Can a Care-Taker Learn to Take Care of Herself?

I've just had an epiphany, and it's not something I'm particularly pleased to admit. I consider myself an advocate for others. This spirit of advocacy is innate and I believe, God-given. If you want to hear me rant, ask me about the significance of movements like #blacklivesmatter or my newly-discovered yet completely-true white privilege. Ask me how I feel about homelessness, sex-trafficking and children growing up in this country without access to books. Don't even get me started on the FDA or Monsanto. It's so easy for me to see the need to champion the rights of others. As a black and white thinker, it makes sense that I want to right the wrongs of our unfair world and to give everyone an equal shot at their dreams. But here's the problem: I have a really hard time with self-advocacy, hence the epiphany. Looking back today, I've realized that the times I've faced uncomfortable conflict head on, it's because I believed it would benefit someone else, whether it was the person I was confronting, or on whose behalf I was advocating. 
As a caretaker, I've worked hard to let go of the need to do hard things because I am somehow responsible for other peoples decisions. If I confronted someone in the past with great difficulty, I did it because I wanted to protect the next guy from their behavior. But I'm not in charge of their behavior and I do not need to carry responsibility for their future potential infractions just because their current acts have hurt me. (Though I can see how abuse victims following this path are probably making a very understandable mistake). So now that I'm not facing difficult confrontation on behalf of someone else, I'm finding myself hiding from necessary conflict and wallowing in shame as a result. I'm really hurting, guys. And yet, I feel dumb about my big feelings and don't want to have the difficult conversations required to rectify the situation. How incredibly difficult it is to say, "Your behavior, while most likely unintentional, hurt my feelings in a big way and with humility, I ask for your apology because my feelings matter." Agghh!
And yet, I've learned these past few years how incredibly important self-care is. That I deserve love and care as much as anyone else in my family, church and community. That there is no need to apologize for being human, needing space and having needs that require money, time and solitude to meet. And while it's simple enough to drink a cup of tea or serve yourself breakfast first, how hard is it to validate your very real feelings in a difficult situation? (Frankly, I'm being cavalier about the tea and breakfast first, but that was actually really difficult in the beginning). How hard is it to let people love you when you're purposefully exposing "weakness" (big feelings aren't weakness but my shame voice begs to differ) that you just can't seem to rationally contain? This, my friends, is the ultimate self-care act and this care-taker is wrestling, for sure. 

