Conceptualizing self-care and self-love

I’ve been noticing more negative feelings in myself recently, like sadness, impatience, and irritation. Something that I’ve taken from one of Sharon Salzberg’s guided metta meditations that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my life is the strategy of, when you notice that it’s difficult for you to extend loving kindness to others, to first try to extend it to yourself. This is a big part of the reason why I’ve been revisiting the idea of self-love and self-care.

Self-care is something that I’d never really tried to define for myself. In the past, I’ve associated it with things like doing sheet masks, drinking tea, and taking time off of school and work, without really thinking about what those things were trying to accomplish and whether they were even effective ways to care for myself.

My friend Nicole introduced me to the Internal Family Systems model a couple weeks ago, which is a style of therapy that “combines systems thinking with the view that the mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities, each with its own viewpoint and qualities”[1]. I’ve been listening to an audio book to learn more about IFS, and I’ve also noticed this theory naturally appearing in other areas of my life.

The model that we all comprise a “true self” and other various parts has been helpful for me to use in thinking about how to care for and love myself, even if I’m not applying it in a strict sense.

For instance, although I would like to eat more healthfully, I often find myself overeating and/or eating food that I know won’t make me feel good (like candy). In addition, I am often not mindful of my physical needs, because I spend most of my time in my head and not in my body! Something that I’ve found really motivating and evocative is to focus on extending love and care to the part of me that is just my physical body. A prompt that I implicitly use is “what are stereotypes of things that bodies like?”. Some things that come up are: stretching out, being hydrated, being clean, eating whole foods, getting enough rest. When I want to perform those acts of self-care, I visualize my true self taking care of my physical body, much as I take care of my plants.

Doing this makes me feel as my true self is a parent taking care of their children. And I think it’s amazing that my perception of self-love is associated with how much I explicitly demonstrate that taking care of myself is important to me. This understanding has helped me explain why using luxurious skincare products makes me feel self-love—the fact that some part of me willingly spends the money to buy these products is a way that I reinforce my self-value to myself. In other words, I’m worth it! Ideally in the future I will rely less on money and material goods to communicate self-value to myself, but I think at the moment it’s an effective love language.

My improv shows!

I’ve been performing bi-weekly with the house team Mercy Ghosting at Steel City Improv Theater for the past few months. Our shows have been paused due to the coronavirus, but I thought I would post the recordings of all the ones we’ve done so far (with my fake titles added)! The shows are around 20 minutes long, and I’ve linked to the timestamp of the beginning of our sets, but feel free to watch the rest of the videos for more improv 🙂

Poetry contest at the prison

 

My father’s the dairy delivery agent?!

 

Death in upstate New York

 

Jenkins the high barber and the clam creature

 

First show! Montages

Lived updates

There’s this idea that’s been floating around my head and my life for a while that I’ve been trying to find a good name for. The experience I want to capture is: sometimes I deliberately update my belief about something, like “I can trust people more” or “I can feel good about wearing a crop top,” and that changes my system 2 attitude about it, but I still need to have some lived experiences supporting/validating that belief for me to truly be able to internalize it. For instance, letting people into my life more and being able to grow from those experiences or actually wearing crop tops and feeling really comfortable in them. So the name I’ve landed on for that (for now) is lived update, which is a combination of the terms lived experience and belief update. I think it’s somewhat evocative, but I don’t know if it’s the one! Another way to put it is that you change the way you think about something, but it takes something more for your actual belief about that thing to change.

Kind of as an aside, I think these lived updates can come from so many places. One thing that I realized while moving my clothes from the washer to the dryer is that mundane activities can teach you profound lessons. For instance, I think waiting for a timer or alarm to go off is actually quite analogous to living with the knowledge of your own death, and being more ok with backtracking (or the feeling of backtracking) during a walk can be a helpful exercise in identity and humility. A grain of sand contains the entire universe ☺️

Metaphors for some recent belief updates

These came up for me as I was walking today. These are illustrations of some belief updates I made during the circling retreat last week.

