What if you aren’t lazy?

What if you aren’t too busy, too disorganized, a mess, a procrastinator, a scatter-brain?

What if you already have enough “will-power”?

What if those beliefs were taken off the table?

What if none of those constructs are at all useful for changing your lifestyle, creating a daily exercise routine, feeding yourself well, structuring quiet time, meditating, getting to sleep, tending to your finances, looking for that new job, or for facing down any important, self-regarding task you have been avoiding?

Berating yourself, scolding yourself is rarely useful, and usually just makes things worse, more painful, more shameful.

What if there is a very good reason that this specific task is hard, frightening, anxiety-provoking, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable for you?

Self-neglect often just feels usual, normal. The ignoring feels like a part of us. It’s how we have always done it or not done it. Sometimes we pretend that our avoidance is a proactive choice and express contempt toward others who have mastered self-care tasks that feel beyond us.

We even construct pseudo-identities on top of it:

“I don’t cook”

“I’m a spender, not a saver”

“I’m not an exercise person”

And that way we won’t even notice the void when we step in it.

But – what if that is all an illusion?

What if the truth is more complicated, and much messier? What if you’ve been avoiding the dreaded task, failing to establish the healthy habit because it is associated with something painful, scary, confusing, vulnerable, overwhelming, sorrowful, or is something you simply can’t learn how to do on your own? What if it requires your compassion, attention, kindness or understanding to make it possible to change your ways?

In some cases, we may have a wish to establish a new pattern that is simply un-familiar – literally: not of the family. If no one in your family of origin ever spoke Greek, it is unrealistic to expect yourself to be able to magically, spontaneously, effortlessly speak Greek in adulthood. If you do decide to learn a new language, it will not be an intuitive process, it will not feel natural; it will be uncomfortable, embarrassing at times, exposing, vulnerable. It will involve investing money, time, and consistent effort. It will require generous, patient teachers, role models, fluent-speakers who model proper, conversational speech for you. There are processes that we can only learn through relationships with others.

Many simply continue to parent themselves as they were parented. If your care-taking through childhood was disorganized, abusive, withholding, or passive, you will likely care for yourself the way you were, or were not, cared for. If bedtime was experienced as a battleground, or abandonment, it’s going to be very hard to learn to transition yourself through the subtle stages that precede sleep. If your needs were ignored, you may not, for example, think to seek medical treatment before a condition becomes unnecessarily severe.

In other instances, we have absorbed our notions of how to meet our needs as adults from watching how our parents treated themselves. Did they self-medicate? Smoke? Overspend? Sink into depressed, passive, depleted, deprived, neglected states themselves? Did they chronically – too generously and masochistically – set their needs aside for others?

It can feel disloyal, like a betrayal, to abandon their model, to treat ourselves better or differently than our parents treated themselves. Sometimes, self-neglect is a cherished, comforting memento from home.

Others of us are on strike: still waiting, holding our breath – well into our own adulthood – for an archetypal Grown Up to arrive at long last and take care of it all for us.

Taking deep responsibility for our own well-being means giving up hope that we will be rescued. To stop waiting for Godot means we may be left alone upon a barren mound of grief and mourning. They haven’t come, they never came, they never will come; we may have lost our opportunity to have our childhood needs met, at the right time, by an all-knowing, all-loving omnipotent caretaker. Facing down self-care may mean first accepting this mournful reality and breathing through all the painful feelings that attend a loss.

Sometimes the shame of not-knowing-already, the fear of needing to be taught, the humiliation of asking, and the vulnerability of beginners’ mind, is enough to make us avoid the things we truly need. We feel a fool – a baby, a first-grader – our savvy and maturity stripped away from us, as we struggle to learn the new thing, search for a teacher, struggle, fail, regroup and try again. We want the first meal we cook to be delicious, and to feel powerful and strong our very first day at the gym.

All of us have our own unique, inherited blind spots and neglect-holes:

One woman regularly bickers with her partner about her own messiness, until realizing that her mother, a housewife with paralyzing depression, rarely initiated and never completed necessary household chores.

Another woman, constantly overdrawing her account, discovers that her red-inked bank statements recreate the powerless feeling of living in her father’s household, the family members shamed and controlled by his money.

A man, disorganized and distracted, constantly loses his keys, his wallet, his necessary personal items, creating many anxious, angry, panicked moments in his day. When he begins to consider that there might be some meaningful reason that he does so, he is flooded with memories of being repeatedly forgotten among his many siblings, regularly left behind, and actually lost – omitted from the head count on family outings.

Another man, in a life-long angry battle with his weight and health, begins an exercise plan. He tolerates the sabotaging noise in his head, the discomfort, the agitation, the boredom, the wish to revert. He listens deeper and discovers he is increasingly anxious as he loses more and more weight and his health improves. He realizes that he holds enormous guilt for enjoying his own body, an experience he could never share with his father – who was disabled, in chronic pain since early adulthood.

For each of us, it will be different.

And the same.

Sometimes the avoidance marks a trauma point, other times a battleground, an emptiness, or a low-grade chronic annoyance.

Sometimes we must open up to healing before we can initiate change.

Sometimes initiating change opens us up to be healed.

By occasionally asking you to focus on such rudimentary aspects of self-care, I may be asking you to speak a language you have never heard before and cannot fathom. Please know that these aren’t merely simple behavioral prescriptions.

Instead, I am asking you to

– look beyond self-judgement and the illusion of laziness,
– consider your accepted default, your original template,
– to explore it,
– mourn it,
– and to treat yourself in a new way.

In any order you choose.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford