Community//

Intellectualizing vs. Internalizing our Self-Care

How to stop spouting off self-care clichés and start *actually* believing in yourself

I’m not much of a gardener, but three Springs ago I bought some bulbs from my coworker’s niece who was selling them for a fundraiser. They sat on my back porch for a couple of weeks until I finally bought soil. I gathered three weed-filled pots from the front of the house (my last attempt at gardening was mums in 2012). I created a freshly soiled environment for my bulbs and set them on the back patio. I watered them throughout the summer and then let nature take over.

In early March the next year, I passed by my window with a view of the back yard. A purple flower in one of the pots caught my eye. It was a miracle. It reminded me of the Christine Caine quote, “Sometimes when you’re in a dark place you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.” That year I started seeing a psychotherapist. Every week I dug into the harmful narratives of my past and faced devastating truths. I left my therapy sessions feeling broken open and exposed. I wanted to trust that the process would help me create an internal environment that would allow me to blossom. The purple flower was the confirmation I wanted; the seeds of change I planted in myself would take hold and show their beauty to the world when the time was right. I just needed to keep breaking open and allow the new me to push toward the surface.

I posted about the flower on my Facebook page that year, and the memory came up in my notifications recently. It got me thinking about a podcast episode Jill and I aired about going from intellectualizing self care to internalizing it. In psychology, intellectualizing is a defense mechanism we subconsciously employ to avoid feeling emotional conflicts. Intellectualizing essentially lets us talk a good game, but we’re emotionally unavailable to ourselves and others. According to PsychologyDictionary.org, internalizing is “assimilating other people’s ideas into your own.” Assimilation is the key word in that sentence. It means making it be part of who we are, which can’t be done by with our thoughts alone. Assimilating requires our emotions, too.

Perhaps we’ve internalized harmful beliefs about ourselves, such as: I am not worthy of taking time for self care. The emotional pain of that is too great, so when opportunities arise for self care, we intellectualize our way through it by telling ourselves that we are too busy. And to give the evidence that our brain craves, we list all the ways others are counting on us. That also gives us a false sense of worthiness. Or maybe we do self care activities that don’t actually fulfill us or renew our spirit. But we keep telling ourselves we take care of ourselves because we go through the motions of those activities.

Well, if we can internalize harmful beliefs, we can internalize helpful ones, too. But how do we stop intellectualizing? How to we assimilate helpful beliefs? How can we plant the seed and make it grow? Jill and I talked about it at length, both on and off the air. We came up with this method, which has worked for us.

Awareness

We need to be aware of what we’re planting. What have we already assimilated? Is it harmful or helpful? Do we really believe those memes we post on social media about how strong we are and what we stand for? Or are they just oversized posters masking the negative self talk we really listen to all day? Awareness is the first step toward any lasting change. If we don’t unearth the weeds in our garden, we can’t make space for new perennial thoughts. When we call out our negative self talk every time we hear it, we loosen it from the place where it has taken root: shameful darkness. There’s freedom and power in exposing those harmful narratives.

When we dig up the weeds, we need to plant something that we want to see blossom. We can choose wisely by being aware of how we feel with any given mantra. For instance, “how other people feel doesn’t affect me” sounds powerful to me, and maybe it’s a healthy attitude, but the wording makes me feel standoffish and disconnected. However, “I am allowed to feel my emotions, and other people are allowed to feel theirs” makes me feel grounded and capable of being around others when they’re going through a rough time. It’s a mantra I not just think, but feel, when I’m getting uneasy with other people’s emotions.

Trust

We have to trust the process. It won’t always feel like it’s working when we become aware of the same negative thoughts and feelings throughout the day. But each time we expose the weed, we’re shining light on what we want to believe instead. By tapping in to the feeling our healthier mantra gives us, we’re giving ourselves a drink of what nourishes our spirits. This repetitive process works.

Time

And it needs time. It might feel like we’re buried. Living in our emotions can give that impression, sometimes. But as our new belief is assimilated, we feel it push to the surface of who we are. We blossom.

Activity

What harmful weeds are growing in your garden? Enter those thoughts and beliefs on each weed.

What beautiful flower would you like to see in your garden? Enter your new thoughts and beliefs on each petal of the flower.

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