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The Self-Care that Nobody Talks About (Pt. 2): The Secret


The author riding a bike through the snow in the mountains


There seems to be an endless number of books, articles, and videos out there telling us how to apply methods of self-care in our lives. The internet is brimming with rituals, routines, and practices to improve our well-being. Despite all of this information, our worries, doubts, stresses, and overall feelings of uneasiness appears to still be growing.


Simultaneously, our window of comfort has become so small that we can feel miserable by simply going to or from our vehicle on a hot or cold day. We’re not happy unless the temperature in our vehicle is right where we want it to be while we’re driving. Climbing a flight of stairs rather than taking an elevator is a chore. We only fancy being outside when conditions are just right. Having a conversation with someone who holds different views or beliefs can induce a grinding of the teeth, raised blood pressure, and a host of other physical discomforts. And it can be a major inconvenience to miss a meal or to break a sweat. As soon as we leave the world of concrete, pavement, hardwood floors, and climate controlled surroundings, there are those who feel lost, awkward, out of place, and/or uncomfortable.


We have no more patience for anything that causes discomfort.


What does any of this have to do with self-care, you ask?


I want to tell you a secret…


First of all; what, exactly, is self care? It’s usually defined as what we do to improve and/or maintain our physical, emotional, and mental health.


But a lot of what we read and what we hear about self-care (aside from physical exercise and nutrition), would typically lead us to believe that it’s about prioritizing pleasure, gentleness, or comfort above anything else. This isn’t wrong or bad, but this ideal of self-care is all about feeling better, although in the long run it doesn’t get us anywhere because it doesn’t make us better.


We may plan, organize, coordinate, and schedule our self-care routines and practices in an effort to keep from encountering adversity and feeling awkward — anything to try to keep our inhibitions in check.


There are many of us who will go to great lengths to avoid doing anything that we view as difficult or anything that might make us feel uncomfortable. Only if there is instant gratification, or if some kind of personal accolades await us shortly after completion, will we even consider it to be within the realm of possibility.


Research has even shown that we are calmer when we are anticipating pain than when we are anticipating uncertainty.


Why?


Because uncertainty is unpredictable and when things are unpredictable we feel vulnerable. We feel vulnerable because our standard, automatic responses are most likely not going to work for us in these cases. That vulnerability and uncertainty causes us to be uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable scares the hell out of many of us.


Slowly but surely, our ability to deal with discomfort is eroding.


We love certainty and we love our comforts. Life, however, often has other plans.


So, what if I told you that self-care and discomfort are inextricably linked?



 


REWIND


While most people spend a lot of their time avoiding anything that, to them, seems even remotely uncomfortable, I have spent the last several years being frequently uncomfortable in one form or another; sometimes by choice and sometimes not.


In my previous article about self-care, (which can be seen here) I wrote about how my partner, Betty, and I had sold our house and virtually everything we owned; how we left everything and everyone that we knew, and threw ourselves out into the world with just our truck and our camping gear to see what would happen.


We did have a rough plan for what we wanted to do when we began, but for various reasons that plan did not materialize and so we had to alter our plans, as well as our expectations — over and over again.


Sure, we’ve seen a lot of places that we have never seen before. We have also done a lot of things we’ve never done before and we’ve been in a lot situations we have never been in before.


In the time since we began this journey we have gone for months without sleeping in a bed, let alone sleeping indoors.

We have also gone for days without being able to shower. Hot environments and cold environments — we’ve stayed in them all.

We have been overwhelmed by swarms of mosquitoes or various other insects, and we have chased bears from our campsite in an attempt to keep them from becoming habituated to humans and their food.

We have worked jobs that we have never done before, nor ever considered doing; jobs that we knew nothing about when we started them.

We have challenged and pushed ourselves to hike and bicycle hundreds of consecutive miles at a time, and not always in ideal conditions.

Plan after plan after plan has either been ineffectual or hasn’t unfolded as we had hoped or expected it to.

