ask the author: self-care

So I'm not sure if you realized this yet, from the 57 posts I've written about it, but I wrote a book.  I know you are shocked to learn this, but there it is!  I wrote a book!  Woo-hoo!

I thought it would be fun to do some "ask the author" posts, so I asked my Facebook friends to throw some out there, and my friend Jaymi sent me this one:

"I feel like your book makes an excellent case for self-care instead of doing everything for everyone else.  Do you have tips or resources for HOW to do that, particularly in a Christian environment that equates self-care with selfishness?"

Well, if I were to write a therapy plan for you, I'd include three elements:  behavioral, cognitive, and emotional.

For the BEHAVIORAL element, let us consult Dr. Bob:

"Stop it!" is not quite as snarky as it first appears.  One of the things we always try to do with addiction of any kind is to stop the unhealthy behavior, then go back and work on what's driving the whole train, cognitively and emotionally.

The problem for a lot of us, though, is that we're not talking about stopping bad things.  

We're talking about stopping GOOD things.  

When we've gotten ourselves into a place of caring for everything and everybody, it's all nice, good, praiseworthy behavior.  But the end thereof leads to death, and we can feel that in our bones.  

We know we're headed off the cliff with all our good behavior.  

The crazy thing is,we have to STOP some good things if we want to MAKE WAY in our lives for the things that are deeply authentic, truly real, and genuinely righteous.

This is deeply challenging.  

I think we will need an inspirational theme song to motivate us.

 My big tip for behavioral change is this:  START SMALL.

I talk about this in the book.  I started out on things like the Starbucks barista who put a shot of espresso in my chai tea.  It was a huge big deal for me to say to that girl, "This is not what I want.  Please make it without the espresso."  

I had to stop care-taking of that barista, what she might feel or what she might think of me, and just assertively request the thing that I wanted, and had, by golly, PAID FOR.

Here's my behavioral mantra:


I know that's shocking, because everybody matters.  I get it.  I like to say it this way, though, because if it shocks you enough, you might remember it.

Let's get real.  There are people who really, really matter, and it's really, really hard to stop care-taking with those people.  If we can stop care-taking with the Starbucks girl and learn that the universe will not implode when we are assertive, that strengthens our ability to grow into assertiveness in other areas as well.  

Practice, practice, practice.  And then one day we might be able to take on something--and somebody--that really matters.  A spouse.  A pastor.  A parent.  A friend.  

We might be able to speak assertively in those vital places, and find ourselves in deeper, more authentic relationship than ever before.

When you think about it that way, speaking up about a chai latte is doing the right thing, doing it all the time.

While we're practicing to do the truly right things, we can start working on the COGNITIVE element--how we think.

"Stopping it" is hard because we think that it's selfish.  

We know that it's stupid to think this, but we think it anyway.  

When I know I'm thinking stupid thoughts, it's tempting to chase them all down and try to eliminate them, like an endless game of Whack-a-mole.  

But over time I've found that for me it works better to stop the anxious frenzy of self-improvement, and instead to rest, to sink myself into the Truth and soak it up.  

I just ignore the stupid.  I focus on the Truth.

God loves me, and everybody else, with an everlasting love.  Our Redeemer lives.  He's got the whole world in his hands.  

You know the great question Anne Lamott asks:  What's the difference between me and God? Answer:  God never thinks he's me.  

For me, that's the cognitive mantra:  GOD'S GOT IT.  IT'S NOT UP TO ME.

And I guess we use the words "self-care", but it's not so much self-care, to me.  It's trusting in God's care for me and for everybody else, and then living that out.

For cognitive work, I recommend the Boundaries book.  Probably the workbook as well. 

I also love Jeff Van Vonderen's book,  Tired of Trying to Measure Up.  Full of grace and truth.

Not all Christian communities are very full of grace and truth, sadly.  Quite a lot are full of rules and performance.  You might have to find yourself a new place to grow into freedom and life.

Finally, there's the emotional element.  

I put it last because our emotions are usually the last thing to catch up. 

At least, that's what I find for myself.  I may have a pretty good handle on my behavior, I may have thought it all through pretty well, but I'll still feel wrong and guilty for having boundaries.

Here's my emotional mantra:


There's a huge emotional pay-off for being codependent, my friends.  We get a ton of praise and attention for being care-takers.  

We've got to be willing to disconnect ourselves from the roar of the ravening crowd, and listen instead to the still, small, voice of Love.

Part of the ravening crowd may be others who want us to keep care-taking for them, physically and emotionally.

But part of the ravening crowd is inside of me, in the broken guilt-o-meter that flaps away and tries to tell me that I have to run faster, harder, stronger, more beautifully.  And this is a lie.

The truth is this:  I am Loved, I am safe, I am chosen, as Anne Lamott says.

God's arms are around me, and I play to a crowd of One.  

