it impacts our mental health can be a mystery to some of us. Educating ourselves in some of these areas can bring understanding and change, especially when sometimes it feels like there is so much to learn. Little habits, like these, and finding what works for you can make a difference.



The Self-Care Dilemma

As we begin to focus more on mental health, the advice to practice self-care is popping up more often. Articles and other resources give advice of practicing relaxing, yoga, and mindfulness or meditation. But the first step we miss is to find the thing that works for that individual person. It may or may not be meditation or yoga, but it should be the thing that makes a person feel like themselves and calms their soul. But what happens if you don’t know what that is?

Many educators I know have molded their entire identity around education. I know this because I have, too. I take care of my own kids and go to their activities and I work and that’s it. For years that’s what I’ve done. The most dreaded question that I get asked in a podcast interview is “What do you do for fun?” I have no idea. One time a podcaster asked me how I relax. I told them I take my work outside.

I. Take. My. Work. Outside. “In the sun,” I said. Like somehow that made the answer more viable.

Um, yeah.

While I do seriously enjoy working in education, I’ve also come to realize that just because you love what you’re doing doesn’t mean it won’t burn you out. Balance is key. Too much of a good thing is still too much. But even knowing this doesn’t mean that I know what to do to relax. By spending so much of my life going and moving and working I have trained my body to be unaccustomed to focusing on things that help me unwind. I have also forgotten what makes me feel like myself outside of education. I can tell you my core beliefs and what my passions are inside of education. Outside (beyond caring for my own kids)…no idea. I’d try to watch TV and quickly get bored and my mind would float back to all the things I had to do for work. I’d make it ten minutes before picking my computer up. I felt agitated and out of sorts when I tried to do anything else because I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing more than working. Then the cycle would continue.

So this idea of self-care for me has not been fixed by learning yoga or practicing meditation. I don’t like yoga. My body doesn’t want to contort that way. And meditation is a work in progress. I’m still at the point where being completely inside my own head makes me uncomfortable, but because I believe it’s important, I’m trying to see if it’s for me. Discovery of who I am outside of education has been a journey of trying to remember who I was before I was a teacher and activities I would try that could be considered self-care. I first reflected on the things I used to do that I enjoyed when I had more balance in my life. Everything either didn’t fit into my current lifestyle (horseback riding, for example) or I didn’t enjoy it any longer (watching movies). I realized through this journey that I had lost what made my soul happy and needed to find it again. The question became: how do you practice self-care when you’ve forgotten what makes you feel like you?

While we quickly try to solve the self-care dilemma by telling people common areas to focus on…exercise or meditation being the most common, this is not the first step to self-care. If we believe that yoga and meditating are the only ways to practice self-care and that’s not what makes us happy, then we are less likely to take care of ourselves like we need to. These things may work for some people and that is awesome. But in order to enjoy them, it needs to be a part of that person and what they enjoy. The first part of the journey in developing self-care is rediscovering who you are and what you like which can require so much more reflection than it seems like it would. It can feel like a dark place when you realize that you may need to find yourself again. Giving yourself permission to recognize that what works for you may not be the same as what works for someone else and giving yourself grace as you search, fail, and search again will help you find the self-care activity that keeps you engaged, impassioned, and whole.