The physical body is uniquely designed to send us messages that help us take care of ourselves. For example, I have a ten year old student who has beautiful long eye lashes. These eye lashes serve to keep dirt out of his eyes, but occasionally one, rather than staying where it belongs, pokes in and causes irritation. His eye begins to water, and my student does everything he can to get that lash out of his eye. Feeling the irritant, the eye signals my student to make eye lash removal a priority.
Similarly, our bodies signal fatigue at the end of a long day, prompting us to go home and get some rest. They signal hunger so that we will be sure to eat foods that fuel our many activities. They tell us when we are cold so that we’ll put on more clothes, and they signal pain when we have an injury.
Most of us respond to these signals. We get sleep when we are tired. We eat when we are hungry. We wear warmer clothes in the winter and tend to injuries when they occur. However, the human body is also able to ignore these signals for short periods of time in order to meet immediate demands, respond to crisis, or push through difficult periods. Soldiers and rescue workers have demonstrated this ability to be highly effective for long periods of time without rest or proper nourishment. However, all of us, after a period of ignoring the body’s signals, must take time to recover, to heal, to restore. If we continue in a chronic state of over-doing, the body has to develop some next-level signals — it begins to demand attention.
Several years ago, my body did just that. After years of trying to power through responsibilities without responding to my body’s physical, spiritual, and emotional signals, I began to develop symptoms: skin rashes, joint pain, extreme fatigue, and eye inflammation. At first, these symptoms side-lined me. They were so insistent that I had to take several months of intentional care and then several years of refined practice to move back into the game. These next-level signals forced me to care for my body after a long period of neglect.
Now that I’m off the bench, I’ve learned that these chronic issues can be kept at bay if I work a moderate number of hours, practice yoga, avoid triggering foods, and get plenty of rest — if I make it a habit to listen to my body’s signals. However, if I fall back into old patterns — working too many hours, ignoring my self-care practices, or eating carelessly — my eye begins to hurt, my skin rashes flare, and occasionally I get knocked down. I find myself on the couch with ice packs and fluids, tending to my body after a period of neglect.
For the past month or so, my sessions with one particular online student have been fraught with technical issues. We lose our internet connection, my screen freezes or her screen freezes, or we experience an irritating lag that makes our communication difficult. When I opened her virtual room last week, it was evident almost immediately that we were going to struggle, so I called our IT department. They started trouble-shooting the session, and it became apparent that other instructors’ sessions were suffering, too. Finally, after many attempted fixes and much frustration, IT recommended that each of us clear the cache on our web browsers. None of us had done that in quite a while, and our chrome books were bogged down. They couldn’t continue to function until we gave them some of the maintenance that they needed. It didn’t take long, just a couple clicks, and the efficiency of our internet was restored.
It seems that our habits of hurriedly moving from student to student had prevented many of us from completely powering down our computers, from doing regular computer maintenance, from clearing our cache. Neglected, our computers stopped working.
Similarly, I’ve been pushing my body lately. We’ve been short on staff since the beginning of the year, and all of us have been working long shifts and managing extra responsibilities. It’s hard on all of us. And while I am making sure that I write and do some yoga every day, I’m not taking time to clear my cache. I’m getting bogged down. I have noticed little glitches — I make a sarcastic remark, I run just a little bit late, or I miss a significant detail. Then all of a sudden, I find myself on my couch — unable to function properly.
So what’s going to change? What have I learned from repeating this cycle over and over again? Sure, some things are outside of our control. We definitely are short-staffed, and since I am in a leadership position, it only makes sense that I would be working all the available hours. So what can change in my attitude about work? That’s a good question.
My husband has a saying, “care, but don’t care” —care for my students and their welfare, but don’t own responsibility for them. Love my students, give them my best, but remember that I can give them my best without giving my all. I’m not good at this. I’m an all-in kind of a girl, but I’m thinking I have to find a way to set my idle a little lower. I want to be present with my students and coworkers without owning their successes so deeply, without feeling each of their struggles so personally.
I think my tendency to overwork and over-care stems from a desire to be needed. I mean, I don’t get up in the morning and say, “Let me go pour my whole life into my students so that they will appreciate and value me.” It’s not that simple. Belief systems run deep; they operate in the subconscious. Perhaps I have this thought deep in my core that if I meet all the needs of my students, I will be worthy and acceptable. And that thought, which stems from insecurity, actually masquerades as superiority — they need me, what would they do without me?
But guess what, when I called in sick today, my agency did not close. All the students are still meeting with instructors. Progress is still being made. I’m an important player, but not so important that I can’t take a beat for self-care. I can pause to clear my cache.
To be honest, I do. In addition to taking time to write and do yoga, I regularly do several other forms of self-care. I just need to not work as though my worth depended on it.
Because it doesn’t.
I am valuable, needed, and appreciated, even when I am in yoga pants and an oversized fleece on my couch. Right now that’s what my body is telling me it needs — at least for today.
I’ll try to keep listening to its messages tomorrow.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?Matthew 6:25-26