While we're growing into our new emotions, it's good to get with some people who will encourage and support our new way of life.   That might mean a personal therapist, Celebrate Recovery, or a healthy mentor.  It's good to practice what it feels like to be in relationships that are supportive of our boundaries.

I also recommend all these books:

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

Brennan Manning, Abba's Child

Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

In summary, I think this is all good advice about the HOW of changing from destructive care-taking to healthy self-care, but it's still not enough to really make it happen.

In order to change from care-taking to healthy living, we have to get past one big thing:


We are so scared of change, and that makes us so resistant to letting go of the bad old things, even when we know they're killing us.

This is one of my favorite, favorite quotes:

"We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us."  Audre Lourde

Step past your fear.  Fall into Love.

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driving on a flat tire

One morning a few weeks ago as I headed out to meet a friend at our local coffee shop, I noticed that my car seemed really loud inside.  

Really loud.  Hmm.  

I kept driving.  

Then I changed lanes and when I ran over the reflector bumps in the middle of the road, it was super-super loud.  

Again, hmmm.

I kept driving.  

Wondering why the car was so loud.  Driving a little slower, in case it was going to blow up or something.  

Then I tried running over the bumps with the other wheels, and it wasn't loud.  So then I started thinking that maybe I had a flat tire.

Guess what?

Yup.  I'm sorry to say it, but it's true:  I kept driving.  

All the way to the coffee shop.  Then I got out of the car, looked at the tires, and sure enough, one of them was flat as a pancake.  

Whereupon I did what I always do when something mechanical or technical malfunctions:  I called Andy.  And he did what he always does:  he came and fixed it.  

I would say "no questions asked" because he never makes me feel bad about fixing whatever it is I've broken.

But actually he did have questions like, "When did the noise start?" and "Exactly how far did you drive on this tire?"  Those were legit questions, trying to ascertain the possible extent of the damage.  

My answers, unfortunately, were pretty vague, because I just sort of didn't know.  I don't pay much attention to the mechanical and technical things in my life.  Maintenance doesn't cross my mind.  I just roll along, expecting everything to work.

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

I was thinking about that this morning, because my first experience with anxiety and depression years ago was a lot like that flat tire.

I was rolling along in life, when some bothersome symptoms began to appear.  I had repetitive nightmares.  I would wake up in the night with racing thoughts, and have trouble falling asleep again.  I was unhappy and tearful and down about myself and other people and life in general.

There was a lot of emotional noise, but I didn't know what it meant.

So I kept going.

And going.

And going.

Until the day I just literally could not function any longer.  In fact, I may have been just the teensiest, tiniest bit psychotic every now and again.  

It was only afterward, when I looked back with the wisdom of hindsight, that I realized how long I'd been driving on an emotional flat tire.

I don't know that we deliberately set out to ignore the emotional symptoms of life and make ourselves completely crazy, but sometimes it just works out that way.

First of all, we may not really understand what's going on.  When I started waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep, I had absolutely no idea that I was experiencing the most common type of insomnia associated with anxiety.  That had never happened to me before. I didn't know what it was.

And then, who wants to pull over and change a flat?  Not me, friends and neighbors.  I have places to go, people to see.  As long as that sucker will move forward, I'll drive it.  The reality is, when we stop to work on our emotional stuff, it can make a mess of our plans.  It can be really complicated.  Really.  Reallyreallyreally complicated.

Besides all that, some of us have gotten the idea that having emotions other than joy and peace means that we aren't very spiritual, so it's pretty hard to admit that anything at all might be wrong.  

Sometimes when we've tried to talk about what's wrong, people have said things like, "Cast all your care on the Lord, because He cares for you" and "Take every thought captive" and "The joy of the Lord is our strength."  

And we retreat into our alone and broken selves, because we've tried that.  For a while now.  It just doesn't seem to be that simple, but everybody says it is, so we just don't know what to do.

So here's the question:  how do we STOP AND CHANGE THE TIRE?

Sometimes it's a medical issue, and we need meds.

  • Honestly evaluate your functioning.  If you're struggling to do what you're supposed to do every day, then it might be time to look for medical help.  I know it's hard to go there.  Meds do have side effects, and sometimes it does take time to get the right meds working in the right way.  And sure, Jesus can heal you without meds.  But most of us these days would take antibiotics for pneumonia, and say "Thank God" when the fever lifts.  If you're not functioning well, if you're not able to sleep or eat like normal, if your moods are seriously out of whack, and especially if you've got thoughts of suicide, please talk to your doctor.  Modern medicine is a gift.  Take it as needed.

Sometimes it's a social issue, and we need to make changes in our world.

  • Most of us have a front door on our house, rather than a big open space where anything and anybody can run in and out at any time.  A lockable door is a normal part of a house.  Sometimes, however, we have a hard time believing that it's an equally good idea to get some boundaries against the emotional chaos that wants to intrude.  Unhealthy stuff sneaks in over time, and other people get used to us being like we are.  Change can be tough.  And it can be so, so, so good.

