The Art of Extreme Self Care: The Introduction

Every book I write presents me with a challenging and unexpected opportunity to practice what I teach. By now I've learned that I should always count on something happening that will force me to engage in an intensive study on the subject of each chapter. What you're now reading was no exception.

Once I signed on to write about Extreme Self-Care, my husband became very sick. During surgery to have a small lump removed from his ear, he had a complication that affected his health in a serious way for more than two years. The timing was particularly bad. Not only was I running a company, hosting a weekly radio show, traveling to speaking engagements, and writing a book, but we were also in the final stages of building our dream home-a stressful undertaking that had been Michael's focus for the better part of three years.

As Michael found himself less able to monitor, and put energy into, the project (he was making critical decisions regarding the design of the house), I was faced with taking over some of his responsibilities in between doctor and pharmacy visits, as well as giving him the emotional support he needed to survive this very difficult time.

When hit with an unexpected life challenge, most of us revert back to the old coping strategies that kept us safe as kids. For example, you may have taken refuge in your bedroom to avoid dealing with parents who always fought. As an adult, when faced with a chaotic situation such as losing a job or dealing with challenges in your own marriage, you now find yourself isolating from others as a way to escape the stress. You don't ask for help. You don't reach out for emotional support. And you don't admit to yourself or others the way you really feel. Instead, you suffer in silence.

In spite of what I know about self-care, I'm no different. Several weeks following Michael's surgery, I found myself in "rescue mode" as I tried to juggle his needs with the demands of building our new home, managing my business, and writing this book. I made long to-do lists in an effort to keep myself on track. I flitted from one thing to another in a state of perpetual multitasking and often woke in the middle of the night feeling anxious, ruminating about all that needed to get done. As my stress level increased, I started using food to stuff my feelings of resentment and frustration-a common response for caregivers who are always on call for someone in need. I felt like a pressure cooker ready to blow and, as a result, I did what I normally do when faced with having too much to do: I sucked it up, hunkered down, ignored my needs, and tried to do everything myself. Most days I felt alone and afraid, but I never told anyone. I just kept forging ahead. It wasn't long before I found myself struggling to stay afloat, barely able to tread water. What had happened to Extreme Self-Care?

I lived with the irony of my situation day in and day out. Here I was writing about Extreme Self-Care, but my life was reading like an advertisement for the exact opposite-extreme disrepair! To say I was running on fumes would be an understatement. My tank wasn't empty; it was MIA.

Eventually, when I was forced to admit that I was in over my head, I sought guidance from a professional who had experience supporting caregivers in crisis. She turned out to be a godsend-the right person at the right time. One day during a session, she touched a nerve with an observation. After listening to me complain about how exhausted I was, she said, "It seems to me that when you feel burdened, Cheryl, you do the opposite of what a human being needs to do. Instead of clearing the decks, asking for help, and giving yourself space to breathe, you fall into a pattern of self-neglect. Rather than asking yourself what you need, you shift into overdrive and immerse yourself in the needs of others. I'd say it's time to put an end to this legacy of deprivation, wouldn't you?"

Deprivation. Hmm. Now there was a concept I hadn't considered. Deprivation. Deprived. Deprive. I sat there for a while, letting variations of the word roll around in my head. Yup, that's it, I ultimately decided. I feel deprived. Although I was considered an expert in self-care, when faced with a crisis I'd revert back to my old coping habits. I'd fly solo, often encountering turbulence, but always steering toward familiar territory: a place where I automatically focused on others' needs, avoided talking about myself, and was the first to lend a hand when someone else needed a lift. But now I was tired - exhausted, really - and fed up with being a martyr. It was time to do something about it.

When I went home that day, I sat on my bed, pulled out my journal, and wrote the following in it:

I feel deprived of:

· Sleep

· Emotional support

· Time to myself

· Physical energy

· Companionship - I miss Michael, my partner and my best friend

· Peace - I worry all the time

· Hope - I'm afraid things won't get any better

· Touch - I miss the affection and closeness I normally have with Michael

As I looked at this list, I thought, No wonder I feel so empty and resentful all the time. I'm back to being the good girl who takes on too much and complains about it afterward. Yes, I was dealing with extenuating circumstances in caring for a sick loved one, but all the more reason to practice good self-care, right?

Fortunately, I had enough experience under my belt to know what to do. Awareness is a powerful catalyst for positive change, and as I started to recognize how deprived I felt, I immediately began to put Extreme Self-Care into practice. I started by clearing my plate. I let go of almost 50 percent of what I was working on to give me the emotional and physical space to be there for Michael and myself. I delayed the deadline for my book, put limits on phone calls and e-mails, and stopped scheduling all of my time. The goal was to give myself more breathing room than I thought I needed. I put some business projects on hold and eliminated those that caused me any stress. I also lined up some friends to be on call when I needed to vent, and I started asking for help in spite of how difficult and awkward it felt. Over time, as I became better at practicing Extreme Self-Care, I began to reclaim my life.

Take Action Challenge

This week, create your own powerful catalyst for change by paying close attention to where you feel deprived. Keep a little notebook with you or a piece of paper in your wallet, and write down anything that occurs to you. We'll be using this info in our first web class!



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Author Information

Cheryl Richardson

Cheryl Richardson is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including, Take Time for Your LifeLife MakeoversStand Up for Your LifeThe Unmistakable Touch of GraceThe Art of Extreme Self Care, You Can Create an Exceptional Life with Louise Hay, and her new book, Waking Up in Winter: In Search of What Really Matters at Midlife.

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