What I've Learned in Therapy

I'm a big fan of therapy. I just had my last therapy session a few nights ago. I started weekly therapy 20 months ago when I had a 2 month old, a new kindergartener and very depressed husband. It was a dark time in our family. I cannot overstate how helpful therapy is. I recommend it all the time to people I love. 
My therapist, Natalie, did such a great service to me in that she taught me how to validate myself rather than create dependence on her validation of me. As I process the ending of my time in therapy (for now), I made a list of all the things I've learned in these 20 months. Some of it coincides with my time in therapy as it relates to the circumstances I've come through during that time, but most of it is a direct result of my time with Natalie. I am so proud of my work and so thankful for her facilitation of it.
1. I feel confident in myself again.
2. I identified my care-taking tendency.
3. I've learned to not live by my care-taking impulse but to recognize when I want to take on someone else's "stuff."
4. I've learned how to set boundaries in my relationships.
5. I've learned to prioritize myself.
6. I've learned to identify my feelings and validate them without judgment.
7. I've learned to identify my needs and validate them as well.
8. I've learned to give myself grace.
9. I've learned to identify my black & white thought patterns.
10. I've learned how to get out of the box I put myself in and how to get out of the ones others put me in too.
11. I've learned the value of self-care and the teeth-gritting challenge and discipline it requires for me to give it to myself (see #2).
12. I've learned it's okay to try new things even if I don't know if I'm good at them or if I will even enjoy them. (Process versus product).
13. I've learned that I possess the gift of vulnerability. It is a gift I can give to whomever I choose and that I don't owe it to anyone, even if I've given them that gift in the past.
14. I've learned to have compassion without taking ownership of what is triggering my compassion.
15. I've learned that it's okay to be human, that it was actually God's intent to make us that way. I don't need to overcome my humanity in order to be as God intended but to embrace it. 
16. I've learned that it's ordinary to not know stuff. The more honest you are about not knowing, the more you learn and find connecting points with others.
17. I've learned to climb off the ministry pedestal that I put myself on and that others insist I stay on. When I disappoint someone by doing this, it says more about them than it says about me.
18. I have learned how to decline taking tests others set up for me to prove my value.
19. I've learned that my personal growth can happen alongside my childrens. It's not them versus me. Moms learn stuff too.
20. I've learned to hold grief. I've learned to sit in pain.
21. I've learned to acknowlege my resentment while faithfully and strategically working to dismantle it.
22. I've learned to just keep waiting on and hoping for the things I can't control or change.
23. I've learned to walk away from safe places when they no longer feel safe.
24. I've learned the joy of surprise when new, unexpected safe places reveal themselves at just the right time.
25. I've been through a process of sifting through and fervently developing my personal values (see the whole series!), to stand by them, to defend them and to give myself grace when I can't master them.
26. I've learned that disagreement is not personal but judgment is.
27. I've learned to hold two realities when they exist rather than holding one and ignoring the other to do so (i.e. villanizing someone who hurt me in order to validate my pain).
28. I've learned to lower my standards for myself. My inner perfectionist finally got identified! (It's never too late, deniers!)
29. I've decided to take offense when others seek to tame me.
30. I've learned to hold perceived slights and triggering interactions for as long as I need to til I can respond rather than react. This often takes a long longer but leads to better conversation and fewer regrets.
31. I'm learning to extend grace to where I've been rather than just to where I'm heading. 
32. I've learned the immeasurable value of friendship. I am very rich indeed.
33. I've found that learning comes when I practice asking questions rather than telling answers.
34. I've learned to stay for just awhile longer when I really want to run.
35. I've learned to let people tell me who they are rather than insist or assume I already know. 
36. I've learned how to visit dark places without setting up house.
37. I've learned how to receive the love and care of my community, not as a sign of weakness, but as evidence of our mutual care and respect. Ex-ministers always want to be the helpers! It's not real love or community if you don't learn to receive without shame or reciprocation.
38. I've learned how to identify what drains my energy and to either avoid it (no is a great word) or account for that with added self-care as needed.
39. I've learned that I am an advocate and will engage in necessary conflict in order to create safety for victimized individuals.
40. I've learned that giving dignity is God's go-to response to shame.
41. I've learned that shit happens, that bad things aren't always a result of poor choices and that we are not in control.
42. I've learned that at the end of trauma, you're truly blessed if you find that your love has not been quenched by it. Even more so, if it's grown deeper because of it. This is truly a gift.

Of course, saying "I've learned" might give the impression that I have all these lessons mastered and in hand. Not so much. But I have grown tremendously and I am so, so grateful for the work I've done and for the support I've received. I can't believe the life-long impact 66 hours of therapy has had on me. These are gifts that I will re-open time and time again. Hug your therapist!!!!!

