By Kahlil Kuykendall, Gender Economist and Mindfulness Self-Care Instructor
Our HeartMind e-News connects the relationship of heart centered learning and mindfulness to current research and circumstances. Our goal is to provide our readers with concrete opportunities to further implementation of heart centered practices in their schools and districts. These opportunities will include suggestions for reflection, journaling, dialoguing, and compassionate classroom activities. These exercises often start with adults, working on our own knowledge and skills, before we turn to students.
“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills…There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind…So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself.”~ Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 and a Stoic Philosopher.
Your retreat may be your own self-care. While self-care should be a priority in every profession, it is particularly important for those in caregiving careers. Teachers, like nurses, doctors, firefighters, police officers, and other caregiving frontline professionals, often experience stigma surrounding self-care.
Self-care includes nearly any activity people use to calm, heal, and preserve themselves in the face of adversity. Some common forms of self-care include (Spicer, 2019):
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating well
- Getting physical exercise
- Watching a good movie
- Engaging in meaningful, nontoxic connections with others who have been supportive.
Self-care also involves listening to one’s body when one feels something is awry or acknowledging when one is headed toward exhaustion.
Sometimes our self-care may be minimal. We may not even take the time to contemplate what we could do to improve our own self-care and sense of well-being. We may operate with a sense of “full-speed” ahead, not taking the time for a lunch break, adequate hydration, or even a few minutes to stretch. However, there is something to be said for “intentional” self-care. With mindfulness, we are intentional, in the moment, without judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, 2012). Mindfulness allows one to tune in to the present, in body, emotions, and thoughts.
Increasing Inner Awareness
French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault explored self-care’s ancient Greek origins and how “care of the self is the result of a re-conception of two ancient injunctions: care for oneself and know oneself” (Jaime, 2021). Mindfulness benefits educators by increasing our (inner) awareness. For educators, it may be our awareness of how we are responding to all of the challenges we face—the technology, the distance, our concerns for our students, and our concerns about our own ability to instruct online.
We can cultivate our own sense of well-being through engaging in self-care activities that require awareness of the present moment. It may be particularly helpful to enter into the “newness” of our experiences with openness, curiosity, and non-judgment. Activities such as meditation and contemplative prayer, appreciating nature, yoga, tai chi, dance, sports, photography, and the arts are just a few examples of mind-body self-care practices that can build mindfulness.
Also essential to self-care and responding to our inner awareness is learning to self-soothe or calm physical and emotional distress. Some adults may remember being told as a child to blow directly on an injured knee to soothe the pain of a scrape. Many can recall early lessons in self-soothing. Yet far too many adults haven’t the foggiest notion of how to soothe constructively or nurture themselves when they encounter emotional pain (Richards, 2013).
Exercise #1: Reflect on how your self-caring has increased your knowledge of self.
Is Self-Care Being Indulgent? Or Rather an Act of Resistance?
The poet and activist, Audre Lorde’s definition of self-care, states “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare” (Fernandez, 2019). For Audre Lorde, self-care wasn’t a measure of social equality. It was an insistence that she mattered and was worthy of care. Self-care, as she saw it, was an act of resistance. To care for oneself—to rest, recover, and restore—was essential to doing the hard work of social change (Kozak, 2020).
Unfortunately, in today’s society many are socialized to believe they must care for the needs of others first. A failure to do so, in many minds, is perceived as too self-centered and a threat to the well-being of society. However, the real threat to the well-being of society is the failure to care for the self in uniquely fulfilling ways, so that we have the energy to care for others. With an emphasis on self-care, first, one can actually become a better care giver. There must be balance in taking care of loved ones, communities, and self. No one exists solely to devote all time and energy to the care of others if it means ignoring care for self.
Dr. Tina Runyan (2019), Clinical Psychologist & Professor at UMass Medical School, has a message for educators: “You can’t be of service to anybody else unless you are taking care of yourself.”
Exercise #2: Who do you sometimes care for before turning to your own self-care?
Sometimes we have responsibilities that require us to rise early in the morning, such as making sure our children have breakfast, or require us to stay up late at night, such as planning a lesson for the next day, knowing that our students will have a better learning experience because of our planning.
