by Sara Black McCulloch
Sara Black McCulloch: You and I started this column about seven months ago with the intention of reconnecting to ourselves. We especially wanted to do so by connecting with other women. We’ve learned so much from everyone (and reader, we hope you have to0). I think that initially, I had some misconceptions about idea of self-care. To me, it was a way to build resistance to bullshit, disappointment, and a bit of depression — a way to ward off uncertainty. But I’ve learned, along the way, that this is impossible. You’re never going to be consistently happy and you can’t prevent sadness or life from running its course. Self-care is a way to at least strengthen yourself, find some inner core so that you’re ready when life comes at you. A huge part of this change has been emotional accountability — to myself and to others in my life. I still struggle with the idea of emotional integrity because I’ve always second-guessed my own reactions and instincts and never prioritized them. I’m also at a point where I’m struggling to mean what I say, too, so articulating and interpreting feelings are challenging.
We’ve also had this ongoing conversation about managing our own social circles and cutting people out. I still struggle with this, because, I mean everyone goes through shit, and you have to let them feel it out, right? But at what cost? After this talk with Anupa, I’ve realized I need to prioritize my own feelings and needs, too. You can be selfish and not be a shit person. You do have to look out for yourself because no one else will. You should surround yourself with people who are on the same frequency.
I think these last couple of months, I’ve felt really off and a lot of that has had to do with life, relationships, self-doubt, reassessing, but most importantly, because of myself. So I haven’t been thinking too much about self-care lately. You and I usually check in with each other daily, but there was a point in time when we stopped emailing each other. So, I want to know how you’re doing! What’s been going on with you and how have you been feeling?
Fariha Roísín: We keep coming back to this point — you can be selfish without being a horrible person. I think you and I have both been quite bewildered by separate accounts where people have been so weirdly cruel. It’s even more confronting when that vicious temerity comes from other women. I certainly don’t think that “feminism” or “female solidarity” usurps the importance of calling someone out, definitely — no, but I’ve witnessed a definite desire by many women who may not even realize that their cruelties lie in a way more nefarious place; that it’s not necessarily a desire to “call out” — or whatever, but rather a desire to destroy, to deplete, to ruin. This is so confusing to me because self care/happiness doesn’t mean impeding on another’s — and yet we keep having this conversation. When Sarah Maslin Nir’s piece The Price Of Nails came out, everyone was like — “yo, self care is bullshit” — and it can be, definitely. I think that’s why I loved what Meredith had to say about this. She articulated it so well when she said: “When people mistreat their nail technicians. They go into spaces, for self-care, and criticize someone’s accents and ability to speak English. That shit. That’s what I’m talking about.”
I think that it’s the same with people-to-people. If you’re mistreating the people around you, people you know or don’t know, people online or IRL; are you doing so for your own care? If so, isn’t it a paradox that your self-love consists of hurting someone else’s? Being a good person, despite what you feel you haven’t gotten in return — to love without boundaries — is the ultimate self-care.
It’s Ramadan right now which is this incredible time for self-care. Muslims go by the lunar calendar, so astrologically it’s in tune with this feeling of serious psychic shedding. Ramadan is all about removing, renouncing, and recalibrating. It’s a time when you remember what it’s like to be tender, when you’re constantly awakened by your senses because you’re hungry; it reminds you of gratitude and how much you have.
During Ramadan (and this is whether I’m fasting or not) I feel immersed by God. I read a really cool quote recently about God, actually. It’s from Sor Juana — who was a Mexican nun in 17th Century — and she said “God is a circle whose center is everywhere.” Or something like that, it might be a rephrasing of Voltaire, but regardless — when I read that — it was a revelation. When I really started to think more critically about death last year, I realized that the only thing that makes you eternal is the love you share with everybody. Nobody is easy to love — everyone comes with a caveat — so to look beyond that and to love anyway is truly an elixir. Find God everywhere. Whether or not “they” exist. Find God in your friends; in life; in yourself.
I remember when I went to Umrah and I circumambulated the Ka’baa (seven times) I was buzzing with alacrity; with the heavenly sensation of spiritual energy. I felt love and forgiveness. That’s all that matters, in the end. Ramadan is a constant reminder that you will die, and that what you leave is not your hate, but your kindness — so learn how to be kind while you’re still alive.
This is a thing I want to ask you: how have you been looking after yourself? And within that, have you been struggling? What themes that keep coming up?
Sara: Our definition of self-care wasn’t about buying certain things or getting services done, although, if that’s what that means to you, that’s fine! But for us, it was more about how we engage with other people and ourselves.
In that first post, you and I shared some products we liked because they’re reliable, they work for us, and on bad days, they make us feel a little better. But! We wanted to talk about different kinds of self-care out there because there was a prevailing idea that self-care was reserved for those with disposable income. It’s why I didn’t engage with it or believe in it at first; I thought it was for rich women who needed an excuse to indulge. In that same vein, my fears and reservations about self-care were that I’d become some self-absorbed, out-of-touch person.