Perfectionism and the Holidays

Being a perfectionist around the holidays can be a truly terrible affliction. Not just for the perfectionist, for you the whole family of one (and we have two in our house!) It creates this vortex of colossal expectations, one-shot opportunities, stressful expense of energy and money, shame, shame, oh, the shame - So. Much. Pressure. Usually with a lot of people around. 
I've always been the holiday queen in this house. My husband is not really into holidays, though he tries to be a good sport (after we've had many conversations about how much they mean to me). But, I do everything I can physically do myself. This includes putting up our exterior lights and getting down most of the heavy boxes. When I get into "holiday mode" I want everything done my way, on my timetable (now!) and with cheer. This is why I do not wait for my husband. Our dynamic usually requires respect and patience and I don't exude either very well in these crucial holiday prep moments. So I do the classic perfectionist move (passive aggressive) of taking it all on myself so it can be done perfectly. I highly recommend this healthy choice.
I'm very emotionally invested in how all my hard work, dreams and extensive planning plays out. Not only must everything go well (exactly as I imagined), look beautiful, but everyone better have fun and be happy -- or else! The icing on the cake is that my therapist likes to point out that somewhere in all this expectation, exhaustion, total lack of grace for myself and others, I'm truly looking for appreciation. So, I run around hoping that everything goes according to my perfect expectations (very interesting when you remember that this involves two very spirited young children) while expecting every member of my family to be filled with gratitude after I've told them all exactly how and how not to have fun. 
This dynamic has never been more apparent to me than last night. I was in a really bad place to begin with, which is an indication to me that it was probably not a great night to add in all the holiday hooplah involved in decorating the house. But I still operate under the illusions that holidays are fun. Sweet, right? So when I'd had a bad day and I love Christmas, why wouldn't I unknowingly make the mistake of suggesting to your energetic six year old that it's the perfect time to decorate? 
As the usual crazy unfolded, I was also trying to put the baby down for a nap, keep our oldest from digging through the breakables, setting everything out "just so", and of course - secretly prepping our homemade Advent calendar because duh, it's also December 1st. Oh, and a school night. And I had an insane Thanksgiving week filled with hosting, endless cooking, traveling alone with 2 kids, lots of driving, working, shopping, plus a SHITTY day to begin with. All that means is, I didn't have any emotional energy to be patient, kind, generous, calm or gracious to myself or my family. This situation called upon my shame voice, just to be on standby for any human moments. All it takes is one broken treasured item, one terse word exchanged for it to start shouting. "See! It doesn't matter how much you run around. This isn't even fun. You're not having any fun and neither is anyone else." Or this self-pity gem, "Why do you even bother? All you do is make your daughter feel bad when you want to re-do her 6 year old decorating because it's not perfect. Sure, you're trying so hard to rein it in and let her help, but you just can't let everything go. You might as well be a tyrant. You've got to "correct" her sometimes and that hurts her. Look at how she's stomping her foot and turning away from you. Now you're shaming her too." Ha, even my shaming voice shames me about shaming my daughter. Who can win in that situation?  
If you thought I was going to end this post with all these loose ends neatly tied up, loaded with tips on how to simplify your life this Christmas season and all my personal anecdotes on how to give yourself grace and be victorious over perfectionism, you're not gonna get that from me. This was where I was at last night, people. Not much growth happens while you sleep. All I'm prepared to do at this point is identify how unhelpful shame is in this hot mess of unfair expectations, very poor self-care, and a total lack of giving grace. Sometimes just seeing yourself objectively is all you can do to say, huh, this isn't working. 
At least I have a whole 36 hours to figure it out, before we plan on cutting down our tree and decorate that thing too.

