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Self-Care Is Messy

The Powerful Self-Care Lesson I Learned in a Remote Village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

On the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Moba-Port, DRC

As women, we have a lot of pressure to perform – show up in relationships, be good employees, run successful businesses, raise successful humans, and the list goes on and on. I’d like to suggest that a lot of our success in those endeavors starts with work that we do within ourselves, specifically, integration.

Integration is the act of bringing together smaller components into a single system that functions as one. It’s probably something you’re already doing on various levels in your own lives. But I’m proposing that we make it a more intentional process.

As all of us, I am many things – a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, educator, entrepreneur, and mother, among numerous others.

Through my work and my journeys in the US and overseas, I have had the chance to engage with and observe a diverse group of people. But I think it was when I had my dream job and was living in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that the seeds were planted for me to understand the importance of integration.

I was working for a nongovernmental organization, running a program providing psychosocial services for survivors of torture and war. In order to get to the place where we lived and worked, I took the 20+ hours of flights from Los Angeles to Lubumbashi in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Then I would climb into a Land Rover and drive for three days over terrible roads to get to where I lived and worked.

Until we would finally reach this beautiful, seemingly peaceful town on a plateau above Lake Tanganyika that looked like it had been frozen in time. The thing about this town was that not so long before, it had been a war zone, invaded three different times. People who lived here had been faced with impossible choices – run and risk being caught while escaping or stay and risk being attacked in their own homes. Some of the most horrible atrocities imaginable were committed here.

Now it was my job was to bring community members together and share their stories to facilitate the process of healing themselves, their families, and their communities.

Every morning I engaged in my own self-care practice. I would wake up before dawn and walk/run/hike down the roads and paths near our residence as the sun rose over the landscape. And I would pass people, on those same roads – women hiking up the hill from the lakeside carrying large plastic bowls of freshly caught fish or coal on their heads to sell at the market, men pushing bicycles – the source of their livelihoods, as bicycles are often used for carrying heavy loads – and children, some following their parents and others dressed in uniforms on their way to school.

I would admire the beauty of the landscape and the sunrise and reflect on the people I encountered in the quieter moments of the morning. And then I would go to work and hear about some of the darkest things that human beings can do to one another.

Not a day went by that my mind wasn’t blown by the idea that there could be so many different lives, some so very different from each other, existing on one planet. I struggled to understand how there could be so much beauty and so much pain in the same place at the same time.

This experience really shifted my perspective. It taught me one very important lesson:

A lot of things I believed to be truth and fact about the way life was “supposed to be,” were in fact just constructed beliefs that were common in the place I had grown up in among the people I grew up around. A lot about the way that I believed I was supposed to live my life were not true. Life isn’t supposed to be a particular way.

This learning gave me a way of looking at life that was profoundly different than the way that I had before. It allowed me to take a step back from what I had been brought up to believe, and to see that I didn’t have to blindly accept what I was told. Namely, I didn’t have to strive to be or, maybe more importantly, to appear what our society deems to be perfect.

I know I’m not alone in falling into the perfectionism trap. Since moving back to the United States, I witness people falling into it all the time, myself included. It’s so dangerous because it exists in our heads. More often than not, it’s the barriers in our heads that are the hardest to overcome. We can’t get out of our own way. Perfectionism breeds shame and can lead to virtual paralysis motivated by the idea that if I can’t do it exactly right, then I won’t do it at all.

I’m here to propose that one of the important ways to break out of the perfectionism trap is by accepting ourselves exactly as we are, for all of our lovely, wonderful qualities as well as all of our faults, imperfections, and areas for development.

You might be thinking that this seems simple. And on the surface it is, but let me share with you why is this hard for us.

As women, we are conditioned to play it safe – to avoid risk and failure.

Even as toddlers, research has shown that while boys are typically encouraged to learn by doing, girls are provided with support and communication that sends messages that they are more delicate and vulnerable to injury and should be more cautious.

As we get older, this shows up in how we perform academically. Carol Dweck, the psychologist famous for coining the term “growth mindset” did a study on 5th graders that showed that when bright girls were given something foreign to learn, they were much quicker than boys to give up, and the higher the girl’s IQ, the quicker she was to give up. While on the other hand, bright boys found the new and foreign material challenging and energizing and were more likely to work harder.

