Self-harm vs. self-care – how to look after yourself?
Why this article and webinar? Because the opposite of self-care is self-harm. In many cases we have been using alcohol for a long time as a coping mechanism. To deal with our negative thoughts, because they can be overwhelming and they are easy to drown out with alcohol to manage stress. Because alcohol has a quick impact once it hits our brains to deal with things that feel outside our control – parenting, caring, relationships, divorce.
Alcohol as a reward
Also because we have used alcohol for so long we don’t have the energy or even the inclination to try anything else. Our brains have been chemically altered and it takes more than one day off to get it back int shape. We are psychologically addicted.
That long term trauma to our brains has damaged our empathy and emotional intelligence – it has literally stunted their growth.
Because society tells us that alcohol is a reward. That alcohol is self-care. And we want to believe that.
I tell you all this because I want you to know how important self-care is to your journey to change your drinking – because self-harm using alcohol is your default position.
That even after 5 years sober I need to learn the skills of self-care to develop my resilience for the long term.
That self-care is a journey in itself, and one that is complementary to your moderating or quitting drinking.
And because I have been looking for a while to find a way to express to you all that self-care is not only about a disco bath. It is a vital skill to becoming the (more) sober person you want to be.
A few blogs by friends, which I will reference at the end, have really helped.
The societal norms
Women – taught that their value is in caring for others, often to the detriment of their own wellbeing, may think self-care is at best indulgent and at worst deeply selfish.
Men – taught that self-care is weakness and shows they “can’t handle it.”
But most of all we have been socialised from birth to believe that alcohol equals ‘happy times’, ‘celebration’, and ‘reward’. We watch on telly as soap stars going through trauma use it as a ‘comfort’ and our short-term experiences bear that out. As alcohol hits the the pleasure centres of our brains and impacts our dopamine levels we feel happier, more relaxed and less inhibited.
That may be okay if we used it once every now and again, in moderation. But we don’t. We have been sold a myth, one that we are all to easy to accept, and that we know is perpetuated by society quite effectively.
But alcohol has changed us. It has altered our brains and made us tired. Being tired makes us less resilient and less able to change. It turns us into people we don’t like and full of remorse, shame and headaches.
We have begun to use it as a tool of self-harm. Which is why many of us have got here because we have got to a point where we can’t carry on harming ourselves so much (but we still can’t yet see what the alternative can be) or we have fallen off the wagon and we are now hitting it harder than before.
I also have to say at this point that it is not about how often or how much you drink – you might want to try and compare yourself with others, but it really is about knowing how alcohol is affecting you, and how and when you are drinking.
Helping ourselves first
You are here – it is a great first step as you are at a point where you are willing to care for yourself ahead of others, in order to help others. But what we know intellectually is harder than doing it.
I believe strongly that learning self-care is something you need to do alongside changing your drinking. Doing it is important as when you take out something that has been occupying a huge amount of mental and real time, you create lots of space to fill. Plus you cannot change such an ingrained habit with willpower alone. You need something enticing to help you surf the urge/ride the discomfort, and things to look forward to that feel indulgent for when you have navigated an awkward situation. A reward that is not booze.
Most importantly, learning new skills and techniques to look after yourself gives you the right emotional scaffolding for your life, so that when you hit a bump in the road, a triggering situation, you have the fortification to weather the storm. You can begin to navigate life in high definition without the aid of your long term ‘alcohol crutch’.
The more you navigate difficult times without alcohol, the easier it will become, and your sober days will become months and then years.
How to self-care
Feel your feelings without judging them
Create space and permission to feel your feelings without judging them.
What does that mean? You spend lots of time judging yourself for feeling the ‘wrong’ thing or worrying about having the ‘wrong’ reaction to something. You can get emotionally stuck – reading through those situations on repeat until you pick up a drink to stop them.
I do it even now. I find myself replaying situations until I feel totally overwhelmed. As an activator I want a conclusion, and an end. But of course relationships and reactions to other people are never easy – they take time and energy and may never be perfect. But letting them take all of your emotional bandwidth is exhausting and counterproductive. For both you and the other people involved.
How do you do it?
Do something slow and thoughtful. Deep stretches, or, yes mindfulness. Just sit still and breath. Walk or swim – no music, no other distractions.
Then think about what you are thinking and feeling. If you find you are judging yourself, then just notice it. Don’t tell yourself off for it, or judge yourself for judging yourself. Just notice it and let it float past. It’s taken years of practice.
- I need to get back in the pool – it was working
- Know I cannot solve every emotion and it be done and dusted – emotions are perpetual
- I know I need to talk to solve problems and need to find the right person to do that with.
Reflective self-care practices in addition to kind self-care practices
What does that mean? Kind self-care practices are things like massages, hot baths, and sleeping in. Reflective self-care activities are things that allow you to reflect on your emotional landscape. You need to do both.