But I value it because I can define self-care how I want. And we all have to, because at some point, you have to look out for yourself because: 1) no one else will; 2) sometimes you have to be alone with yourself; 3) at the end of the day, you only have yourself. What I mean is that, even if you have a partner or not, an active social life, and a close circle of friends, you still have deal with yourself in your head, right? That’s the only way, I think, that you can be better to others. You need to touch base and check in so you can know where you’re going and how you’re feeling. You have to reassess. Reassessing life goals, friendships and relationships has been a great way for me to keep in touch with myself. When I don’t do it, I fall apart.
That’s what happened a few months ago: I started taking everyone else’s advice but my own. A dude friend of mine recently told me that at some point, you need to stop taking other people’s advice. Not everyone’s advice, but you have to be selective and you need to start trusting your own instincts. What he does in his working environment, because he works with a lot of artists and egos, is this:
*out loud*: “Yes, that sounds like a great idea.”
*inside head*: “But it’s not a good idea for me. And I’m not going to do it.”
The other big lesson I’ve learned recently is to let go and also let people help you. I was struggling with this piece I’m writing and putting it off and then I was blocked because I was putting all this pressure on myself. My editor was just like “it doesn’t have to perfect, it’s a draft, just relax and let me do my job too, ok?” Duh. I liked that my editor called me on that! Like it’s not all about me and it’s not all on me either. This is where I think calling out is good and necessary: when it helps make you a better human. It’s hard and it stings but it’s necessary because how are you going to learn? We all have blind spots about ourselves and others and that’s why close friends or mentors are important in these cases. There are a lot of jobs like writing that are solitary and mostly self-driven. And in some ways those aspects drive expectations up because you feel like you need to deliver and can’t ask for help. With writing, like in other things in life, it’s this collaborative effort between you and your editor (and maybe your sources).
My skin blew up recently. I mean these pimples were so three-dimensional, the best foundations and concealers couldn’t help me. I know I’m never trying to achieve perfect, clear, skin, but I wanted to more than ever the minute my skin looked awful. I had to change my skincare routine and tie myself down and stick to it. My face has cleared up and there’s scarring, but I don’t mind that.
An ongoing theme for me is just not getting in my own way and surrounding myself with people who are on the same frequency, as Anupa put it. I think I’m also trying not to feel guilty when I do something that’s good for myself. That guilt still weighs down, but I’m trying to be more comfortable with it. To be honest, I’ve just been spending a lot more time with myself and working on myself and my hangups. I’ve started writing again — like the writer’s block is still there, but I’m slowly coming out of it. The thing I’ve realized about self-care is that I’m still reluctant to do good things for myself when I’m not feeling so great. I’m struggling to be ok with myself at my best and worst. I’m not where I want to be and I’m still mad at myself for it, you know?
You and I have been talking a lot about the difficulty of putting yourself first when there isn’t an external reward, like acceptance. Can you just be enough for yourself? How have your views on relationships with people changed? Or with yourself?
Fariha: I think you can be enough for yourself, I sincerely believe so. I think, however, that within that refrain you have to learn to create spaces with other people — that you trust — where you can ask someone for help, for love, and be open to that comfort and not pass it as a sign of weakness. That’s been a huge lesson for me — learning to ask for help, and learning to be okay with support. These are all things that are so new for me. Making the right decisions for yourself, properly prioritizing yourself amidst the struggles of life, and teaching yourself mindfulness has been so integral to my well-being. Within that I’ve realized that I had a great power to choose kindness, even to those who’ve hurt me, but most importantly — to myself.
There’s this great quote in a book we’ve both been reading, Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, where she writes to her lover “When everything is changing, when everything is hurting me, I am most with myself.” That was an Aha! moment for me. I realized there’s no formula for happiness.
I felt as if self-care was a lifeline for me, it came at a time that I was so alone; so abandoned, and then I finally found this thing that I could do for myself. It was so empowering, it pushed me out of a dark place. Then, a couple of months later, I found myself in another dark place and I felt like a failure. I felt like I hadn’t imposed the right tenets, that I had been incapable of practicing a thing that I should know how to do; I should know how to be happy! So why aren’t I? I didn’t realize, until much later, that those moments of complete despair, absolute devastation, are helpful. It’s the ebb and flow of life.
We’ve fetishized happiness. It’s like a fad diet that consists of no substance, and is unattainable in the way we’ve conceptualized it. I’m learning that you can’t be truly happy without momentary sadness, and that’s okay. I want to make space for my worst self and in order to do that, I need to understand that there’s validity in those moments of pain. It doesn’t mean that I’ve failed if I’m not feeling fantastic. Daniel Day-Lewis said this great quote in an interview with Eileen Myles: “You have to recognize [creativity] when it’s there and leave it well alone when it isn’t. I realized quite early on that this slow burning revolution — this compulsion — was bit endlessly replenishing.” Although it’s about creativity, it’s something that has been empowering for me to recognize within the framework of self-love. If you’re not feeling happy, don’t force it. Understand that sadness is as a valid an emotion as pleasure or contentment, and then hopefully it’ll be easier to navigate your life.