Give Dignity

As a perfectionist, I struggle with separating my actions from my personal value. Most perfectionists either under-perform or over-perform. The under-performers contemplate a task, feel overwhelmed by their inability to do it perfectly and choose not to attempt it at all. Over-performers do too many tasks, often thoroughly and then project their high-achieving personal expectations onto others all the while feeling resentment and exhaustion because they have to "do everything themselves." Both of these life approaches seriously suck. I get to say that because I'm talking about myself. (I'm the latter, by the way, and waffle between judging and feeling jealous of the former).
I bring this issue up in the midst of my series on personal values because I think it touches on the core of my next value. I'm calling it dignity. For me, part of my reasoning for removing myself from the church environment, at least for now, has been about an inappropriate connection I've felt in church between self and actions. When we condemn people, rather than choices, I think we've made a critical error. We've chosen not to give dignity to the human being in question. 
I firmly believe that human beings were made in the image of God, that we are intended for good, that we are capable of great things, and that ultimately, we are good. Are we also capable of self-destructive patterns that can harm others? Of course. But is that who we really are, in our heart of hearts? Is that where we are happiest, most fulfilled, free and full of love, joy and peace? No. *
Because of this belief, I reject any cultural pattern that uses shame as a way to control behavior. This very much includes the evangelical church. Children are not "bad girls/boys" when they make bad choices. They are precious people who are doing something wrong/unhealthy/harmful/bad, however you want to frame that. But they are not bad when they make bad choices, have a bad moment, feel big emotions, or make the "lesser" choice. They need guidance, tools, encouragement and dignity to make better choices. They don't need shame.
I cannot overstate how important the difference is between these two approaches. When we make someone feel bad about WHO THEY ARE based on WHAT THEY DO, we're often perpetuating the exact reasons why people make bad choices in the first place - because they feel like shit. (I'm also really working on not framing everything as "good" or "bad" in the first place, but that's another conversation. I'm using good/bad framework to make a greater point here).
Using this lens, I see the people around me, my children and myself very differently. I'm working to no longer pressure myself to behave in order to make others approve of me, that their approval somehow makes me something that I'm not without it. It's revolutionized the way I approach my faith. I'm beginning to learn what grace really is! And guess what? It's AWESOME. I'm replacing the idea that I'm terrible and He's so great with I'm great and He thinks so too. He's my source and He's my friend. While I tend to be hard on myself, He's soft towards me. In my personal experience (which I understand is wildly subjective), He is always sweeter, kinder, gentler and more patient that I am with myself. After all this time, I'm still blown away by Him.
It's taken me awhile to identify shame and its destructive nature in me. If you're not entirely sure what I'm talking about, check out Brene Brown's extensive work on the subject. She has done amazing research and her descriptions of what shame feels like and how to combat it have been really helpful to me. When you shut yourself down because your feelings are "stupid/dramatic/dumb/overreacting", that's shame. When you decide not to communicate what you're thinking and feeling because "they probably won't listen to me anyway/it's not important/it'll just make them mad", that's shame. When you don't want to do something but you do it anyway because you feel like you should, that's often motivated by shame. When you don't communicate what you need because "it's too much/not worth it/silly", that's shame. 
We have GOT to give ourselves dignity or we'll never be able to extend it to others. We don't give ourselves dignity so we can dole it out (also an important distinction). We give ourselves dignity because God put it in us when He made us. Humans are inherently valuable regardless of belief, age, sex, race, sexual orientation, nationality, socioeconomic status and political party. We are worthy of respect and dignity BY NATURE. We need to acknowledge that within ourselves and within the people all around us, especially people we don't love or agree with. It's so insanely easy to assume ill motive of others who come from a different perspective. But they deserve dignity and their views are valid, even if you disagree. 
The lack of giving others dignity (I also see this as giving people the benefit of the doubt) is so clearly seen in how conservative Christians treat Barack Obama. Yes, apparently I'm going there. He's a person, guys. He's not the anti-christ, terrorist, Muslim that you say he is. He's a person. You may disagree with him politically. That's fine. We're lucky to live in a country where that is perfectly acceptable. Use your voting power and your influence to make change. In your disagreement, don't forget to acknowledge that he is a human being and therefore, has inherent dignity that needs to be treated with respect. (My husband next to me would like to add that this disparaging treatment, of course, happened to George W. Bush as well. Unfortunately, hatred runs on both sides of this partisan river. This is one of the many reasons I try to stay out of political arguments - says the woman who probably just started one).
When we focus on sin elimination in the church (always working on some sin area in our lives) we completely miss the point of grace. God is not in the business of behavior modification. Of course, we are not entirely separate from our actions. But neither are we the sum of them. The story of the adulterous woman comes to mind. The Jews bring before Jesus a woman they caught in the act of adultery and ask if she is to be stoned (according to Old Testament law). Not even going to start ranting here about where the eff the man is in this scenario, but seriously? WTF? Jesus gets down on her level, writes something on the ground (we don't know what) and asks the crowd to stone her if they haven't sinned themselves. They all walk away, he looks into her eyes and tells her she's safe ("I don't condemn you") and she can make different choices ("Go and sin no more), not because she's a bad person and needs to shape up, but because she is loved! She matters! He is giving her dignity. 
This is a huge deal for a number of reasons. He had every authority to lay into her. Man, he would have been fully qualified to condemn her. The object of this gift of dignity is a woman. Seriously, in this culture, especially an "impure" woman was of very little value. He spoke to her. He got on her level. He defended her publicly. He did not condemn her. He also empowered her to do good. If he can give her dignity, how can we not give it to her and to ourselves as well? 
Who are the "adulterous women" in our modern culture? Certainly, women are still struggling to be given dignity. Definitely anyone in a racial minority. There is certainly a lot of angst among the various religious groups in our country right now. Homosexual and transgender individuals most definitely. Poor people, yup. How can we give dignity to them? How can we stop seeing them as "them" and begin to see them as "us"? Because let's face it, folks: every human has inherent dignity given to them by God. Don't take it away. Be in the business of giving it back.

