Normally, when I think of self-care, the first image that pops into my head has to do with taking a hot bath. Add some epsom salts and the latest issue of my favorite magazine and- yayyyyyyyyy!
Calgon, take me away.
For the past several months, however, I have been redefining my relationship to self-care. I have been learning that there is another side to self-care; A side that doesn’t revolve around taking time off from the hectic, sometimes overwhelming-feeling pace of my life with a bath or a vacation. This is a side that doesn’t involve spending money, or turning off of my cell phone, or even eating really, really delicious food.
Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things, by the way. I am SO IN FAVOR of those things.
It’s just that self care is not always so luxurious.
I am pretty proficient at the luxurious kind of self care, though (this didn’t use to be the case); I’ve gotten good at noticing when I’m exhausted and then myself drawing a bath, or turning off my phone for awhile or even going out of town for a personal retreat.
I know, I know; it seems like I should be nominated for the self-care award of the year, right?!
Except that the truth is that these more indulgent forms of self-care, while lovely and worthwhile, are not the only answer for me. They have proven that they cannot save me from exhaustion, burn out, overwhelm or many of the other afflictions that stem from living a busy, modern, urban life.
Self-care is such a buzzword these days, and the media certainly sells us on this idea of self care as an indulgent practice that takes us away from the reality of our challenging lives. Functioning perhaps even a wee bit like an addiction, this style of self care might work as an escape, but in the end we have to come back to a reality that might be stressful or overwhelming.
There is, as I mentioned, another side to self-care, though. It’s not sexy, or indulgent or fun (darn it) and it’s not popular in the media, but it’s the kind of self-care that could potentially be the most transformative.
What I am talking about here is the kind of self-care that involves balancing my checkbook, sticking to my budget, creating (and sticking to) a schedule that gives me plenty of time to rest and do the things that are really meaningful to me and doing the sometimes tedious legwork that is required to ensure that my living situation meets my needs in the best possible way.
This other kind of self-care acts as a sort of scaffolding that can support me in having the kind of life that I really want. I need this structure so that I can be truly free.
This kind of supportive, structural self-care is a form of masculine energy. To be clear, I am not referring to gender here, but rather to a kind of energy that exists within all living things. Masculine energy, in it’s essence, is a kind of energy that is all about structure; While feminine energy flows, masculine energy holds.
I have been investigating my relationship with this energy over the last few months, and asking myself; why has been so hard for me to get these supportive structures in place in my life?
When I have tried in the past to cultivate this masculine form of self-care, I am immediately turned off by the way it feels to me, which is harsh and punitive. It feels like a list of shoulds: I “should” balance my check book, I “should” go to bed earlier, and if I don’t do these things then I’m doing it wrong.
In other words, my masculine style of self is care feels divorced from it’s humanity, with no space for my own emotions or imperfections.
Since this what we do to our masculine energy in general in our culture, I suppose it’s not really so surprising that I have internalized it in this way.
There is another option for me, of course. Masculine energy can express itself in a loving, accommodating and supportive way. Structure and stability don’t have to feel punitive, rigid or harsh.
I understand this intellectually, but on another level it’s kind of hard for me to understand what loving, supportive masculine energy feels like, mostly because I was not exposed to a lot of loving, supportive masculine energy when I was young. The expressions of masculine energy that I knew as a child (mostly from my dad but also from my mom) were punitive and harsh.
It can be hard to understand the kinds of loving energy that we were not exposed to when we were growing up. We have try to know them by sneaking glances at them out of the corners of our eyes, and then take some wild guesses as to what they might feel like if we actually brought them into our lives, and as we try to cultivate them we have to basically make it up as we go along.
So that’s what I’m up to right now; finding a new, masculine type of self care. Something that feels loving, supportive and gentle yet stabilizing, structured and strong; a firm container that can hold the unfolding of my life. It’s been challenging, but it is also offering me an opportunity to create a life that really works for me, rather than just putting out fires with 3 hour baths and then pressing on. With this new version of self care I could conceivably create a life that I don’t actually need a vacation from.
Bigger than that, though, this work offers me the possibility of a new paradigm for my relationship with masculine energy – one that truly honors the goodness that it has to offer; the not the least of which are structure, support and deep sustainability.
“In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role…
The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial. Habit, for these, is also the garment they wear, and indeed the very structure of their body life…
What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.”
— Mary Oliver