I’ve had to cut out a lot of toxic energy and I started seeing an energy healer recently. Her job is to basically remove and balance my energy fields. She mentioned to me that my sensitivities, my emotional tendencies, were a gift — which I’d never really considered. We talked a lot about psychic energy and it was so beautiful to feel accepted as a freak, to be seen for what you are. As a result, I’ve had to really distance myself from negativity, IRL and online, because not everyone always wants you to have a healthy sense of emotional well-being and if you’re open to that — you’ll let it in and it will corrupt you. Ultimately, I’m learning nothing is as profound as your own forgiveness. Forgive those people, but also yourself — and move on. I think Janet said it best: be discerning about the people you let in. Protect yourself. You only have you, so cultivate your intuition to be closer to yourself. That’s it. That’s all we can ask for. What are you meditating on as we move forward in the next half of the year?
Sara: Right. But also that sadness isn’t a learning lesson either; it’s a mood, one of many, and sometimes you feel it because you’re human. That’s what I’ve been learning or gathering from Sauvageot right now: your feelings aren’t necessarily you, but you do have to live with them as much as you have to live with yourself. I feel as though the expectations we’ve set up for ourselves are high because yes, like everyone else, we’re ambitious, but our high expectations of work and careers have seeped into our own personal and emotional lives. And that seems to have been destructive or even spawned some self-destructive habits in us. But also, we seemed to have tied in our own self-acceptance with our work and career gains. I think the danger has been that by tying our own happiness to this external thing that is bound to have its ups and downs, we’ve sort of shunned the responsibility of accepting ourselves. It’s easier to think things are going well if work is going well and when it’s not, you’re a hot mess and how is that even sustainable? Our worth has been tied to some external value and how can we even expect to function?
I still think about what Hannah said about self-care; how we also have to look out for each other, especially when we’re living in ruin — that there’s hope in all that ruin, too. It’s a much more realistic alternative, I think: nothing will be perfect and consistent, but your strength doesn’t come from being immune to it; it’s about bringing together all your parts — flawed or perfect — and making some kind of whole. Is that a goal for self-care? I just finished reading Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive — about how he came to be himself (at 30) and grow up after trauma and a transition. He keeps talking about finding and strengthening an inner core that unites every life experience and part of him. He embraces his own complexity. It’s what helps him make the right decisions for himself.
So to that end, I’m trying to spend more time with myself, to be better — even though I don’t know what this means yet. But I need to stop trying to think ten steps ahead because I never get anything done in that mindset. This Ask Polly column got me in the right frame of mind. So I’m trying to be more patient with myself so I can be patient and understanding with others. A lot of the frustrations you can have with other people have nothing to do with them and everything to do with your insecurities and projections. On the subject of happiness, this Nico Muhly post has given me a lot to think about re: the happiness or satisfaction I get from work, but also from day-to-day living, in that am I taking out my career frustrations on friends and loved ones? But also, that I can’t hinge my happiness on everything working out the way I want to — I mean that’s the point of life, right? That not everything is going to go as expected or happen when you want it to, and that’s fine. It’s clichéd, but there’s always a reason why, but also — maybe you’re not ready! Maybe it’s not the right or realistic decision at the moment! So maybe reading and calming down a bit?
Fariha: We say this a lot, especially to ourselves, but life is a process. So is self-care. You can’t possibly feel great all the time. You can’t Oprah your life and go from zero to a hundred. Life isn’t about skipping steps. It was really hard this spring to realize and accept that I can’t fix it on my own — that life isn’t really ever fixable. You have to learn to embrace all the harsh bits that feel foreign to the touch. But here’s the grace: if you can accept the profundity of movement, the strangeness of it all; if you can surrender and let go, then you will soar.
The meaning of “Muslim” means “one who surrenders to [God]” but I like to see it as surrendering to life, to the non-linear fluidity that dictates everything, everyday — the constancy of the eruption and change that we are faced with. If you can be okay with that, then even at times of hardship there will be some kind of serenity. I love this Rumi quote: “There are lovers that are content with longing. I’m not one of them.” It reminds us that we don’t have the ability to dictate the battles that we meet, but we do have the ability to control the narrative that surrounds the pain. Walk away from the drama if it doesn’t serve you. Choose Yourself.
I agree with you Sara, my love, there is a reason why these things happen. So, we have to just understand that sometimes all you can do/just need to do is kick back and let the universe do what it needs to do. As Rebecca Solnit says so aptly: “If you’ve practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress.”
Sara Black McCulloch is a writer living in Toronto. Mute her on the Internet here.
Fariha Roísín is a writer living on Earth. Follow her here.