Episode #19: Self-Care Part 1

There is a bit of a debate around whether or not self-care IS or ISN'T selfish. This episode explores the potentially devastating consequences of waiting until we hit our very wits' end before we say, "No." If we aren't selfish sometimes, then we might erupt or throw a grenade when we hit our breaking point. When we throw a grenade into the middle of relationships, teams or organizations, we cannot control the damage it may cause.


Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode. 

So, when I started to write this episode, I actually thought I was going to write something different.  I started with the idea of self-care and it turns out that this episode will probably turn into more than one episode, as I found myself exploring a path that I didn’t expect when I started to put this one together.  So, hang in there with me.   

Self-Care has become something of a buzz word these days. And here is the challenge with words . . . we all interpret them differently. Take the word “nail” for instance. I used this word as an example in a retreat facilitation recently. 

I say the word “nail.”What image or understanding comes to your mind? Did you think of “a small metal spike with a broadened flat head, driven typically into wood with a hammer to join things together or to serve as a peg or hook” (which is the definition that I pulled from the dictionary) or perhaps you thought of a fingernail or toenail? How about “nailed” to the wall, or you “nailed” it, or he got “nailed”. I say “nail” and you interpreted the word nail maybe 3, 4, 5 or perhaps infinite different ways based on YOUR personal experience with that word.

So, WE assign meaning to words based on our personal brain database of experience and frame of reference. In the case of self-care specifically, we may decide that “it” is good, bad, neutral, indifferent, necessary, lazy, selfish, frivolous and so on. 

In the last year or so, I have heard phrases like . . . “Self care isn’t selfish.” or “Self care IS selfish.” The second phrase being used in the context of challenging the idea that being “selfish” is a BAD thing. Which is actually an interesting thing to consider . . . if I look at the definition of selfish . . . it means someone who pursues his or her own interests/self/needs above the interests/self/needs of others. And many of us have been taught that being “selfish” is bad . . . and in some cases, we may have been taught that being selfish is a sin. 

But then we are also taught to put our own oxygen mask on first . . . WHY? Because if we don’t save ourselves (or aren’t conscious because we have lost oxygen on an airplane flight) then we certainly won’t be able to help other people get THEIR oxygen mask on.  

I was taught that saying no to others in deference to my own needs and wants was an act of selfishness. And selfishness was not tolerated. Selfishness would result in the removal of community and connection. (see Brene Brown’s work on the importance of connection to human biology).

And how that played out for me as both a child and adult was that I (almost) NEVER SAID NO to anything unless that thing that I was being tempted or asked to do violated some OTHER non-negotiable coded belief. 

I said YES. YES to bosses and friends and spouse and kids and employees and other people and organizations who needed my help or time or energy. If I had an empty time slot in my calendar, and I thought that I had some skill or talent or knowledge or passion that would make a difference,  and someone asked me if I could do something, I said YES. 

I said YES, until I was SO spent, SO exhausted, SO frustrated, SO angry, SO sick, SO depleted that some part of me . . . the self-preserving part SCREAMED NO either through words or actions or just shutting me down completely. 

The reptilian part of my brain FINALLY took over and said NO MORE. 

In some cases, I tolerated my own choices and the behaviors of other people for YEARS, even decades, before I said NO. 

And when I say I tolerated behaviors, in some cases I tolerated abusive, addictive, and other destructive behaviors from others and by others. And even more so, in some of those cases I tied myself into a pretzel, trying to figure out how to change myself so that their behavior toward me or treatment of me would change. At times, this dynamic not only affected me, but it affected the people I was leading. I was leading a group of employees through a human design project within our organization.  We did some survey data or gathering of information from other people that were associated with the organization. And we sat in a room one day and collected and reviewed all of the information that we had gathered through this process. And it was the first time that I saw on the faces of the people that I led, on their energy and their beliefs and their moral and the impact that some of this behavior was having on them.  When I saw the impact it was having on my employees it actually flipped a switch in me--a switch that DIDN’T FLIP when it was just me being resilient in the face of this behavior. It only flipped when I saw what it was doing to the people who were in my charge as my employees.

So now let’s imagine for a moment, because I am going to guess we have all been there at some point in our lives, when we suddenly turn from that kind, nice, accommodating person that we are 99.9% of the time into a raging monster who doesn’t care what he or she says or does to make the thing we have been tolerating for too long STOP.