As we continue to grow, our perfectionism continues to grow with us. In her Ted Talk, Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, talks about the process of learning to code as an endless process of trial and error, requiring perseverance and imperfection. She describes the experience that each of her teachers have during the first week of their coding classes – a girl sitting in front of a computer screen with no text on it will call the teacher over and tell her that she doesn’t know what code to write. If the teachers were to take the situation at face value, they would assume that these girls had been sitting in front of the blank screen the whole time, but if they press undo a few times, they will find that the girls had written text and deleted it. They had gotten close but not perfect, so instead of showing imperfection, they chose to show nothing at all.

As we move into adulthood, perfectionism follows us. In a Hewlett Packard internal report cited in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, it was found that men will apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the required qualifications, while women will apply only when they meet 100% of the required qualifications.

And then, of course, we can see all over the media how we receive messages that we should be younger, thinner, fitter, more fashionable, and on and on and on. And that’s just in regards to our appearances, not to mention our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

So, we can see that we women are conditioned from a young age to believe that we should be achieving expectations that are unrealistic and unachievable. And, as I see frequently in my work as a psychotherapist, girls and women are suffering from mental and physical health issues as a result.

Striving for an unachievable goal is demoralizing. It conditions us to believe that we are not enough. And that belief that we are not enough is dangerous because it leads to shame.

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that shame and guilt are the same, but they are two feelings with one significant distinction. Guilt is focused on our behavior, while shame is focused on ourselves. The feeling of guilt tells us, “I did something bad” while the feeling of shame tells us “I am bad.” That distinction might seem small, but it’s actually huge. When we feel guilty and believe that we have done something bad, we can learn from that mistake and make a different choice in the future. It’s actually quite healthy to feel guilt and use it as an indicator that we need to make a change. The research shows that when we feel guilt we are able to grow from the experience and move forward in a more positive way. When we feel shame and believe that we are bad, it’s a lot more difficult to change ourselves from being bad to being good. The research shows that shame is often associated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, eating disorders, and suicide.

So, what can we do about this?

What I have learned from my life experience, as well as my work experience with survivors of trauma from all different backgrounds, is that we need to follow the path to self-acceptance through integration. We like for things to fit into little boxes, to be black or white. But the reality is that they aren’t. They are messy and inconsistent and complex. And in order to thrive in the midst of all this messiness, we have to respond by cultivating our integration skills.

The kind of integration I’m talking about refers to how you understand the story of your life and whether you have been able to integrate both the positive and negative experiences to form a cohesive narrative. Whether you have a story of your life that sticks together and makes sense. And whether you are able to integrate both your own strengths and your “areas for growth” or weaknesses into your understanding of yourself.

Research now shows that our ability to form a cohesive narrative of our lives is the biggest predictor for our ability to have healthy relationships with our children during the crucial first years of their lives. This means that how we understand our own stories can help determine how well we are able to raise our children.

Not only that, but this ability to accept all the parts of our lives and ourselves can be powerful in how it enables us to connect to others, show up, and be role models. When we are expending a lot of time and energy on trying to appear perfect, we don’t have that time and energy to focus on the things that are important. And we often spend time and energy on things that are out of alignment with our priorities and purpose.

When we have integrated and accepted who we are, we can show up and do our best. When we need help, we can ask for it. When we mess up, we can apologize and make amends.

When we have integrated and accepted who we are, we can be courageous by being vulnerable. Vulnerability feels like weakness, but I can tell you from over ten years of working with people, that it is one of the highest forms of courage and, when used appropriately, can lead to the most positive outcomes. When we can share the realities of our situations with others, we are able to have real, genuine connections, to connect on a different level, to show up and be seen.

We constantly talk about self-care these days. I believe that integration and self-acceptance are the highest forms of self-care.

Not only that, but in doing so, we are showing others that they can do it too. We become role models for the ways that they too can find deeper, more meaningful connections in their lives. And as parents, this is essential because our children learn from our actions, not our words. We need act like the people who we wish for our children to become.

Will it be easy? Nope. But I’m going to invite you to consider a mindset shift. I propose that we need to start looking at the discomfort of being vulnerable similar to the discomfort of working out. The more we use our vulnerability muscles, the more comfortable we become with the process and the more effective we become. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

As you begin to accept all the parts of yourself and your life, you will start to see that things that you thought were negative actually have positive aspects. Learning happens and strength is built in moments of challenge. The parts of ourselves that we consider negative, can actually provide important wisdom. It’s here, in accepting and moving into the messiness, that the beauty emerges. And that is the exquisite mess that is being human.

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