Sunday, May 8, 2016

Taking Care of Ourselves

As I mentioned in my old posts about examining values, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about my values. I think a lot of people share values of care-taking and self-sacrifice, and I thought I would write about my own journey in examining this value and realizing the balance that lies in the individual and other people.

A wave of exhaustion hits me. Worry. About my friends, family, patients, the stranger crying on the street, the people I see on the news. Worry that pervades into my dreams at night, tossing and turning so that I’m never rested enough. Each human being full of so much value that my heart cries out at their suffering. Only able to tuck the pain away in my pocket temporarily, and when I step away and the time passes, it creeps out and expands more and more until it cannot be ignored. I replay old conversations- what if I hurt that person? Didn’t provide enough empathy, compassion, didn’t listen well enough, made them more broken? I analyze their face as they talk, hoping that my words don’t stab and injure them again and again as they remember, leaving an emotional scar that causes them to filter everything they say to me. I know the risk it takes in being vulnerable, the courage in sharing your deepest fears and feelings, only to have the person in front of you minimize, misunderstand, make you feel like a bad person, and completely invalidate your emotions. Sometimes we are just abandoned. I never wanted to be that person for someone else, but there came a day when I realized that perhaps I have abandoned myself.

I grew up with a strong sense of responsibility for other people. I’m a Sikh- I’m supposed to help others- it’s in the essence of my soul, in my blood. There are Sikhs before me that sacrificed their lives, what small sacrifice is my time and energy then? And I set out to take care of others. To give up my own needs or desires for other people.

We all learn the message “take care of yourself” growing up. But actually it’s more complicated than that. I think back to when they lectured us on getting enough sleep at the start of medical school and then made us work 30+ hour shifts. There are systems in place that enforce the value that you shouldn’t take care of yourself. And really if you follow that in every aspect of your life, people quickly use it against you. Plus, you can hear the message “take care of yourself,” but not understand the deeper ways in which your other values conflict with that. I read a book recently called Four Agreements, which talks about the agreements we make with ourselves (about our beliefs). It helped me ask myself more questions to get at the core of my beliefs. My agreements, therefore, would be:
“I’m responsible for other people’s feelings and their lives.”
 “I have to sacrifice my needs and desires because other people’s lives matter more.”
When you write it out like that, it doesn’t look so good does it?!

The first one I didn’t realize I was carrying around until recently. But other people choose their reactions to situations, and they are responsible for their own lives. It’s a huge weight to be going around feeling responsible for the world! What other people choose to do, furthermore, is out of my control. Waheguru is our caretaker. I don’t need to be carrying around that responsibility. I remembered this from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (page 10): “For each and every person, our Lord and Master provides sustenance. Why are you so afraid, O mind? The flamingos fly hundreds of miles, leaving their young ones behind. Who feeds them, and who teaches them to feed themselves? Have you ever thought of this in your mind?” (1,2)

Second- “I have to sacrifice my needs and desires because other people’s lives matter more.” I matter, just like each person I meets matters. Asserting your own needs is necessary, not selfish. How can you continually help other people if you carry around your own pain? If your own bowl is empty, you cannot feed another. The best thing a person can do to help other people is to help themselves first. That’s cliché isn’t it? I’ve hear that a hundred times probably! But to practice it is actually a lot harder when I was still carrying around the same belief. Putting ourselves as the first person who matters is difficult when we spend our lives caring for other people. Setting up a boundary so not ask to make that person’s problem your own is even harder. But I realized I can still be a kind and caring person, without sacrificing my own needs including protecting myself emotionally.

Maybe the underlying agreements for the value of self-sacrifice will be different for different people, but using these examples we can see how we can’t change how we act without examining the underlying reasons why we keep returning to that. I found myself “learning” that my needs are important temporarily, and then I would keep going back to putting myself on the bottom of the list of people that were important. Until I realized the reasons I believed it and “disarmed” those reasons, I wasn’t able to change anything.

Questions to consider when you are thinking about your agreements (3):
How much do i believe it?  (0= not at all, 100= totally)
Where does it come from? (childhood, someone said something, an event)
If I don't change this belief, what are the consequences for me?
What's a better agreement? How much do i believe it? What is the evidence to support it? 



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