* As a side note, I will say that I believe there is a point in a person's life where they can cultivate their evil leanings, leading to a very active, purposefully destructive lifestyle. While I believe this goes against our intended nature, it is clearly evident in those who take great pleasure in hurting others. I'm more speaking to us normal folks, not the sadists in the world.

Righteous Indignation or Hatred?

I'm wrestling with something. I've always struggled to sit in my anger. I feel like I have to apologize when I'm angry. In some ways, I think this is because I'm a woman. Our culture seems to value male anger as authoritative and female anger as bitching. So I tend to repress my anger, partly because it's difficult for me to advocate for myself (see: caretaking issues) and anger tends to draw negative attention. It also does not appear "nice" which I think our evangelical culture pushes on women a lot in the name of "service". 
I say these things because I am angry about something. There have been Facebook threads again this week highlighting the intensely bigoted statements of a well-known evangelical pastor, Mark Driscoll. The statements are old (10-15 years) and they are highly offensive. You may think that because they are old, he should not be held accountable for his words. But his theology is very present both in his old statements as well as in his current ministry. He's genuinely anti-women. He sees us as lesser, weak, temptresses in need of being lorded over by men. He preaches these ideas in the name of God. He's also incredibly mean about it. Feel free to read up on him. He's unapologetic. 
I responded to a thread recently where a friend of mine posted this article, stating that he should not be in church leadership. As people were agreeing with her, I posted a pretty angry, name-calling agreement venting my frustration with people who follow this guy. It's more my theological grievances coming out again and it's further exacerbated by my own sexist church baggage and my long history with taking on causes (again, caretaking issues). 
A man responded by saying that we were only fighting hatred with hatred and that this was sad. I felt him shaming my anger and I almost agreed with him. I have a long-standing conditioning that says when questioned about my feelings, they're probably too intense or even completely misplaced. But then I really sat in why I was angry. I was angry at the bullying that theology like Mark Driscolls fuels in church culture. I'm angry at the way this theology makes people feel about themselves, about their inherent value (or lack thereof) and most importantly to me, about how God sees them. This theology perpetuates exactly what I'm fighting: that who we are inherently is not enough, that because I'm a woman with a voice or because my friend is gay and loves God or because my husband is a tender, loving father, we are warped, wrong, less, invalid. And not just according to some extremist in Seattle but according to the God who made us! 
I'm going to let you in on a secret, the conclusion I've come to in my anger. I believe my desire to advocate for the bullied, to come alongside the marginalized, to find my voice, to listen to the stories of others, is not in fact, hatred but obedience to the voice of God within me. He tells me to be brave, to speak out, to listen. I know my theology is under construction. As a perfectionist, I want an "end date" to that process, but as an earnest seeker of truth, I hope I remain under construction til the day I die. But even if I don't have a lot figured out, I've figured out that anger can be holy. 
I know God doesn't need me to defend him. I know that even my fellow comrades in condemnation (according to Driscoll) don't need me to be their voice. But that outcry comes from within me. And I will not be silent. 

Setback or Opportunity?

