What is Emotional Self-Care?
To me, self care is the way we tend to ourselves to encourage our healing and well-being. Self care can be many things, from the way we eat, to the people we interact with, to the media we consume, to the way we move our bodies. It’s different from quick fixes or coping mechanisms that might make us feel better for a little while (though those are valuable in their own way). Self care is something that will settle into you and encourage long term healing and balance. Emotional self care is self care directed at our emotional health. It might intersect with physical, mental, and spiritual self care, but this post is specifically addressing some ways we can cultivate and nurture our emotional selves. To me, my emotional realm is a bit more nuanced to care for that my body or mind. It’s taken a longer time for me to figure out how to cope with my often powerful emotions without distancing myself from them or trying to escape. This post explains the techniques I’ve learned along the way.
A Note About Trauma Anniversaries
Emotional self care is, essentially, practicing ways of denying shame around who we are, what we’re going through, or how we feel. The example I will be using throughout this post is emotional self care in the context of a trauma anniversary. A trauma anniversary is a date or season that reminds us of something from our traumatic past. It could be the anniversary of something really painful, like the date of a traumatic event, or it could be the anniversary of something really positive, like the date you left an abuser. It might be a holiday or a birthday. I’ve found that whether the event is a positive or negative one, emotional self care is necessary to nurture myself. Anniversaries are potent. They can take our body back to the state and environmental conditions of something that happened that affected us for life. They can heighten the feeling of being “different” from everyone else. They are a great opportunity to dig into these practices of emotional self care.
1. Connect With Your Inner Child
Talking to my inner child is possibly the quickest way for me to access my emotional world and discover the best way to care for myself in real time. As adults, we can become really good at bottling up our emotions, especially if they’ve been condemned as inappropriate or “too much to handle”. But somewhere inside us lives our inner child, adolescent, and teenager, and their feelings are still alive, trust me. When you “talk” to your inner little one, it might look something like this: getting quiet, doing your best to remember and picture your past self, and asking them internally how they are feeling. Then you might sit quietly for a minute and wait for their response. It’s been incredibly surprising to me how quickly my inner child will express herself to me, if I’m quiet enough to listen. Then, if you like, you can write down everything they have to say. Set a timer and free write whatever comes to mind, holding nothing back. Keep asking questions to your inner child such as “what do you need?” “what can I do for you now?” “what do you want me to know?” If you have a tarot practice, you might use your cards to channel the responses. Otherwise, do your best to be present with the emotions and needs of your inner one. Let them know you’re here to listen and do the best you can to be present with them. If no one ever gave you the permission to feel or express your feelings as a child, this exercise might seem really weird or even scary. The main point of it for me is to make a promise to your past self that your current self is here for them. That they are safe to express themselves now. That their emotions matter. In this way, you’re showing your adult self that your emotions today matter, too.
If you’re looking to acknowledge a trauma anniversary, your inner child might have some ways to do that as well. They might want to mourn, grieve, or rage. They might want to play, dance, and celebrate. If you feel lost in the upheaval of emotions surrounding a trauma anniversary, whether the occasion at the time was joyful or horrific, your inner child might have a clearer vision for how they’d like to mark the event. It can be helpful to hear what they have to say instead of relying solely on how your adult-self thinks you’re “supposed to feel”.
2. Employ Curiosity Instead of Judgement
When facing our emotional world, especially the often deep and intense emotions of our inner children, it can be easy to let the voice of shame speak in the tone of judgement. Things like trauma recovery aren’t widely or commonly discussed (although I’m doing my best to change that), so they aren’t generally understood. There are scare few containers or places to go for validation on having intense emotions related to our trauma, especially if it happened many years ago. People aren’t generally equipped with the tools to handle their own emotions, let alone other people’s traumatic stories and emotions. Because of this, many people are afraid. If you look around at the general culture, you’ll find this reflected back at you. The consensus seems to be: keep pushing forward, don’t ever look back, the past is in the past (read: GET OVER IT). It hurts to have well meaning friends and family say things like “don’t look back, the future is wide open. The past is gone.” in an attempt to encourage you to be positive and hopeful. Regardless of the intent, it usually ends up sounding like your emotions surrounding your trauma aren’t welcome to be shared. Alas, as with most things, these ideas become internalized with us, resulting in shame and the voice of judgement. This comes out as us immediately shooting down our emotions because they are “ridiculous” “too much” or “don’t make sense”. We cope by finding ways to ignore or bury our emotions because the voice of judgement says they aren’t welcome here.
The emotional self-care balm I’ve found for judgement is curiosity. When accessing our emotional world, there can be a lot of confusion. For example, on the trauma anniversary of the day I left my abuser (March 11th (3/11)), I used to try to celebrate, and then struggle with judgement when I’d feel really sad instead because “I’m supposed to be happy”. This can happen on birthdays and holidays too. Shame loves an opportunity to make us feel bad for how we already feel. So, let’s employ curiosity to ease the shame and encourage healing. Curiosity is looking at our emotions with a lens of care and wonder. Of gentle prodding and wondering why, and being okay with what is. Curiosity might sound like “Hm, I wonder why I feel so sad on a day that seems like one I’d remember with joy?” or “I wonder how it would feel to do some yoga or go on a walk instead of forcing myself to run?”or “That’s interesting I feel this way, maybe I can look into it further by writing about it?”. Curiosity is open ended where judgement is closed. Curiosity encourages discovery where judgement encourages shame. Using a curious lens requires the mindfulness to CHOOSE not to engage with shame, which is often easier and feels more familiar within the culture of victim-blaming. Curiosity is a practice that grows stronger with time, and a gift we can share with others when we listen to their stories with an air of non-judgement and a genuine desire to understand.
