The Eight Secrets of Emotional Self-Care

item-img1You hear a lot about self care out there – the massages, the meditation apps, the healthy walks. The apple a day.

But what about your emotional life? How do you live so your emotions generate less stress and more happiness?

Here are eight simple guidelines I find invaluable as I focus more and more on my own self care. May they serve you well …

1. Honor your emotions. Feel them, listen to them and let them naturally cycle through you. This is one of the wonders of the human organism. We are designed to constantly cleanse our psyches by allowing our emotions to move through us. But first, we have to allow them to do that.

Delaying, ignoring or ‘stuffing’ your feelings does no one any good. (P.S. This does not mean going off and dumping those emotions on someone else, willy-nilly. See # 3 below.)

Reminder: your anger and your fear are here to protect you. So let them do their job.

2. Realize it’s all about you and your mother. We are always processing emotional sludge, most of which we think has nothing to do with us. But actually, all of it has to do with us — and the gigantic filters we have that constantly trigger memories from our past.

When something challenging or even joyful happens, these memories pour through our subconscious. They can make us euphoric, just as they can render us mute with anger when, say, someone snaps at us.

Believe it or not, that oversized, white-hot rage you feel when a car cuts you off is a flicker from your past, albeit a strong one.
You can tell you’re triggered because the event usually does not warrant the huge reaction you have.

Good self-care means gently reminding yourself you are triggered. Then allow your feelings to flow in the quiet of your own private space, until eventually they resolve.

3. Become humble. It’s hard to be a humble human, and yet, when you are, you set yourself free. Humility means you don’t need to be perfect … nor do you need to be right.

In fact, you don’t have to be anything other than just good old you, as you are, right here and right now.

Humility also means everyone else gets to be the equally flawed creatures they are, as you remember we are all in this together.

Ironically, humility insists you give yourself the self-care you need first, so you can then turn your eyes in service to the rest of the world. It means listening with curiosity, then learning.

Always … we are learning as we go.

4. Know (and express) your boundaries. Being clear on your boundaries and setting them in a kind way is a great life skill.
Sometimes we don’t get to do that as kids, so we are learning now as adults. Which is great!

The key is to honor our emotions (see #1 above) and then find the courage to speak up kindly. Requests work well here.

If you feel shy about this, keep this in mind. People often appreciate it when you are clear about your boundaries. Then they don’t have to awkwardly wonder, guess and try to accommodate you anyway.

5. Own your own stuff … and nothing more. Good emotional self-care would include only being responsible for ‘your side of the street’. Take note if you come from an abused background, and you tend to say you’re sorry a lot.

You don’t have to apologize to someone who dumps on you for no good reason, any more than you have to apologize for inclement weather.

That would be someone else’s business … not yours.

By the same token, always be honest when conflicts happen. So if you actually do need to make an apology, you do so.

This is how you find your way back to true ease and freedom –- which is the heart of emotional self-care.

6. Forgive and set yourself free. That sticky pile of resentments you’ve been carrying around is a massive energy suck. Within those upsets is usually a piece of you, also waiting to be forgiven.

The fact is that conflicts are seldom one sided. It takes two people to make a snit. But once your issue forgiveness yourself and the other person … and you own your own part as well … your heart can relax. And your soul can breathe once more.

7. Stay out of harm’s way. Your emotions are always on, like finely tuned radar, reading the people and places all around you, scanning for safety.

So it’s worth noticing when you find yourself feeling a bit uncomfortable or even mildly frightened by someone else, or the place you are in. That’s when you may need to leave. Or, if you can’t, simply pull down your ‘invisible shield’. That would be your inner protective armor, which is always at the ready waiting to help.

Also bear in mind that you can still love someone, and even respect them, though you may not want to spend much time with them. (I’m thinking of difficult family members here.)

Above all, be true to yourself. Your guidance system is on for a reason.

8. Be patient with yourself. Did you know that you are a work in progress until the day you die? But then, isn’t the point of life to learn, evolve and grow?

That means you won’t ‘get it right’ the first time, or maybe even the fiftieth. But you might just do it the fifty-first time.