How do you do it? For kind self-care start to list things that make you feel different things – you may want to list things that make you laugh, feel joy, feel comforted, feel loved, feel content, feel relaxed. Try and populate your list with tastes, textures, temperatures, sounds, people, different surroundings. With things that take two minutes, and things that take 20 minutes. These are the things you need to have at hand when you need to surf the urge, but also to become your replacement reward structure. More on that later.
For reflective self-care you need to find ways that help you explore your new inner world. It may take you a while to find techniques you like – and remember the exploration is just as important – so let yourself roam freely – draw, journal or meditation, dance five rhythms.
By reflecting you may be able to identify acts of kind self-care, or changes that are within your control and where you can take action.
- Something I need to get better at
- I know I need to do but am being stubborn – in itself an act of self-harm
- I need to remember this is something I get better at if I do it more often
- I need to make a longer list of kind self-care that does not involve food.
Bring joy back into your life
In her blog on this topic, Kate McCombs talks about playfulness – letting yourself go. If you have been drinking a lot, you may feel that playfulness is something you can only find with alcohol in your system. You like the playful you, but now only associate it being possible with booze. You feel less playful without it.
The other important thing about joy is that when we are trying hard to change something – lose weight, cut out drinking and so on (and often we do those hard things together) – we focus so much on the goal that we ending up boring ourselves. But without some joy to balance things out, we will find it much harder to achieve our aims.
What does this mean for drinkers?
The truth is that all alcohol was doing was letting your inhibitions go, and you can learn to do that without drinking. It actually does come naturally after a while, once the self-consciousness about not drinking begins to subside.
But that does not mean you cannot actively work on finding new joys – after all, how much fun really was flashing your boobs at a CCTV camera when pissed the following day? Was the night really such a bundle of laughs when you can only remember that there were laughs but not the actual detail!
You need to reframe joy as the sober you. What did you used to like doing, what would you like to try now? What can you say yes to now that you can get up in the morning or drive? How can you push your boundaries and meet new people? What is the worse that can happen?
- I love watching others enjoy themselves
- I like pushing myself to do something that scares me, and then it all turns out to be alright
- I like remembering the second half of plays
- Being spontaneous
- Going to something I am not sure about that turns out to be wonderful – or not, and then have a laugh about it
- I like walking and pushing myself
- I like small interactions with strangers
- I like sharing knowledge with others – about tea
Self-care is believing in yourself without a magic wand
There is a danger in believing in magic wands and perfection. Every time I feel a bit low, often because I wanted to do something nice and could not afford it, I buy a lottery ticket. Putting aside the fact that I am clearly gambling during a low moment, what I am really doing is hoping for a cure for what I think would help me at that point in time. A big magic wand full of money.
It is an indulgent fantasy that takes my mind off the hard work ahead. Harmless enough. Until it becomes something you cling to and hope for, and think a lot about rather than applying yourself to taking action and getting on with things. It is wishful thinking, and procrastination, and at worst ends up with you hitting the bottle because the miracle did not happen.
Self-care in changing your drinking is about ditching ideas of quick fixes and perfection, and chunking things down into manageable tasks and seeing the journey itself as part of the self-care. You will have changed your mindset completely, used new skills for resilience and actually altered your brain chemistry – ridding it of a chemical that has been changing it for years.
You will be on your way to being more resilient in many others ways in the long term, both mentally and physically.
Learn to use (and give) advice wisely
The magic wand dream is often most obvious when we ask for advice. This happens in the Club Soda community too. We throw a question or our circumstances out there in the hope that someone will come back with the one thing that will change everything. Instead of the magic wand answer, we get a load of comments that are relevant to the person giving the advice, but not you. Or things that you have already tried. Or just plain not what you want to hear.
You may also get un-solicited nuggets of advice (you ask for one thing and get something else), maybe from friends and family. We all do it to other people.
I do it a lot because I have a personality that is all focused on fixing things, rather than listening and questioning. We sometimes excuse ourselves by saying ‘we are just speaking our mind’, ‘saying it how it is’, or telling ‘the hard truth’. When actually what we often need from others is just the space to say something out loud.
The most important thing (and really thank you for this Kate) is to be seen, to be heard, and to feel connected.
How does this relate to self-care? Well, it means thinking about how you react when you throw something out there and feel the response is unwelcome or not right for you:
- You can ignore what does not suit you or even what you are not ready to hear right now
- You can ask questions back to the responder in order to better understand their experience or advice, so you can work out what it means for you
- You don’t have to respond to everything
- You can learn to take what you need and what you don’t
- And remember: everyone is coming from their own perspective and experiences and mental mind map of the world.
As a community we can ask more often – “Are you looking for empathy or advice?”
This question is gold. It gives the person seeking support a choice. It lets them feel power over how we respond, when they might otherwise feel disempowered by whatever shit situation is bringing up challenging feelings for them.
Saying no and making time
Don’t do things you don’t enjoy. Leave parties and other situations early if you need to. Make time for yourself to practice the things that will help you not drink – like self-care.
You can follow KateMcCombs.com on Twitter as @katecom, and on Instagram as @kateanswers.
Another good source is Dr Meg John Barker, they are also on Twitter as @megjohnbarker.