We have been mentally and physically twisted, bent, pushed, and pulled in just about every direction.


There have also been times, of course, when things worked out above and beyond anything that we could have hoped or expected, and there have been times that we have stayed in nice and comfortable accommodations.


It hasn’t all been rough.


Nevertheless, we have had to adjust and adapt to a multitude of uncertain situations; abort or completely revamp many (most) plans; and entirely improvise our way in several cases. We have encountered numerous roadblocks, both literal and figurative, and had to get creative in finding a solution to whatever unfamiliar circumstance we found ourselves in — to whatever scenario happened to arise.


We are constantly having to adjust our style and techniques of what works for us in order to adapt to whatever climate or situation we happen to be encountering.


In short, we spend much of our time in situations and conditions that many people don’t even care to visit, much less have anything to do with them at all. Facing adversity and not knowing what’s going to happen next has pretty much become our normal.


Don’t get me wrong, we’re certainly not immune to discomfort. We still encounter hardships and there are still plenty of things that can make us feel uneasy. We have not perfected this whole discomfort thing, by any means.


But through it all we have developed a bit of a relationship with discomfort. As a result, we have also learned a thing or two about being uncomfortable and what secrets it holds.


“But I have limits.”


Of course you have limits. And those limits can and should be stretched.



 


AVOIDANCE, HABITS, AND DEVELOPING SKILLS


It is said that if you want to really know about someone, then put them in a pressure situation.


The ability to deal with these situations is not something that you just have or don’t have, nor is it something that you can run down to the corner store and get when you realize that you don’t have it.

It’s learned.

It’s cultivated.

It’s practiced.

That would make it a skill, wouldn’t it?


With many people, it would appear that whenever they have an unpleasant or uncomfortable encounter — when things don’t work out as they had hoped or expected — they will write it off as something to avoid entirely, or at the very least, have as little to do with it as possible in the future.


The classic response after one of these encounters goes something like this; “Nope. Not doing that again!”


The issue here is that if we remain in this mindset then we have shut ourselves off from learning anything about what happened or what part we may have played in the encounter turning out as it did.


There are people who would rather use any means necessary to bypass, or altogether avoid, any type of unpleasantness. But if we want to grow and improve ourselves as individuals then avoiding discomfort is antithetical to what we are wanting.


Would it not be more beneficial to figure out what we need to do to have a better outcome if we have that same unpleasant or uncomfortable encounter again?

Isn’t that how we learn?

Isn’t that how we grow and become better?


Many of us often look at our problems or our issues as something to just get through, to fight, to rid ourselves of, or to avoid. But what if this is the wrong approach?


What if we tried to get closer to these problems or issues and tried to better understand them and what they are trying to tell us about ourselves? Wouldn’t we be better off trying to figure out the root cause of the issue, what it does to us, and why?


Avoidance. It actually does work, and it can even make us feel better…for a while.


But once we start depending on it to feel better, we then build our life around our proclivity towards avoidance until it becomes that ol’ familiar habit.


Our constant desire for comfort (that many have equated as a “need”) has greatly impaired our ability to deal with any hardships. We have become so comfortable, in fact, that there are many, many people who get very upset or anxious when they simply don’t know what’s going to happen next.


Much of the self-care advice out there is about getting rid of “this” or suppressing “that”.


But the missing key ingredient is to learn how to work with what is.

This strengthens our understanding of “what is” and we can learn how to work with it and possibly even use it to help us in the future.


But if we’re always complaining about the way things are, if we’re always trying to conform things to the way we want it to be or think it should be…when are we learning how to deal with the way it is?


We have to be uncomfortable with how things are before we can know or reach for another way — for how things could be.


Yes, there are times we need to just unplug or get away. It’s when this becomes the norm that we may be working against ourselves.