  1. Just because you don’t offer someone your coat in the cold doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It also doesn’t mean you’d never offer someone your coat, but even if that were the case it would be alright. You can still continue striving towards that.
  2. I don’t know if this happens to other people, but sometimes I’ll be listening to music with my phone in my bag or in my pocket, and something on the screen might get pressed randomly. I was listening to a song that I had queued up, and was over midway through it, when the rewind button was pressed and the song started over from the beginning. Just because I didn’t want to re-listen to the entire song doesn’t mean that I didn’t truly want to listen to the song initially.
  3. It makes a lot of sense that if you’re walking and then run to make a crosswalk, to keep walking after you finish crossing. You could also continue running.
  4. Another one not from walking: I don’t need to continually prove/try to signal that I’m not stealing something from a store. Not only because I (probably) would never actually steal anything, but also because it would allow me to give others the opportunity to trust me and for me to practice receiving that trust.

A helpful reframing of consumerism

Today is Black Friday, which means there’s even more messaging than usual reminding us of how much we “need” and pressuring us to buy. I’ve definitely seen a lot of ads on social media that put me into a scarcity mindset and make me feel stressed out!

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I’ve been grappling a bit with consumerism and my place in the capitalist economy. One internal move that I’ve been trying to cultivate in response to these ads (this week and before) was to remind myself of how the products being advertised to me were just fixtures aimed at making me feel dependent on my job and thus trapping me in the loop of consumption and exploitation. However, on many levels, this wasn’t actually a helpful thought.

People have many reasons for wanting to do something. When it comes to consumption, there are external reasons (e.g., advertising, social pressures) and internal reasons. Often the external reasons will create/feed into the internal reasons, but I think the core of all the internal reasons is that: We are all suffering. And we think that buying that one thing will make our lives better and thus make us feel happier. A lot of marketing has to do with facilitating the construction of that narrative in your head for the given product, but I think there is some truth to those thoughts and no longer want to act as if materialism is a purely negative capitalist mindset.

For instance, I was talking to my friend Sofia-Jeanne about accessories and clothing when I visited New York a few weeks ago. She said something that really resonated with me, about how, for a long time, she tried to not care about her appearance, because how she looks shouldn’t matter. But she stopped resisting when she realized that, even if she wanted to believe that her external state shouldn’t affect her internal state, it did—and expressing herself through her dress contributed to her confidence and the way she carried herself.

With that in mind, I think that, while it’s true that there are many things that we don’t need that are marketed to us as though we do, there are also a lot of things that we want that we genuinely believe will make our lives better somehow. (How accurate that belief is is something that may be best learned through trial and error. Life is short! And most places offer free returns anyways.)

After identifying the internal reason(s) for why I want something, it’s been really helpful for me to think, “I’m doing this because I want to help myself.” This thought is a gentle reminder that the externally-induced scarcity mindset and anxiety are not(!!) helping me, and allows me to maintain a healthier outlook towards consumerism and my consumption.

Things I’ve been confused about recently

  • How busy should I be? When I first moved to Pittsburgh and started working, I didn’t really know what to do with my weekday nights, but I knew that I wanted to make the most of my free time. Now, I have recurring events 3 out of 5 nights during the week (improv class, therapy, and Chinese tutoring), and I usually have some other type of appointment or performance a day out of most weeks. As I’ve started trying to establish a workout routine and meet up with more people outside of work, I wonder what the right balance between scheduling things, leaving room for spontaneity, alone time, and personal work time (doing chores, personal errands, etc.) is.
  • Senses of self that are Not Helpful:
    • A fungible being/a worker
    • A person completing a list of tasks every day
    • Input/output machine where the output is how something makes me feel
    • Positivity generator
  • Looking to the past as a reminder of what kinds of ways of being are possible, while not being constrained by/stuck in it
  • What do you do/what can you do when you realize that you’re not living mindfully?
  • Consumerist/materialist/convenience-oriented desires vs. minimalism/sustainability. How can I use money to counteract the negative effects that working has had on me? Is it even right to ask that question?
  • Performativity

Thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying

It’s really strange to acknowledge this, but I’ve just finished my first month working at Duolingo. Before I started this job, it was hard for me to visualize what working would be like. The fact that it was going to be such a new environment, and even the idea of working full-time (with no definite stop date, for the first time in my life) actually made visualizing the transition impossible for me. When I tried to imagine what working would be like, my mind would literally just come up blank.

