62 Cushions: From Survivor to Advocate

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My blog was published on the SafeLives Community this week, and here it is, a little edited.

I first discovered self-care in 2010, it wast the year I turned forty, left my husband and attended a fantastic course called Pattern Changing. It changed my life. Our homework each week was to do something or buy something for ourselves, it was so hard. I bought a cushion, I was never allowed cushions. It was cerise pink velvet with diamante, how decadent! It was a revelation for me, and brought me so much joy. What I have recognised over time, that this isn’t about buying a cushion, it’s about your self-worth. It’s about realising you are important, just as important as everyone else, and recognising that importance is the key to resilience. We are conditioned to believe that doing something for yourself like this is selfish, and this in turn stops us doing the very thing that will lift us up.

Now this is a skill that needs honing. I ended up with 62 cushions and realised that the pendulum effect had taken hold – I’m now down to a respectful 20. If I bought cushions and didn’t focus on any other aspect, well then there would be trouble.

For the last 5 years I have been working in front line domestic abuse services. I have been a director of More Positive Me fora year  running courses for people impacted by domestic abuse. I often talk to service users about the oxygen mask, especially when I can see they are trying to put their children first & self-sacrificing. On an aeroplane when the hostess’ are doing their safety procedure, what do they tell to do? They tell you to put the mask on yourself before you put it on the children. And why? Because if you don’t get your mask on first, you will pass out and be no use to anyone. The same applies to life, if you don’t look after yourself, you will go downhill and be no use to anyone. I love analogies – the phrase ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ is a popular one too.
If this is all new to you, and you don’t know where to begin, ask yourself these questions: What do I like? Who am I? It may become a voyage of self-discovery. On taking suggestions from the group, one Pattern Changing attendee decided she would have a soak in the bath. When she relayed her story to the group the following week, she had the whole class in stitches about the catalogue of errors in trying to achieve this. She had concluded that self-care was hard work and not worth the struggle. After a conversation however, she divulged that she had never much liked baths and was more of a shower girl. She treated herself to some fragrant shower gel, and decided to play music and have a sing along – this worked for her. Another attendee would, week by week, make steps towards Patisserie Valarie; one week going past on the bus, another week starring at the cakes from the window, to eventually going in & eating a cake. I love the tantric build up in this story, and the sheer joy of allowing herself eventually the indulgence.

So how do we fill that cup up? To get a balance its best to break down your self-care into three categories – mind, body and soul. Be careful that the ‘treat’ is exactly that. A glass of wine on a Friday can be deemed as self-care, having to resort to a bottle on a Monday evening because you’ve had a terrible day, is more like self-sabotage. Make time for yourself daily, eat a balanced diet, take a lunch break (away from your desk) have regular clinical supervision, get time outside in the fresh air and exercise. If something is sitting on your mind, talk to your colleagues. Keep an eye out for your colleagues too. Vicarious trauma is no fun, burn out even worse, and self-care is the key to keeping these ogres away. When you work in the field of domestic abuse, or other care services, your very role is giving, pouring from that cup. Therefore, self-care is even more important. Part of this is recognising when your cup is running empty, being honest with yourself and not seeing it as a sign of weakness if you start to go downhill rapidly. Practice what you preach.

I love the idea of mental health days. There was an email that went viral on social media, a fantastic boss that when someone emailed him to say they were taking a day off for their mental well-being, he agreed and thought it was a good idea. That’s a boss who recognises that when his staff are well, they perform much better. So, I’m going to throw some ideas in the pot for employers, to fill up your team’s cups. Have regular team days, where people feel listened to and supported, social events, fundraising tasks/challenges. Invite someone in on a regular occurrence to give seated massage, Indian head massage, allow flexible working and working from home, where possible. Hold regular supervision, and really get to know what’s going on for your team, at home and at work. What are their goals and aspirations and what other skills do they have that they may be keen to bring to the table? Give praise, where praise is due, don’t keep it in your head, share it. Employee incentives and recognising excellent work are great moral boosters and of course, encouraging self-care.

So how often do you need to do this? It’s a new habit for you and they say it takes 21 days to form or break a habit, so try 21 days in a row of doing something nice for you. It can be just 10 minutes a day, a meditation, a walk around the block in your lunch break, paint your nails, whatever floats your boat. If you fall off the wagon, get back on. It will start to become part of your life, and you’ll reap the rewards, I know, because I did.