Every time we retreat from a rough day or a rough week by zoning out and binge watching something from our streaming services with a quart of ice cream; every time we think we need some drinks, a shopping spree, excessive sleeping, or a spa retreat, to deal with life’s stressors; we are, in reality, just reinforcing that behavior with each time that we do it.


We are conditioning ourselves to continue doing these things when the going gets rough. Another way to look at it is we are forming a habit.


But if we can train ourselves to do difficult things, doing difficult things become easier.


This is the current environment of self-care that I am seeing, for the most part. We’re promoting and taking part in things that make us feel better, but not the things that make us be better.


As with anything, the more we do it, the better we get at it. Whether that’s learning to play an instrument or learning a new language; staying outside longer than we’d like in less than ideal conditions; trying to stand on one leg; or meeting life face to face and on its terms, not the terms we try to impose on it.


Doing something new or something that’s unconventional to us means that we’re probably going to be bad at whatever it is for a while. But the more we do it, the more reflexive it becomes and the better we become at it.


This is how habits are formed and this is how skills are developed.


If we don’t push ourselves or challenge ourselves, and when we avoid the hard things, then suddenly one day we wake up and everything is much harder than expected.


Then we blame everything else — everything except our habitual avoidance of discomfort.


Do you know that if we don’t challenge ourselves or push our boundaries, then we are inherently settling for whatever we get? We’ll just keep doing what we’ve always done and we’ll keep getting the same damn results over and over again.


If we don’t work on it, if we don’t practice it, if we don’t train it, if we don’t question it (whatever it is), it will eventually become our normal.


“That’s easier said than done.”


Everything is easier said than done.



 


THE OTHER SIDE


Again, I am aware that we all need a time and a place and a way to relax, regroup, recharge, and refocus our energies. We should absolutely take some time to be kind and gentle with ourselves and we may even need some assistance every now and then. And, yes, we sometimes need a complete escape from whatever is troubling us.


Betty and I are no different.


One way that Betty likes to de-stress is by soaking in a hot bathtub when she can, complete with music that is calming to her, and even some burning candles.


For myself, I prefer silence to decompress. I like to sit or lie down with no devices and no music. Listening to whatever sounds are around me, as I am being still, is very cathartic.


This “soft” side of self-care is not done to forget about our issues or hope they go away. It’s done to step away and clear our minds so that we can revisit the issue with a new slate, maybe even a different perspective, and hopefully find a solution to those issues.


But this is only one part — only one side — of self-care.


There are some of us who have gotten real good at avoiding practically anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. We then feel very uneasy if we have to deal with anything even remotely unpleasant.


The amount of people that I have seen who “freak out” when they can’t get what they are used to getting or what they are comfortable with, is staggering. We can get so accustomed to being in comfortable situations that even the slightest deviation from our pleasures and comforts can become very problematic.


Our comfort zone is typically thought of as a place where we feel safe and where we can relax. It’s where we don’t have to pay much attention to - or give much thought to - what we are doing.


The comfort zone can also be thought of as a state or a condition that we are physically and mentally familiar with.


Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we need to stretch ourselves to the edge of our abilities; the edge of our comfort zone. We need to expand our base of normalcy. We have to find ways to challenge ourselves.


It has to be uneasy and uncomfortable for a while.


Continuously avoiding our discomforts only limits our experiences and also limits what we are capable of achieving.


We need to experience hard things to know how to handle hard things — and they will come.


If you are not preparing yourself for difficulties and hardships, you’re most likely protecting yourself from them.


This is how self-care can easily become self-sabotage if we’re not careful. Self-care is not the problem, but how we look at it may be.


Sure, it’s easy to come up with dozens of reasons for why we can’t do something or don’t want to do something.

That’s easy.

That doesn’t even take any effort.


And the myriad reasons we can conjure up to avoid doing something will always outweigh the reasons for why we should do it. When we give ourselves a list of options we will invariably choose the easiest one.


So what is the point in doing anything hard or difficult? It makes us better versions of ourselves.


