10 steps to identify irrational resistance to self-care
Do you include acts of self-care on your calendar reminders or to-do lists? Probably not.
As a law school professor, a mother and the daughter of two aging parents, I have the usual work- and family-focused duties on my list: grade ethics essays, schedule review session for final exam, prepare well-being presentation for 1L orientation, RSVP for virtual meet-up with parents of incoming freshmen (my son is college bound—pandemic permitting), find physical therapist for mom (she just had hip surgery), get 9 volt batteries (cue chirping smoke detectors), change air conditioning filters, get birthday gift (Calico Critters?) for goddaughter.
You get the picture.
Now, eight months into my training as a mindfulness facilitator in legal education, self-care duties make routine appearances on my to-do list.
A few examples:
• Meditate (a.m. and p.m.)
• Schedule 30-minute voice call and walk with Ruth
• Morning stretch
• Send Zoom link for poetry night to Terry and Bill
If you had to add self-care to your own to-do list, where would you start?
Our profession prescribes self-care, but lawyers are reluctant to practice it. As advisers, we are quick to counsel others who are stressed or struggling: “Take care of yourself.” “Put your own oxygen mask on first!” Yet, for reasons that elude consciousness, we resist engaging in acts of self-care. During this pandemic and the national reckoning with racial injustice, what steps have you taken to prioritize your own well-being?
On an intellectual level, most of us agree that self-care is necessary and desirable—whether it’s the need for food, rest, exercise, meaningful work or human connection—it will make us better attorneys and humans in the long run. Indeed, reports conclude that attorney well-being, ethics and professionalism go hand in hand. As boundaries between work and home life continue to erode, self-care and well-being are worthy of our attention.
Still, acts of self-care seem self-indulgent, weak and unproductive. The simple act of noticing your resistance to caring for yourself may prove more useful than past attempts to persuade your rational mind. And if a familiar voice in your head argues that you just don’t have time for this, consider the words of activist-poet Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
A 10-step reflection exercise may help you bring awareness to your relationship with self-care. You will need a journal—a yellow pad will do, 15 minutes of quiet and your own permission to care for yourself in this moment.
Step 1: Be here
Give yourself permission to be here for this exercise, for this moment. As the adage goes, “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.” Yes, there are many people you must get back to. And yes, countless flagged and high-priority messages await in your inbox. But is it possible, even if just for a few moments, to let everyone and everything be?
Step 2: The struggles of others
Odds are that many people around you are struggling with concerns about health, the loss of a loved one, financial insecurity or even feelings of hopelessness. Bring to mind one specific person in your life who is struggling. It could be a client, a colleague, a family member, a neighbor, or perhaps someone you saw in deep distress or in danger during the latest news cycle.
Take a moment to jot down your wishes for this person. Next, imagine that this person is at your door, seeking your advice: What words might you offer? What tone of voice might you use? Envision the expression on your face and your body language. Note your reflections in your journal.
Step 3: Attending to the needs of others
Consider your reflections above. In all likelihood, you encouraged this person to attend to his or her or their needs. You probably talked to this fellow human in a gentle, kind and soothing tone of voice. Your eyes and your body language communicated care and heartfelt concern for this person.
Step 4: An inventory of your struggles
Switch gears for a moment. Name some of the challenges present in your life in this very moment. Make space for your struggles, saying each one out loud and then writing it down. Your struggles may be related to your health, your family, your work, your community, or perhaps even humanity in a larger sense.
Maybe your struggles include some fears or frustrations about how others are reacting—or failing to react—to some of the challenges of our time. Take an inventory of what you are carrying.
Step 5: Sensing into your struggles
Give yourself permission to notice any physical sensations and emotions that are arising in you. In this moment, notice you have a body, its sensations. Maybe you sense tension in the muscles on your face. Perhaps you are clenching your jaw. Does your chest feel tight? Is your breathing accelerated? Do you sense any knots or feelings of unease in your throat or your belly?
The process of naming the challenges in your life may make you feel heavy and weighed down. On the other hand, maybe the act of naming them has provided a little distance and a slight sense of relief. It’s also possible that you don’t feel much of anything right now—that you are detached and numb. That’s OK, too. Notice whatever is arising with openness, kindness and curiosity. And if you find yourself judging what you notice, try noticing that act of judging, as well.
Step 6: Opening to your needs
Now, take a couple of deep, settling breaths. Allow curiosity about what you might need in this moment—what could you offer yourself? Maybe you could stretch your arms open wide, lifting your gaze toward the sky. Perhaps you could roll your shoulders back a few times or gently tilt your head from side to side. Or you might try gently resting one reassuring palm over your heart and another over your belly. And, if you’re not sure what you need, notice that as well.
Step 7: Noticing reactions to self-care
Write the words “self-care” in your journal. Next, say these words out loud. How do these two monosyllabic words land in your body? Do you receive them with openness or aversion? Bring curious attention to any thoughts that are surfacing. Are the words “self-care” tethered to notions of selfishness or self-indulgence? Or to a fear of not being productive? These thoughts can appear quite authoritative and truthful. But consider—have you ever been wrong about something? Or someone?
Step 8: Staying curious
Rather than judging any thoughts of self-care, try to observe them with interest. Notice any urge to figure out how these thoughts got here. Consider: When a house is on fire, the firefighters arrive within minutes and immediately attend to the fire; they don’t go looking for the possible causes. Is your mind still itching to judge your thoughts? Notice—with intrigue—what mischief might be afoot in your thinking mind.
Step 9: Bringing awareness—with a half-smile—to habitual coping mechanisms
Now, as part of this reflection, bring a soft smile or even a half-smile to your lips. Let this smile invite a sense of playfulness to the next step of this exercise. With your soft smile, call to mind the ways in which you usually react to struggles or unpleasant sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise throughout the day. What are your habitual, mindless coping mechanisms?
Maybe you reach for your phone and take to social media. Or perhaps you pour yourself a glass of wine—or three. Maybe you charge into the kitchen, your hands reaching for a bag of chips, a pint of ice cream, or any carbs in plain view. Or you hold the remote control hostage, navigating to Netflix to watch one episode after another. At other times, you may immerse yourself back into work—hoping to make a dent in the unrelenting flood of emails or review yet another version of a contract or pleading.
Now, pause and notice: Is the half-smile still lingering on your lips? If it absconded, can you gently coax it back?
Step 10: Resting in awareness
As this reflection draws to a close, see whether you can allow yourself to experience this “ending.” Take a few more conscious breaths and find some ease just resting in this body, in this moment, with some new awareness.
At some point, you can discern whether your habitual coping mechanisms are serving you. Some other day, you can decide whether this reflection was worthwhile. But for now, there is nothing to fix.
For now, see whether you can appreciate yourself for taking these precious moments to open up to your needs and to care for yourself.
And the next time you pull up your calendar or another to-do list, add a specific self-care duty. Pick an activity that renews and energizes you; make it a recurring, high-priority event. You may have just engaged in a courageous act of “self-preservation.”
For guidance on incorporating well-being practices into your workday, visit the Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers. On page 43, you’ll find a workbook with 17 activities to get you started on the path to self-care and well-being.
Rosario Lozada is the chair-elect of the Association of American Law Schools’ Section on Balance in Legal Education, and she teaches at the Florida International University College of Law. Lozada is an advocate and student of well-being in the profession. She is training in mindfulness facilitation with the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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