Sometimes it's a psychological/spiritual issue, and we need to process through gunk from the past that informs how we think and feel and believe today.

  • Some of us believe that there are rules for acceptability:  we have to achieve great heights, make others happy, be wonderfully nice, be successful in ministry, be thin, be the perfect parent.  We don't actually live in Love, believing deep down that It Is Finished.  We have to keep going and going, and life is just one long, exhausting performance.  That's a lie.  But there is truth.  And it can set us crazy-free.

A whole bunch of times, it's all three--medical, social, and psychological/spiritual--all mixed up together.  

Changing that flat tire can be a whole lot of work.  Like Westley says in The Princess Bride:  "Life is pain, Princess,and anyone who says otherwise is selling something."

But I want to tell you that it's worth the work.  And I want you to know that there is help.  God has not left us here alone to struggle through things by ourselves.  

There are doctors.  

There are friends.  

There are therapists.  

Most of all, there is Love and there is rest for our souls, when we'll stop and let Love help us.

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how much good does it take?

How much good does it take, to offset all the gunk?   I wonder this for my clients.  For all the wounded people who come in with a world of hurt and a pack of lies eating them up inside.

How many times will I need to say, "You're a person of value.  Your voice counts.  Your opinion matters.  You get to choose."

And I wonder this for myself.

How much will I need to hear that I'm loved and accepted, before I stop doubting and wondering and slamming the door?

I know these things are true, but how long is it going to take, to get it through my thick head?

Of course, people have studied this positive-to-negative ratio, and it turns out that about three positive comments to one negative is what you need for minimal functioning, at least for a team in the business world.  The actual number is 2.9013--it's called the Losada Line, in honor of Marcial Losada, who did the research.

If you happen to want a high-functioning team, you need 5.6 positive comments for every single negative one.

Interestingly enough, John Gottman came up with a similar number when he researched married couples.  He found that couples need 5 positive remarks for every negative remark as well.  And, Gottman found that couples who got divorced had a ration of .777 to 1.  I think that translates into four negative comments for three positives.  At least .777 and 1 are almost the same, right?  (If my math skills have not failed me yet today.)

You don't even have to be overwhelmingly negative.  You can just be pretty equally negative and positive, and that's a bad place to live.  Toxic to your marriage.

(Of course there are other factors involved, and maybe the negative comments are just the 4th horseman of the apocalypse, but you'd have to read Gottman's fabulous book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work to figure it out.  There's your link, straight to Amazon.  Go buy it now.)

This is pretty disheartening to me some days.  I feel like there's no way to pile up enough good words to block the tsunami of garbage that comes our way.

But I'm kind of hoping that I can count more than just straight-out words on the positive side.  

Because Scripture does say that the heavens declare the glory of God, and that every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Light.

So the positive words help a lot.  They really do.

"God delights in me."  I'm going on live on those four words for the rest of my life, I think.

And these words from Brennan Manning:  "Define yourself radically as one Beloved by God.  This is the true self.  Every other identity is illusion."

But I'm going to count the good gifts like chocolate, and Jimmy John's #6 Vegetarian, and walks on the beach, and Widor's Toccata, and sunsets and stars, and my crazy little poodly dogs.  Travel to faraway places and the ever-changing beauty of the earth.  Crepe myrtles and sages and lantana that bloom even though it's 100 degrees outside.

All the people I love, and who love me back, in ways that heal and comfort and sustain me.

The time and the prayers and the tears and the laughter.

I'm counting all that.

When I acknowledge and revel in every single bite and drop of blessing, when I let all the good stuff in, when I stop blocking it with being scared of vulnerability and loss of control.

Because, a door is a door.  When I keep everything locked down safe and tight, I may keep out some bad stuff, but I also lock out the good stuff.

When I open myself to the whole package, believing that God is good all the time and that He loves me, no matter what.

Then, the numberless blessings.  

They are goodness enough for all the gunk.

For all of us.

(I did what passes for research here on Wikipedia, by the way.  Since I am such a scholar.


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when the truth is a big fat lie

Sometimes the truth is just a big fat lie.   I was thinking about this the other day because one of my little clients was telling me that she is stupid.

"It's twue, it's the twuth," she kept saying.  "I am so dumb.  Evewybody says so."

She's trying to convince me, because she knows I believe otherwise.

She's told me before that her brain is messed up.  And I have told her what I think about learning differences.

I told her that different is good.  That we need people who have different ideas, other ways of seeing things.

I told her that Albert Einstein's teachers said he was an idiot.

But she failed some classes and the other students have told her she's dumb.  She's heard this so much, and experienced it to be true, and this truth, this big fat lie, forms the core of her extremely unhappy existence.