Do you consider your own self-care to be self-indulgent? Would you benefit from coming up with a plan for your own self-care? Consider:
- What you will do.
- When you will do it.
- How you anticipate this will increase your sense of well-being.
Mindfulness, Self-Care, and COVID
For many years, mindfulness has been an important instrument of self-care. Particularly right now, at a time when so many appear to be out of control in many aspects of life, self-care provides the challenge and opportunity to take charge of the self every day in whatever ways are possible.
- Amid physical and social isolation (i.e., COVID-19 pandemic), educators can take this opportunity to become more closely connected to respective sensory experiences and, as a result, to themselves.
- An example would be to nurture the intimate connection between body and mind by taking a few minutes to breathe and pay attention to sensations.
- Many experience mindfulness by taking time each day to sit or lie quietly while slowly scanning their bodies. This scanning process is a whole body experience where one can be more mindful of points of tension from head to toe.
Exercise #3: Lie down. Take a few deep breaths and start a body scan.
Start at the tip of your toes and gradually inch your attention from your toes, to your ankles, to your knees, and on up your body to your head. As you scan, relax and soften any tightness or constriction.
- Be open to the full range of sensations and feelings that emerge.
- Of particular note are feelings of the heart, whether grief-related on one hand or joy and hopefulness on the other.
- As you soften any tightness or constriction of the heart, you are likely to feel more centered, grounded, and connected to individual experiences.
Building Self-Confidence through Mindful Self-Care
Imagine that you are in “a funk”—you might be feeling blue, wondering if “this is all there is/will be to your life?” You may feel that you have failed to live up to your expectations of yourself. Or during COVID, you may be feeling that your life is simply out of your control. In essence, you may not even know where to begin when it comes to expectations for yourself.
Exercise # 4: Let’s now contrast feeling a lack of confidence to feeling successful.
Reflect for a moment on a time when you were really on top of your game. Consider:
- Your physical appearance (your body, your face, your hair, your clothes).
- Your inner thoughts: Were you feeling a sense of success? Excitement? Enthusiasm for what you were doing?
- How did others respond to you?
- What “I messages” did you give yourself?
Continue to contrast your sense of uncertainty to what it feels like to be confident. When you are confident, you have self-knowledge of what’s expected and self-belief that you have what it takes to meet those expectations (Jackson, 2011).
While lack of confidence can be related to simply not knowing, lack of confidence is often caused by a constant stream of negative thoughts, and behind that stream, one’s identification with these thoughts.
- For instance, many will hear an inner voice that suggests personal unworthiness and assume this is true.
- It might even be feared that if the voice fell silent, personal existence would cease.
- Many fear it is better to perpetually criticize yourself or others because of feelings of personal inadequacy.
- For some, confidence development can seem like an overwhelming task.
Removing the Lens of Fear
However, everyone has the ability to build confidence. Self-awareness and self-love are key. Truly, in order to have a feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgment, one must have the level of “self-awareness” that informs us that there is nothing to fear. Admittedly, this is difficult in times of great uncertainty. However, even in these times, some people have a greater sense of confidence than others.
Imagine feeling uncertain, and then that you might be able to remove your lens of fear. Once the lens is removed, you will likely be able to see more clearly and function at a level of competence that actually facilitates creativity and peak performance. You will find an increase in vitality and energy levels increases the ability to channel that energy to good use. So, confidence can be increased through the mindset we have. If we can imagine better times, that is a good place to start. However, to start there, we may need to back up and simply breathe, simply be, simply stop all thoughts, and let go of our fears. Positive self-care can assist with this.
Don’t Start with Everest
Our confidence will also be increased through practice and proficiency. If we are striving to learn mountain climbing, for example, it may be best to start with a rock wall at a local park, rather than Mt. Everest. As we practice, over time, we dedicate ourselves to our own improvement. As our confidence naturally increases, our inner voice shifts from “I can’t” to “I can, I am, I will!”
Self-care and confidence. Are they perhaps two heads of a coin? When we care enough to care for ourselves, do we naturally become more confident? With confidence, are we perhaps better positioned to care for ourselves and others? To be the best we can be for ourselves and others?
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