The Best Way to Care for Yourself is to Stop Clinging to the Roles You Play

Self-care is important.  We have heard it hundreds of times – from our from our friends, the news, social media, etc… Intellectually, we know it is true because it makes sense, especially when made clear with simple metaphors like: put your own life jacket on first so you can help others around you; or, you have to fill your own cup first before you have something to share with others. Yup, makes perfect sense.  Then why do so many of us struggle with actually following through with self-care and instead push to the point where we exhaust ourselves?

My theory is that it is actually rooted in pride and self-identity.

When we are tightly wrapped in the cloak of our identity, clinging to WHO we are can actually blind us to HOW we are. All the activity that is required to maintain a role can end up taking precedence over what our body, mind, and soul truly need. My particular combination of identities, that throw me out of whack, is my idealized version of the perfect mom, homemaker, wife, daughter, and spiritual seeker/life coach. I have other identities but seem to get less trapped in them. Whatever role(s) we identify with, if we hold on too tightly, we become less aware and can neglect our most fundamental needs. I found that out this Summer and learned my lesson in spades. I took on the ridiculous task of trying to be my idealized version of multiple roles at the same time.

I LOVE Summer because it is a time for me to recoup and reboot. I am fortunate to have a lakehouse to escape to with my three younger children who are not working full-time or at all. There we enjoy the lazy, hazy days of Summer. Well, at least that is my perfect vision of what it is like. In reality, I am perpetually out of sync with one of the two households I am managing, because while one group enjoys timeless days in the country, another set of people (my husband and two oldest sons) are working in the city.  I am not a very linear thinker so being on top of two households at once and anticipating the needs of both homes and all the people in them can get a little muddled. Usually, I am okay until I forget something really important or something breaks.  This Summer it felt like everything broke in both houses. This was a challenge to my Susie Homemaker identity and she dug in, scheduling repairs this way and that way, running back and forth between the houses.

Then there is the Supermom identity.

She spent her time scheduling driver’s ed, registering for camps and activities; getting supplies for camps and classes; organizing service hours and college visits; transporting kids to jobs, sports, activities, doctor/dentist/optometrist appointments; hosting endless sleepovers, making countless chocolate chip pancakes, being ever available with a compassionate ear, etc, etc… By the way, this one doesn’t need help. You get the idea.

All the while, The Spiritual Seeker/Mindful Life Coach kept reading and writing and coaching and taking classes on building her business. While The Supportive Wife, looked for ways to create less demands on her master-provider husband by trying to give him as much freedom of movement as possible while executing his job; creating a more efficient household budget, including reducing support staff; trying to make her business more financially sound; and being available to discuss the myriad of issues that come up with co-creating the enterprise of a big family, with a big life; oh yeah, and also finding time for date nights.

The identity that played the biggest role and took on a whole new meaning, was The Caring Daughter identity. She had never had a sick parent before and had no idea what it would feel like to maneuver care for a parent and her children at the same time, but she was determined to provide care in a way such that living in different parts of the country was inconsequential. She traveled back and forth between the mid-west and east coast multiple times throughout the Summer helping, along with her siblings, to care for her mom. The Perfect Daughter and Supermom actually work in tandem, continuously flowing from one role and into the other, then back again without taking a breath in between.

As much as I have tried to rationalize my present state of exhaustion, there is no getting around it. This did not happen because there were too many things to do.  It happened because I expected myself to do too many things.  I did not practice what I preach this Summer. I did not mindfully approach what I knew would be a challenging Summer. I did not pay attention to my body. I did not leave enough time for rest and renewal. I did not say “no” nearly enough. I did not fill myself up first. I just plowed through and let my ego take the reigns getting lost in who I thought I needed to be and what I thought I needed to do.

My combination of self-imposed, identity-strengthening to do’s may look like a lot the to-do list of other multi-identifiers out there; or, may even be just a tenth of what other people get done.  How my to-do list compares to another person’s is irrelevant. What matters is that I was not present, not aware of HOW I was being and feeling throughout this crazy summer, until it was too late. I met my threshold for movement, activity and strategizing and then sprinted past it until I collapsed. I mean it. I crumbled – spending an entire morning crying and the rest of the day dozing on and off, unable to execute the most basic of tasks. I was a hot mess. After consultation with professionals and family, we determined that I needed to slow down and something needed to give. That thing turned out to be building my business. Initially, I felt tremendous relief that I didn’t have to push with that aspect of my life. For the time being, I could just maintain. So, problem solved, right?  Not exactly.

Apparently, I also have an addiction to feeling like I contribute — all the time.  I have a problem doing things just for me. Even when I go ahead and do them and enjoy them, I feel guilty afterward and double down on getting to do’s done, effectively wiping out the benefits of taking care of myself in the first place. It is kind of funny how utterly and completely UNmindful that is, but, alas, that is me.

It actually took me a few tearful bouts of despair and weariness to fully acknowledge what I had done to myself. I had pushed way past my own particular threshold and judged myself for it, which then drove me to push harder and further, all the while thinking it was the set of circumstances and the expectations of those around me that were guiding my choices. After hearing over and over again from those around me that I needed to give myself a break, it finally sunk in that THEY didn’t think I had to do anything. It was ME, MYSELF, and I and the identities that I clung to in order to satisfy my idea of who I should be.

So my prescription for my lack of self-awareness and self-care is to take five days off, allowing myself only to do things for myself.  It is a responsibility and identity break. When I feel the need to do something to satisfy my idea of the perfect version of any of my lovely identities, I plan to do my best to notice it and let it pass by.  I expect to feel uncomfortable, disgusted with my laziness, anxious, sad, lonely, afraid of disappointing others and myself, among other things. I already feel some of these things as I anticipate my break. At the same time, I feel excited about the possibility of loosening my grip on those roles that I have previously let define me. I hope to create some space and self-awareness, in which I am able to redefine the roles I play in a way that allows me to thrive rather than crumble.

My invitation to you is to tune into your identities and where you are clinging and afraid to let go. Notice the next time you are tired and know you need rest, but push forward anyway. What role are you playing when you move forward? Is it the road warrior, the dutiful wife, the selfless volunteer…. When you are clear about where you are clinging, ask yourself if you are willing to loosen your grip if just for a few moments. You may be surprised at how hard it is to let go and that is where the learning begins.

Much luck to you all on your path to identity awareness. I have got to go pack…