I'm the anomaly in her system.  And she's trying to get me to fit, to change my silly way of thinking to what is clearly the truth.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping to bring her around to my way of thinking.  I've had 37 more years of practice in stubborn than she has.  I think the odds are in my favor.

I was thinking about her this morning, because some of my truths are big fat lies, too.

I am so different.  Nobody could understand me.  

My pain doesn't matter as much as other people's.  I should be able to suck it up and get through this.

I'm not important.  What I think doesn't matter.

I hold these truths to be self-evident.  I've experienced them over and over.  And I feel it, so it must be true.

Except it's a big fat lie.

And I sink so easily into it, this quicksand from hell.  And find myself saying to God, "I'm bad.  I don't matter. It's true.  It's the truth."

These days, I can sort of picture God in the playroom with me, saying, "Honey, could you just look at me for a minute?  I want to tell you something really important.  I love you.  I made you different on purpose.  Different is good.  We need your way of seeing things.  You matter to us.  Let me in.  Let me care.  Let me cry with you."

I'm counting on that Love that never lets me go, to beat out all the stupid big fat lies that sound so much like gospel truth some days.

And I figure God has about an eternity more practice in stubborn than I do.  I think the odds are in His favor.

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my voice

Last week I was looking through old journals.  And it's funny.  I saw this pattern with my voice. I had a long phase when I was writing journals, but not telling the truth.  I wanted to tell the truth, but I just couldn't say it.  I couldn't put into words, even for my own eyes, what was honestly happening in my world.

So then my world broke and I had to start over.  And my voice had to be reborn as well.

My first journal after The Fall is full of quotes--the voices of others--that expressed what I was experiencing.

This is anger, they told me.

This is fear.

This is sorrow.

This is courage.

This is trust.

This is hope.

And then I started to write, in the voice of a child, about things like my favorite color and my favorite food and childhood memories.  Things I was sure of.  Facts that I knew.

And I wrote more, and my voice grew up, slowly, explaining to myself what I had known before, and what I knew now, and what it all meant as an integrated whole.

I learned to say:  no, I disagree, and I don't like that.

I learned to say:  this is what I want, this is what I need, and I can't compromise with the truth.

It was ugly at times and scary almost always, growing from silence to sound.

And now I have this voice.  This voice to tell this story.

My voice, and no one else's.

My story, and no one else's.

My freedom, which is a tiny piece of the freedom offered to us all.

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I am a visual learner.  And I almost always have a mental image that represents my current emotional state. I've talked before about seeing myself in a dugout canoe, alone, paddling hopelessly for shore.

And the panic and thrashing that ensued when the canoe went down, ten years ago now.

In fact, that was one of the first posts I wrote when I started this blog a couple of years ago.

I shared this poem by Philip Booth, and it remains one of my favorite things.

First Lesson

Lie back, daughter, let your head

be tipped back in the cup of my hand.

Gently, and I will hold you.  Spread

your arms wide, lie out on the stream

and look high at the gulls.  A dead-

man's-float is face down.  You will dive

and swim soon enough where this tidewater

ebbs to the sea.  Daughter, believe

me, when you tire on the long thrash

to your island, lie up, and survive.

As you float now, where I held you

and let go, remember when fear

cramps your heart what I told you:

lie gently and wide to the light-year

stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

It just seems to be that time of year, when a lot of us are on the long thrash.

It's like that for me, anyway.

I get distracted, I start to panic, and then I remember.

You've been here before.

You know how it works.

Lie back.


The sea will hold you.


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grieving and living and grateful

I have a little stack of books that can never be loaned to any one. These books live on my nightstand, wherever my nightstand happens to be.  They go in my carry-on luggage, because the airlines are welcome to lose my undies, but they can never be trusted with my preciouses.

I have Brennan Manning's book, Abba's Child.  I have something by Henri Nouwen, usually The Inner Voice of Love, but sometimes Turn My Mourning Into Dancing.  And I have Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies.

Last night, I went over to a church in Fort Worth to hear Anne Lamott speak, and it was a night of splendiferous awesomeness.

Because Anne is hilarious and human and she makes me want to trust Jesus more, and be bravely myself.

And because Andy and my friend Christie went too, and you can't have splendierous awesomeness without fellow appreciators.

And mostly because Traveling Mercies helped save my life back in 2003.  She taught me how to grieve.  And through grieving, I am learning how to be more alive, and less fearful, in the world.

From her essay, Ladders in Traveling Mercies:

All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately.  But what I've discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.

Don't get me wrong:  grief sucks; it really does.  Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.  Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible.  You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession.  Martyrdom can't be beat.  While too much exercise works for some people, it doesn't for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering.  But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you.  A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart.  But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won't hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion.  You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things:  softness and illumination.

Yup.  That's the truth.  The kind that sets you free.

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