By the time I was a junior in high school, both my father and sister had died, leaving my mother and me in a state of depression. Neither of us knew how to handle the emotions swirling inside us, so we retreated to our individual spaces. I’d sleep and sleep, and I don’t know what she did. Our house was a tomb, a place for the living dead.
During this time, I grew up faster than I probably would have otherwise. I cooked for myself, some days eating nothing but bagels, and started smoking and drinking, often in the basement of the town house where my mother and I lived.
When college finally ended, I traveled around a little while before taking a job as a newspaper reporter in a small Idaho panhandle town. There, in the impossibly narrow Silver Valley, surrounded by pine trees and sparkling alpine lakes, I met my future husband at a wedding.
We fell in love and dated long-distance for a while before I moved to Arizona to be with him. I was only 25 when we met, and this was my first serious relationship. When we married, I found myself reluctant to give freely. Reluctant to cook meals, reluctant to clean, reluctant to do anything that seemed as if I was taking care of another person.
All those years as a teen, nurturing myself when I needed nurturing, and sometimes caring for my mother, had depleted my capacity to give. I understood why it was happening, but didn’t know how to change it. So I pushed myself to do things that a wife, or anyone in a committed relationship, would do for another. I knew the problem was with me, but I started to feel resentful.
I wanted to give freely with my whole heart, the same way my husband gave to me. Not counting or keeping track or on constant alert of giving too much, but just giving with love. Because I trusted my husband and I knew that he was the right person to learn this with. He wouldn’t take advantage of me.
I had experienced depression for years, visited many therapists, but nobody ever told me the one thing that mattered: I had to love myself. I had to find the things that replenished me so I could give from the overflow.
Over the next few years, I learned how to care about me. Resting, exploring nature, pursuing my passions — these are what make it possible to give of myself while also maintaining firm boundaries. I know how much to give, to whom, and I also know when I’m spread too thinly and need a break.
To find your own well of generosity of spirit, follow these five steps, and don’t ever stop. Whom and how you love should always be a conscious choice, and the awareness required to make it (especially for those who grew up in neglectful environments) is not a switch that you flip. It’s a way of life.
1. Realize you’re not responsible for the happiness of others.
Women in particular who aren’t nurtured when they’re young may grow up trying to mother or please others. They may feel responsible for the happiness of others when in reality, every adult is responsible for how he or she feels.
True nurturing comes from the boundless desire to give, not from a feeling of obligation. Your capacity to give may feel fixed, unchanging, but you have the power to replenish your reserves until they’re overflowing.
2. Tell yourself, “I love you.”
Look at yourself for three minutes every day and tell yourself you love yourself. Repeat this, acknowledging whatever emotions arise while practicing self-compassion. It sounds corny, but it’s incredibly powerful.
3. Reframe how you give.
When you do something for others, is it because you feel you have to? Or is it because you love the person to whom you’re giving? If you’re completing a task because you feel you should, stop for a moment. Is it necessary to complete this task? Is it possible to pull back a little and leave the task undone or have someone else do it?
Sometimes pulling back a little and watching the world go on without you helps you realize that it’s not all up to you. Clearing the must-do list creates a blank slate for you to add on, one-by-one, those things you want to do out of love. Saying “no” is always an option, so ask yourself, “Am I doing this out of love or because I feel I have to?”
Sometimes you have dig into your spiritual reserves to get things done, but always stay conscious of the energy you’re spending and resolve to re-energize with self-care activities.
4. Find a personal outlet for your internal experiences.
Write about your experiences (focus especially on any negative ones) and how you feel about them. Once you’ve written out all the pain and anger and frustration, look at the experiences from a new perspective. What can you learn from them? What are they trying to teach you?
Understand that nothing in this life is a punishment, only a teacher. This process may take days or weeks or years, but the ability to see the lessons inside painful experiences gets easier with practice.
5. Do nice things for yourself.
Find those things that fill you up. That may include spending time in nature, watching movies, or seeing live music. Eat healthy, exercise, and relax. Take baths or maybe get a massage every once in a while.
Take pleasure in nurturing yourself so that you may nurture others.
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