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What Can Self-Care Look Like, Anyway?

We talk a lot about self-care in polyamory. We talk about it as a necessity; we talk about it in opposition to caring for others or spending time with others, which it doesn’t have to be; we talk about it in the form of boundaries; we talked about it in last week’s post on time alone.

I did some in taking a long weekend this weekend - in my deeply literal interpretation of this Labor Day holiday and not working all weekend or Monday or giving you any work-product to consume. (As the daughter of a union organizer and two founding members of a local union branch, I couldn’t do less.) I focused on family time, played and read with my kids for a lovely afternoon, and then realized that I’d just slightly overextended what I could do as someone a couple weeks out from brain surgery and didn’t leave the couch for most of the next day. Honestly, I’ll put on clothes and go for a short walk today, but not much more. Every single one of those actions is a form of care for myself.

The pop-culture image of self-care is, of course, the lovingly drawn bubble bath bigger than most of our bathrooms with a glass of wine, tiny bowl of chocolates (because we’re indulging, but in a caring for ourselves way, right, women’s magazine?), and that book that expands our minds balanced on a tray that magically fits perfectly on our huge bathtub in our fashionable bathroom. This is approximately 2% of actual self-care for most people. [Any numbers in this post entirely made up for affect.] So, then, what does most self-care look like?

  • Sleeping enough for your body’s needs. This one varies from person to person and moment to moment - during this pandemic you may find you need more sleep because of stress hormones; when you’re very old you may sleep less; some people may sleep at a different time of day than others - but most humans sleep around 7 hours a day, minimum, and if you aren’t, you aren’t taking care of yourself.

  • Feeding your body. I’m not going to go into any detail on this, I don’t have any background in nutrition and I do have a history of disordered eating from which I am constantly recovering, returning to, and recovering again; but humans need nutritious food, and actively considering that you eat every day is an act of caring for yourself.

  • Stress-relief activities. Here’s where that bath might come in!

    • Exercise. Releasing endorphins through a workout strengthens the body and relaxes the mind. Find the kind that works for you - hiking, biking, strength training, walking, swimming, yoga - anything that involves movement of the body.

    • Socialization. Here’s where we’re in opposition to our last post - sometimes people are exactly what you need. Getting out of your own head and into a group or a conversation with a friend can be the switch-flip that releases the tension we’re carrying.

    • Alone time - because we’re complicated and the kinds of stress relief we need aren’t always the same. What we do with that alone time is all ours: hobbies? Meditation? Netflix? Sleep? Garden? Exercise?

    • Partner time. Especially in polyamory, sometimes we realize we (either as an individual or a relationship) haven’t been making time we needed for our relationship(s) and it’s leaving us feeling burnt out or not prioritized or just plain sad. Making that time can relieve stress on that part of our lives.

    • Treating oneself. Here’s where that bath goes. Pull out the fancy bath bomb, or the glass of wine, or both. Or get out the nice cheese and crackers and put on your favorite movie. I like to keep a box with the (non-perishable! Please keep cheese in the fridge!) Nice Things I Like under my bed for times when I’m struggling with self-esteem of an evening, especially if it’s because a partner is out with someone who I don’t know well but the few things I know trigger a self-esteem crash spiral or a jealousy nosedive. (I keep my copy of the Jealousy Workbook in there too, if I can get my shit together to do an activity from that instead of just eat some chocolate and drink wine and look at my own list of suggestions for movies to watch or friends who have said it’s ok to call or text them when I feel like this.)

    • Journals and Workbooks. I have a bunch of guided journals and workbooks, almost all of which are only a quarter filled in. This doesn’t mean any of them are bad. It’s mostly a sign that I’m ADHD and finish very, very few things in my life and have decided not to judge myself for it so much anymore, but rather to treat them as an opportunity to always have something to work on. If you’re more of a completionist than me, I suggest getting a new one a few pages ahead of finishing your current one. If you like guided workbooks and journals, the Jealousy workbook by Labriola is a perennial favorite and always useful, and there are a million guided journals aimed toward selfcare: I’m currently using one that’s out of print from about five years ago.

  • Taking care of the space we live in. Whether it’s cleaning the house or yard work, and whether it’s alone or with help from partners (live in or not but just helpful) or housemates, getting our space in order can help keep our minds in order. Something as simple as organizing a desk can make work feel a lot more possible when we sit down to do it.

  • Sorting out our own boundaries and then enforcing them. With partners, with family, with work when possible, everywhere. This one is hard, and sometimes requires more effort in some of the others because it’s tiring and raises stress levels.

If this all sounds very unromantic, it’s because it is. If it sounds not-very-related-to-polyamory, let me draw the connection for you. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you come to each of your relationships asking others to take care of you, and while there are always moments (and in fact, in my experience, pretty much every bit of life is an ebb and flow of these moments) in each where things aren’t quite 50/50 and you’re taking care of each other a bit, the goal is to come into relationships as adults who are equals and ready to hold yourself up without needing to spread your stresses and problems around too much.

(Author’s note: It may so happen that I, as a personal fault, live in constant fear of spreading my problems around too much. This may be raised to a slightly irrational level in me. Regardless, the base premise of learning self-care skills is a necessary adult maneuver because you never know when you may be partnerless and truly need to do all the self-soothing alone, and also, knowing how to so that you can help your partners help you as quickly as possible and get on to the fun bits of life, has value in all but the deepest tragedies - which you’ll need to work through anyway and will each be their own beast no matter what.)

So, that said, if, in a polycule’s network, the goal is to not be That Person whose problems and emotions preoccupy the whole network (outside of emergencies - there are always exceptions for emergencies), learning self-care skills if you don’t have them, or discovering what techniques work best for you so that you can come calmly and at opportune times to ask for help from partners, becomes an essential tool in your polyamorous toolbox. That’s why our discussions so often reference self-care - why we mention giving yourself some space and some grace until you’ve taken a couple hours or days to do some that includes some reflection on the issue at hand and come back to the issue. We don’t mean to go take a bath - unless you do your best thinking in a eucalyptus scented shimmery green bath. We mean do a workout or take a long walk to calm down and think, and then journal it out, and then either have a nap or see a neutral friend to get out of the issue entirely for a bit, and then come back to talk about it, now that you’ve taken care of yourself, about the polyamorous or relationship issue and not about the issue.

So, no matter how many times a lady’s magazine publishes a bathtub with a glass of wine (or, in fact, I publish giant fluffy white bedding that looks nothing like my house, or, probably, yours), self-care is mostly not glamorous. It’s mostly me remembering that skipping lunch isn’t a virtue, and neither is being scared of sharing problems with people I trust. It’s cleaning the kitchen and going on my walk so that my leg muscles don’t weaken post surgery. For you all who aren’t exhausted from healing post surgery, it’s making a point of getting to bed on time so you aren’t too tired at work tomorrow, deciding if clearing the living room table or the desk you stopped using in July when too much crap got piled on it would work better for working from home, and thinking about whether it would help you more to download an app to do a guided meditation or write about what you’re thinking in a journal. It’s very boring. But it helps us be our best selves and thereby have the energy to shine that tiny bit brighter to the people we meet and interact with every day.

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