Here is to your tender heart.

If you serve her well, she will most abundantly serve you.

How to Get Along at Dysfunctional Family Get-Togethers (the Buddhist Version)

For many holiday seasons over the past 15 years I’ve published variations on this essay. This year, in honor of the wonderful Buddhist sangha I joined at the East Bay Meditation Center, I’ve crafted this variation.

jizosanta2-500x330Ah, family. We can’t live without them, yet sometimes we can’t really live with them, either. Especially at the holidays, when we are all just a little extra keyed up.

For every ounce of deep, family-bonded joy we feel on the holidays, there’s sure to be at least one moment when we want climb into Aunt Nanny’s coat closet and have a silent scream.

Trouble is, children are watching. Elderly people you see once a year are watching. You really do want to keep it together.

Ah, grasshopper … this is actually a teachable moment. It goes back to the original Buddhist belief that there will be suffering. Not only will there be suffering, you are entirely at choice in how you engage in it. Author and teacher Robert Thurman refers to this phenomenon as ‘changing the channel.”

Changing that channel, of course, can be damn near impossible. So this is when help must be evoked. A prayer can be handy.

Like this one, the Buddhist ‘Extended Compassion Practice’ from the Divine Abodes. It goes like this:

If I cannot be loving in this moment, may I be kind

If I cannot be kind, may I simply notice

If I cannot just notice, may I not cause harm

If I cannot not cause harm, may I cause the least amount of harm possible

May I strive to not exile anyone from my heart

I particularly love that last point. Because I really hate it when I exile someone from my heart. It feels just awful … and like all of us, I do exactly that from time to time.

When my mother was still alive, there was always one moment every holiday when she’d be a complete outcast as far as my heart is concerned. I’d be filled with my hurt feelings, or my righteous indignation, or my screaming anxiety that at any moment she might blow up.

It really didn’t matter what happened, or what kind of story I told myself, the pattern was always the same. Show up at home, be genuinely delighted, and fairly delightful as well. But by Day 3, things had shifted. You just knew the fur was going to fly once the drinks got flowing.

Back then the last thing on my mind was whether or not I exiled anyone from my heart. Instead, I was full of my hurt and angry inner monologue, my carefully written story of injustice.

And yet, here – exactly here – is where I needed to be careful. This is exactly where I actually could have asked for help, and so been able to keep my cool.

I could have taken myself away at the appropriate moment, closed the door and meditated for a while.

I could have pulled out a piece of paper and done a little remedial journaling.

I could have asked God for help as I repeated a prayer like the one above again and again.

And most of all, I would have known that exiling anyone from my heart hurts me most of all.

But, of course, I didn’t have access to such good wisdom back in those days. What I had was a pattern of dysfunctional family drama in which I played a key role. Today, however, it’s a different story.

Now I know what to do when I feel myself getting anxious. I take myself away, and figure out what’s causing me upset. I allow myself to have whatever dark feelings I’m having away alone, in a nice safe place. And I give myself some space to have those feelings.

Then I remember that we’re all full of awkwardness, upsets, and the swirl of emotions. And most of the time, we truly do regret our hasty, unskilled remarks. The fact is, we’re all in this leaky lifeboat together, and so we must learn to row it together.

If we can live in a place of self-compassion, and general compassion to all around us, that rowing is going to happen a whole lot more easily. But, of course, that’s what this holiday season is really all about, isn’t it?

When I keep mulling over my feelings, and basting in the juices of righteous indignation, I do nothing more than dull my heart. That helps no one, least of all me.

A companion prayer to the one above puts it this way:

May I strive to not cause myself suffering

May I strive to keep my heart open to the suffering of the world

May I learn to decrease suffering in my own life

May I learn to decrease the suffering of others

This holiday season,  if you are fortunate enough to be with family, may you honor yourself and them as the profound teachers that they are. And may you give them — and yourself — a great big break and a whole lot of love.

Most of all, here’s to your own fragile heart, my friend. May you tend it well.

Happy Holidays.