This has happened to me at other times too, basically whenever I’m anticipating something very new or foreign, for which I’ve had little context for. For instance, I could not imagine what the Dipabhāvan retreat would be like—I’d never had an experience that I felt like I could base my expectations of the retreat off of.

The strange thing (which I don’t actually think is too uncommon) is that whenever I’m in this kind of position, where I can’t visualize some aspect of my near future, I feel like I’m about to die. And I think it makes sense, because in those periods, the future me just doesn’t exist in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about this feeling-like-I’m-about-to-die recently, not because I can’t imagine my future right now, but because I recently finished reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s In Love With the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying. The book constantly reiterates the idea that the transition between life and death is not just something that happens at the end of your life. We’re constantly dying in small ways, as we shed various parts of our identities. In this way, I was right to perceive myself as about to die before I started working, or before the meditation retreat. The part of me that couldn’t fathom what those experiences would be like died, and transitioned into one that could.

For the past couple years, I’ve been focusing a lot on explicitly cultivating gratitude. Although some of the practices I used to do feel a bit forced to me now, I’ve inadvertently realized that thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying really allows me to see the blessings in difficult or uncomfortable situations. For instance, I’ve been feeling frustrated at how slowly I’m picking up the knowledge/skills I need for my job, but when I remind myself that nothing is permanent, and that my identity as a new employee is temporary, I actually feel appreciation for my current confused state. I just imagine that one day I might look back on this time with a lot of nostalgia. When I’ve “figured everything out,” I might miss the uncertainty and all the possibilities that accompanied it. A smaller and more everyday type of example is when I feel impatient while waiting for the bus or an appointment, I remind myself that my identity as someone who is waiting is going to die soon, which helps me to loosen my attachment to the future and future identities/states and brings me back to the present moment.

The only time you can live is the present!

Not wanting the best

Four years ago, around the time I started thinking about design, one of my friends visiting Princeton remarked to me how much he liked the campus, because he could feel all the care that was put into its design. At the time, I (in my head) immediately disagreed with him, one of my dominant objections being: if the people who designed campus really cared about student life, they would make more direct routes (diagonals) between buildings.

I look back on that response now and find it really amusing. Not only have I cultivated a lot more appreciation for Princeton’s campus since then (funny how our experiences shape our perceptions of a place 😊), but my design sensibilities have also evolved. I used to think that good design was all about efficiency—how can I best enable the user to accomplish their goals?—but that’s engineering, not design!

It may be kind of weird to read that, because the logical consequence is not wanting or designing for “the best.” But I think that in design and in life, it’s more important to focus on enabling a range of experiences, rather than on optimality. For instance, it would certainly be more efficient if all of the grass at Princeton were replaced with cement, but what kind of experience would that be? Campus would certainly be less beautiful.

I’ve been reminding myself of this mindset recently while traveling. It’s really easy for me to get stuck into thought patterns like, “I want to eat at the best restaurants” or “I want to make sure I get the most out of this trip.” That’s one of the main reasons why traveling can be so stressful for me (usually in the days right after I arrive, before I remember that “the point of travel is to be flexible”1), because I feel this pressure to have the best experience. I don’t identify as a perfectionist, but this is definitely a perfectionist tendency. Aggressively checking TripAdvisor/Google reviews/Yelp, feeling like I have to check certain places/foods/experiences off a list, documenting everything to prove something to people afterwards… In so many crucial ways, overplanning shelters you from experience. And I’ve realized that having a life full of experiences, a range of experiences, feels so much more rich and desirable to me than a life filled with attempts at getting the best. It’s also really liberating.

I want to close with this quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist that has been on my mind recently. Spoiler alert! The context: after Santiago goes to the Egyptian Pyramids to search for his treasure, he gets beat up and robbed, and doesn’t actually find anything. But in the process, he learns from one of the thieves where his treasure actually is. This quote is from when he goes to that location and starts digging.

“You old sorcerer,” the boy shouted up to the sky. “You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so that I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn’t you have saved me from that?”

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”


1Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes