By Samantha Tata
Who the hell am I to be telling you about self care? This is the girl who gave herself poison ivy in middle school, who refused to wear her retainer in high school, and who can’t buy Nutella because a jar won’t last longer than three days.
We’re all doing our best. This is my version:
For as long as I could remember, I’ve been a shy, unnecessarily nervous person. In Kindergarten, I’d cry hysterically on the bus after leaving my mom. I couldn’t stand to stay over my best friend’s house if there were more than a few kids there. I broke out in hives when meeting my boyfriend’s work buddies for the first time.
I would define myself by my anxiety, my self-consciousness. I’d let myself off the hook and just stay home because “this is who I am, and I’m not gonna fight it.” But once I started fighting it, I realized that nervous, itchy young woman is not who I am at all. Those were symptoms; not self.
When the anxiety became too much to bear, I got a therapist. Then another one. Therapy — two individual sessions and a group session, every week — has given me the inspiration and the tools to, for the first time, learn who I am.
And the greatest tool of all has been self-care.
To my surprise, the lessons haven’t been solely emotional. I’m learning to listen to my body and see the deeper meaning of physical symptoms. What is my body trying to tell me? A lot, it turns out.
When I moved to New York City, my left foot basically gave up. It feel like a hot knife slicing through the top of my foot, just beneath my toes. Every time I walked I winced.
Now, my instinct was to ignore it. Not value what my body was telling me.
But a better voice took over.
“This stress fracture?” it said. “Feel that searing hot pain piercing your second metatarsal? That’s going to get a whole lot worse if you don’t take care of it. Now. Take care of it now. Be patient now. So that you, in 5, 10, 15 years, can run and jump and dance. You have a future self. You both deserve it.”
There is a strange phenomena that happens in my head. It tells me there’s no future for me and if by some miracle there is a future, I don’t have any control over how it looks or who’s in it. So I don’t plan. I don’t take my ailments seriously; I don’t save money.
I wish I could start this next paragraph by boasting about a growing savings account or a newfound ability to benchpress (or even do a pushup), but I can’t. And that’s OK. I’m working on it and that’s more than I’ve ever been able to say.
Valuing my physical well-being wasn’t the only change.
I’m starting to feel visible. Valuable. No longer an object whose sole purpose is to serve others but an individual whose soul is enough on its own, no giving required.
This lesson came like a slap across the face. One Christmas, a colleague sent a station-wide email calling all interested parties to join Secret Santa. My immediate thought? “This email wasn’t supposed to be sent to me.”
It was that therapy-induced self awareness that gently nudged me a few steps back to get enough space to ask why I assumed that, such a negative, self-denying thought.
I don’t feel invited. Ever. To anything.
Before I started therapy, why I was feeling the way I was feeling wasn’t even on my radar. I just felt that way and thought it must be true. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sure, logic doesn’t override emotions, but it helps soothe my anxiety. Put it into perspective. So I thought it through.
Reasons why I was invited to Secret Santa:
We work together every day. This is a work event. I’m part of this team.
Reasons why that invite was a mistake:
That moment cracked a piece of me that has been impenetrable for years.
Why was it so hard to maintain friendships? Why was I so defensive all the time? What was I doing wrong?
It all boiled down to me not feeling wanted. Believing so deeply that if someone were to get to know me, they’d see how bad I am and bail, so I pushed them away first. Or didn’t respond to attempts to pull me in closer, like a Secret Santa invite.
(For the record, I RSVP’d to that Secret Santa and my recipient wore his scarf all winter!)
Sure, those voices still linger telling me I’m not wanted, that I was invited by mistake and that soon they’ll see me for who I really am and rescind all future invitations. But now I have the strength to tell those voices to shut up. Then I go out and have fun.
Self-exploration is a habit, a muscle to work on daily. It needs to be honed to find the next opportunity to dig deeper.
The most startling lesson I’ve learned? I’m too hard on myself. I would never speak to another person the way I spoke to myself. Why was I valuing others more than me?
I’ve learned to be gentle with myself. To question my knee-jerk reaction to beat myself up. To take stock of my success and thank myself. To see and appreciate all the ways I’m good to myself, like keeping a clean apartment or making a meal for myself.
It feels radical to put yourself first. To believe in yourself and be convinced that you deserve what you have and what you want. To plan for a future that’s worthy of you.
There’s a stigma, a guilt trip, that comes with prioritizing your own needs over others. But if you’re on a plane that loses cabin pressure, you don’t adjust everyone else’s masks. You get your oxygen flowing first.
cleaning your bathroom when no one is coming over
doing your dishes
taking out the garbage before it’s full
because you deserve a clean place
recognizing your anxiety
not beating yourself up for it
taking slow, deep breathes to work
with the weight, not against it
sticking up for yourself
and to yourself
turning down the volume on negative voices
turning up the volume of positive voices
and choosing which ones to believe