Does this mean that we should always be uncomfortable? Of course not.


Does this mean that by doing the difficult things and being willingly uncomfortable then everything will suddenly get better or that all of our problems will go away? Nope.


That’s not how this works. That’s not how anything works.


It’s absolutely going to be hard at first.


It takes time and it takes practice to develop a skill. Knowing how to deal with discomfort requires some effort on our end.


This is how things work.


It’s no different than that first day on the job or when you tried to lose weight or tried to start that new exercise program for the first time.


There will be days where you want to quit.

Days that it seems too hard and you just don’t want to do it anymore.

Those are, believe it or not, the most important days.

You may feel like you’re at the end of your rope, but you’re not at the end on those days, you’re just at the edge — the edge of your comfort zone — the edge of what you are familiar with.

This is when you lean into the discomfort.


You keep going and one day you suddenly notice that it’s gotten much easier, and you may even discover that you’ve started trusting yourself again.


It might not be enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful.


“That sounds hard.”


That’s the point.



 


Fast Forward


When you do the difficult things and overcome them, you are empowering yourself.

You develop more self control and self respect.

You build more self esteem and self confidence.

You’re improving yourself.

You’re growing.

You’re discovering new potentials.

That sounds to me like you’re loving yourself and caring for yourself.


If you never practice being uncomfortable in any way, shape, or form; if you aren’t voluntarily challenging and pushing yourself beyond what you are comfortable with, at any time or in any way; you may be practicing a very limited and narrow version of self-care.


I can assure you that many of us are sitting amid so many comforts that we don’t even recognize all of our cushy comforts. Self-care and self-soothing are not necessarily the same things.


So, how do you learn how to handle discomfort?


It doesn’t require doing something radically extreme or making any sort of life altering, monumental change.


Start simple. The first step is to honestly recognize how we look at various tasks or activities that we do on a regular basis. Things we may do every day — and possibly have always done it a specific way without a second thought — but things we could do in slightly different ways.

Do you label it as either easy or difficult?

Is it potentially fun or is it more likely to be unpleasant?

What is the easiest way that I can complete this act with the least amount of resistance? Many, if not most, of our everyday undertakings come to us filtered through one or more of these lenses.


Start small. Find one thing that you do on a routine basis, yet as easily as possible.

It may be something as simple as sitting down to get dressed in the morning. How do you make it more challenging? Do it standing up.

Do you always put dirty dishes in the dishwasher? Wash them by hand.

Rather than buying vegetables in a can or container and already cut, chopped, or diced, get fresh vegetables and cut them up to your liking at home.

Instead of driving a block or four to grab something at the local store, walk or take a bicycle. When you do drive, park farther away from the building rather than looking for an open spot as close to the door as possible.

Take the stairs, not the elevator, to go one or two levels.

Brick by brick.

Little by little.


Let’s go back for a moment to when I did have a house.

It was a small, but cozy, two bedroom house that sat on almost half an acre. There were two small sheds and two mature trees in the yard; one tree in the front of the house and one in the back. There was a little bit of shrubbery and one incredibly large rose bush that was also in the yard.


Point being, there were not a lot of obstacles on the lawn.


For years I always trimmed the shrubbery and the rose bush with hand held pruning shears, never electric ones. I also mowed the yard with a gas powered push mower.


Always.


It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford electric shears or a riding lawn mower. I chose to do these things in a less than convenient way. I willingly chose the more difficult option because it gave me a greater sense of accomplishment when I was finished. Not to mention, it gave me some exercise as well as some vitamin D.


I think that if we were to take a good look at ourselves and what we do and the way we do it, the creative possibilities for doing something in a different way — a way that may seem inconvenient or difficult — are nearly unlimited.


We need to examine what we do, and why we do it, not just look for the easiest or quickest way.


After you’ve selected your discomfort of choice to work on, the next step is to stay with it. Whatever it is that makes you uncomfortable, stay with it just a minute longer than you did the last time.