So there is this cartoon that my son used to watch that has a character in it named Eruptor--Eruptor is a hot head with a strong dislike for anything evil, so whenever something bad threatens his world, he quickly erupts... quite literally. When he isn't getting angry at the forces of Kaos, who is the evil nemesis in the show, he's blowing a fuse and exploding with rage about smaller things, such as creaky floorboards and people not covering their mouths when they cough.[1] With his hot temper, Eruptor never shies away from speaking his mind. He also has a case of indigestion, prone to burping up a pool of molten lava whenever he feels nauseous, nervous or startled. A flaming force of nature, Eruptor still blows his top from time to time. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, but tries to keep his fiery temper in check.[2]

Have you ever become eruptor?  Have you lost your temper with someone? Like really lost it. Completely run out of patience with a friend, coworker, spouse or child? Have you ever sent a scathing email? 

Have you ever said too many horrible and hurtful things to someone when you had just had ENOUGH? And we all know the damage words and inconsistent actions can do in leadership and life (if we don’t that is a topic for another episode all together). 

Have you ever thrown a grenade into a relationship with someone or left a job or walked out never to return because you had just put up with some behavior for too long? 

I know I have. I remember being the EVP of a company, with a newborn at home (my second  child) and having financial issues. My husband I were literally rolling coins to pay for baby formula. For the purpose of this story, I will not try to sort through the series of events and choices and decisions that led us to this place financially. But I was at my desk at o’dark thirty in the morning at a job I had worked sometimes literally around-the-clock for 8 years, and I got a scathing phone call from my boss. I don’t remember what it was about. But I LOST it. I got off the call, and wrote my resignation letter. Hand delivered it to his office (he was in a meeting). And a few hours later, found myself drinking a beer with a few of my co-workers both relieved and stunned at what I had done. If you recall at the beginning of the story, I was in financial distress and I had just quit my job.  In the end, my boss and I would work it out, and I would stay at that company for a couple more years.

But this has been a pattern in my life. I would wait until I hit my very wits end and instead of trying to adjust the dynamic I had been operating in for weeks, months or perhaps years, it was just easier in that moment, or it seemed easier at least, in that moment of frustration, anger, exhaustion and desperation to just blow the thing up. I have done this both consciously and subconsciously throughout my life. And I have seen other people do it too. Friends, co-workers and direct reports. 

I have had to fire more than one person who, instead of navigating a challenging issue or relationship or internal dynamic or learning to set their own boundaries, threw a grenade that had such a material affect on their role, or relationships at the organization that they just couldn’t stay. 

Does this sound familiar? Is this a pattern for you? Or someone you know?

Just this weekend, my oldest said something to the effect of “I don’t have time” when we were talking about her taking care of herself. The context is that she has had a little bit of a cough for a few weeks and was so exhausted at a friend’s birthday dinner that she looked like she was going to fall asleep at the table. Like someone else I know, she has a habit of being there for other people . . . And I chided her that she has no choice BUT to take care of herself. Because if she doesn’t, her body will start to scream louder.

And that’s the thing. If we continue to push our body, heart and mind beyond their limits, they get sick. If we continue to push our relationships beyond their limits, they get sick. If we continue to try to fit a square peg into a round hole for too long, we get sick. If we do not say NO, if we do not act to preserve our well-being before we become eruptor, if we aren’t SELFISH sometimes, then we will find ourselves in a place where we are no longer able to show up for the people in our lives. We might just let them down a little bit. Or we might throw a grenade. 

I encourage you to consider what your beliefs are about saying no and about being selfish. I have a client that I reminded just last week based on an instagram meme that “no” is a complete sentence.  

The other thing that I observe, particularly with my own children, is that when they want to say no to something or someone they feel the need to craft some story to justify the fact that they said no.  And as I told my 8 year old son last night, its ok to just say no. And when we tell the truth about the fact that we are saying no and why we are saying no, if necessary, then we don’t have to remember what we told that person or the story that we made up to justify saying no.  

Yes, being selfish can run amok, just like any other good or bad behavior.  We can take something too far or too long and cause more damage than we intend.  In this case, I want to emphasize that sometimes our beliefs about what is selfish and what isn’t and whether we are allowed to be selfish or not may no longer be serving us.  Sometimes we have to be selfish because if we aren’t we won’t be able to show up as that person that the people that we love and the people that we lead are relying on.        

For more information about the work that I do with individuals, groups and organizations you can go to boothandrews.com. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @theboothandrews.

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I look forward to being back with you next time!