This week our family has had a setback. When I got pregnant with Penny about 18 months ago, I spent 2 weeks in bed. I know that a lot of women have to go on full bed rest throughout their pregnancies, so 2 weeks probably seem like a breeze. But for us, it was really tough. Essentially, when all the hormones shifted in my body, my SI joint went out of place, which means that my hips were literally off-balance. My entire body was visibly crooked. Unfortunately, your hips are kinda critical:) Any kind of weight-bearing activity (standing, bending, twisting, even sitting) requires that your hips work. Mine decided to stop working, to the point that I could not even physically get out of bed without Tim helping me and even then, it was incredibly painful. He learned to wash my hair, which turns out to be quite different than men's hair. It was cute, really. 
In that process, I learned to slow down. If you've known me for many years, you're probably thinking IT'S ABOUT TIME. I've always been an opportunist. To me, why say no to an opportunity that you WANT to take? There is no guarantee in life that any opportunity will come around again. This attitude is what had me spending 6 weeks in Argentina at 17 as a full-fledged member of a mission team with 3 other "adults." I also think I have some sort of shame issue with the idea of regrets. I don't want to have regrets and so if I say no to an opportunity that I want to take and it doesn't come around again, won't I feel regret? Still figuring that one out. 
All of that to say, slowing down was entirely necessary and incredibly uncomfortable for me. I had a lot of regular commitments and rhythms at the time that I just couldn't do anymore. (Once I was able to get back out of bed, I still fatigued easily the whole pregnancy). I stopped working. I stopped going to church. I quit my chorus. The things I brought into my life greatly revolved around my physical health - chiropractic appointments, yoga, massage therapy. I had my first real bouts with anxiety. I got overwhelmed emotionally really easily. I learned to only do things that didn't stress me out and that list was short! 
Slowing down required me to sit in where I get my value from. At that point, our friend Ryan had just died; we were only a year separated from ministry; and I had just gotten pregnant. Being a performance-based person, not doing anything I didn't want to do (and just figuring out what those things were!) was super challenging for me. I had become a really good "yes man." Needless to say, pregnancy the second time around forced a lot of personal growth in me and affected our whole family. It was hard but also really good because it allowed us to re-prioritize and live into our developing values all the more. 
After Penny was born, we were in a bad place. Postpartum depression is really, really tough and in our family situation, it was really serious, really fast. That created a lot of family dynamics that were traumatic for all of us. It required a short-term separation. It required therapy for all 3 of us (Tim and I are each still in ongoing therapy). Our families and friends stepped in massively with staying with us, feeding us, helping with the kids, listening to us, financially providing for us, you name it. Very. Hard. Time. 
We've spent months working on our individual "stuff" as well as how our stuff affects our family dynamic. This is hard work, painful, and long. It is so difficult to sit in the tension that self-work creates. I'm so incredibly grateful to have the marriage, the friends, the family, and the therapist that I have. I've seen this go down in the lives of people around me with majorly different results. We are so, so lucky.
This brings me to last weekend. Tim had a workshop (big work event) all day Saturday and Sunday was Father's Day. Time to spoil daddy. I was so excited! Being a caretaker, I love this stuff and I get my jollys from taking everything on, obviously. Well, I was carrying Penny up the stairs while Tim and Macy were at the workshop and I felt my back spasm. I got Penny on the changing table and it continued to burn and pull. AGGGHHH!!! Not again! (Even though the pain is in my lower back, it's my hips again for sure). 
Here I am, home alone with a 19 pound baby, and I threw out my back. I spent the day doing as little as I could pull off with Penny and hit the sheets the second Tim got home. It's in my nature to be super bummed about Father's Day (completely canceled) and highly concerned about my exhausted husband having to take on all 3 of us when it was clearly planned to be the opposite. He had to miss work all week because I can't lift the baby. I've spent most of my time in bed. It's been lonely, depressing, discouraging, and exhausting.
Here's the thing though, and I think this is a result of a lot of good therapy: this week was an opportunity. I did a lot of escaping (I'm embarrassed to say that I've officially watched many episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians), as well as some great self-care (journaling, reading). But this week, though it feels like a setback, is an opportunity to practice the skills we've all been working on. And I hate to say it, me being completely obliterated physically is really the only dynamic we're willing to sit with this stuff in, at least to this level. It absolutely forces our hand. If I can keep my family going, I will, no matter the cost to myself. It grieves me to admit that. I'm really working on it. I've made some really great strides, but that is still my natural inclination and our family dynamic supports that. 
So I'm learning to rest. I'm learning to speak into my disappointment. I'm willing to cry and journal about my relationship with shame and how it comes knocking when I'm not able to fulfill my responsibilities. I'm not taking on my husband's stress (this is so painful for me). I'm holding my children who miss me and empathizing with them. Tim and I are communicating where we're both at and sitting in the fact that our feelings really differ from each other right now. It's awkward. It's hard. It's sad. It's beautiful. This is our life and this is what growth looks like.