Again, it can be a conversation topic;

or being away from your phone;

or being in the weather;

or a new exercise program; or sitting in silence;

or being around someone that gets under your skin;

or writing a lengthy article about a specific subject matter, and approaching it in an unconventional way — anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.

It’s taking one small step beyond what you are comfortable with.


Right when you get to that point where you always want to stop, where you’re invariably ready to throw in the towel, you dig in and stay there for one more minute.


Just one.


Sit with it. Notice what it’s making you think and how it’s making you feel.


This is the beginning of understanding it.


Take a breath.


Take a minute.


Now continue.


Pretty soon, that one minute becomes two minutes. You keep hanging on and one day you look back and realize that what was once difficult has suddenly become much easier.


(***NOTE — This should go without saying, but there are those who bring up the most extreme examples or take things way out of context. Staying in an abusive relationship, performing something that may cause bodily injury to yourself or anyone else, and engaging in illegal or life threatening activities is not the type of discomfort that this article is referring to!)


There are always going to be cases where we need to do something quicker or easier for various reasons. But I’m willing to bet that those times aren’t nearly as often as we’d like to believe they are.


Do the hard things because you know it will make you a better version of yourself in the long term.


Without challenges or adversity, our minds and bodies actually begin to weaken and deteriorate.

This is very counterintuitive to a society that is preoccupied with conveniences and comfort.


The more we take on the challenging or uncomfortable things, the less overwhelmed or afraid of them we become.

And the less overwhelmed and afraid we are of discomfort, the easier it is to move with the challenges and changes in life and remain curious about this experience of being human.


Life moves so much easier this way.



 


Conclusion


We seem to have this idea that we need to protect ourselves from discomfort when we’d be much better off understanding it and learning how to work with it, instead.


How we handle discomfort can be a major factor in our overall well-being, for better or worse. It’s not a secret, but it’s almost never talked about.


Why is it never talked about?


Because many of us don’t want to hear it, as it tends to make us uncomfortable.


This makes discomfort an often overlooked, but no less important tool, to improving and maintaining our physical, emotional, and mental health.


If you were to look at the people in your life, I can assure you that those who are the calmest and the most genuinely happy are also the ones who are better at dealing with life’s adversities and discomforts.


Self-care is about developing our mental, emotional, and physical resources to get us through the challenging and difficult times.


It is not just about doing what we have to do to survive the day, it’s also about building ourselves up to be able to do what we need to do so that we can take on the day.


I think it’s ironic that we often put our self-care on an agenda.


Self-care is not something to schedule or an item to put on a to-do list. It’s not an event, it’s a process.

It’s a perspective.

It’s an attitude.

It’s a skill.

It’s a mentality.

It’s a lifestyle.

It’s caring for all parts of yourself.


But just like with anything else, we only seem to want to acknowledge the good, the fun, and the comfortable parts.


We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than just making it through the day.

We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than just surviving.


This is the self-care that asks a price of us that many aren’t willing to pay.


This is the self-care that nobody talks about because it calls for a degree of commitment and sacrifice on our part.


This is the self-care that requires us to be completely honest with ourselves, because if we aren’t honest with ourselves then the rest of it won’t make a damn bit of difference.


We need to be honest and take a deep, hard look at ourselves.


This part of self-care calls for us to find what’s not easy, and then do it.


When we stop spending our time and energy on trying to feel better, we may actually become better.


Since we began living out of our truck over five years ago I’ve heard this saying, or something very similar, many times; “It takes a special breed to do what you are doing.”


No, not really.


I don’t think our differences as humans are so much physiological as they are cognitive.


What’s the secret?


The only secret lies in the difficulties that we’re avoiding; the discomfort we aren’t wanting to face. It’s no secret, really. It just requires a different mindset.


We all have our own paths to take. Just make sure some of them are hard ones.





**This article was originally published on Medium, and can be seen here.





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