3. Use Vulnerability and Affirmation
For the next emotional self care practice, we practice being vulnerable with our emotions as they are, and constructing affirmations to move forward. To begin the process of vulnerability, create a container of safety and acceptance for yourself to write out your feelings as honestly and truthfully as possible. Grab a paper and pen or open up a note on your phone. Make a vow that its okay to feel however you’re feeling. Keep your curiosity mindset and explore your feelings. Set a timer for 5, 10, or 15 minutes and write out your stream of consciousness. This is real vulnerability time, so don’t be afraid to hold anything back. Try to peer past the walls that hold you emotions inside and let yourself discover your feelings through the act of writing them out. Try to just keep writing, even if it’s just repeating a sentence over and over or saying “i don’t know what to say”. Anything that pops in your head, write it down. You will surely discover something about your emotional landscape on that page when the time is up.
After you let out your emotions in this vulnerable manner, you might want to sit with them for a while. You can underline passages or phrases in your writing that seem really potent, or are maybe pointing to some emotions you previously didn’t know existed. You might notice patterns that repeat throughout the writing. Find something, or multiple things, that stick out to you as ideas you want to release or heal. See them as your inner child talking to you, expressing their feelings. Now it’s time to vow to them that you are safe. You are adult you, you are in the present moment, and you are in charge. Use the power of affirmation to create a statement that empowers you. Something that reminds you of your resilience. Something that affirms your innate goodness. It might turn a previous vulnerable shame statement right on it’s head, such as transforming “I can’t believe I let this happen” into “It was never my fault. I was powerful enough to surive. I did the best I could”. It might simply be a message of comfort or peace to your inner emotional world, such as “I am safe now. I am here for myself. I will shame myself no longer”. One of my favorite affirmations is from the song “Aloha Ke Akua” by Nahko And Medicine For the People: “I am capable, I am powerful”. It’s simple enough to repeat over and over, and reminds me that even when I’m feeling overwhelmed and sick with trauma, I am capable and powerful, just by surviving and working on healing. I highly recommend that song, it’s basically a whole affirmation.
4. Reach Out To A Safe Community
A powerful form of emotional self care can be found in letting yourself be seen, or looking for comfort in a safe community. Trauma and shame thrive in isolation. Abuse thrives in isolation. Although it can be extremely difficult, opening ourselves up emotionally to others can be profoundly healing under the right conditions. If you open yourself up to someone who doesn’t have the capacity to be there for you, it can be really wounding. So make sure you pick someone, or a community, that you trust will be supportive, especially when you’re really feeling emotionally stuck or overwhelmed. This could be a family member, a friend, a coach, or a therapist. It can be really challenging to seek out help and let ourselves be seen, but shame truly dies in the light of compassion and validation, in the warmth of someone saying “me too” or “i’m here for you, no matter what.” If there’s no one in your life that you feel comfortable talking to, maybe consider reaching out to a trauma informed therapist or coach. It was really hard for me to talk to my friends and family, too.
A huge asset to my healing has been the community of survivors, psychotherapists, social justice activists and other wonderful people on Instagram, of all places. That’s what my whole platform is about – helping people see they aren’t alone, aren’t crazy, and that there is hope for healing. When I was really going through the process of awakening to trapped painful emotions, I didn’t have this community. I didn’t know how to talk to my friends about it either. So I created my platform and started posting bits of my recovery journey online. And if you’re reading this, you’ve probably found my work through Instagram. I have truly never felt more seen and supported by a group of people in my life, and the group keeps getting bigger. I’ve found so much support and validation on that little app, and for all the annoying stuff about social media, it’s really helped me. So if you don’t feel safe talking about your trauma with anyone in your offline world, know there’s a place for you in the Blooming Forward community, where you’ll never be pushed away, judged, or blamed for your trauma.
5. Practice Gratitude For Yourself
Gratitude is the practice of appreciation. It is expressing your thankfulness. Gratitude is a great healing practice in general, but within the focus of emotional self care, I think it’s really important to practice gratitude for ourselves. If you survived trauma, you have something to be thankful for in yourself. Wherever that strength and resilience came from is something to be grateful for to be sure, but don’t forget who lived it out. YOU DID. No one can force someone else to break the cycle of abuse, only the person living it can decide they want something better. They want to heal. They don’t want to do it anymore. Just the desire to get better is a beautiful aspect of yourself. So say you’re grateful. Write it down, meditate on it if you wish.
“I am grateful for myself for surviving. I am grateful for myself for doing my best. I am grateful for myself for doing this work today. I am grateful for myself for letting me have emotions. I am grateful for my body for doing its best to keep me alive. I am grateful for my mind for trying to protect me from pain. I am grateful for my heart for letting me feel joy. I am grateful for my soul for connecting me to all that it is.”
Gratitude for oneself is not selfish or indulgent. It is a radical act to choose love and care of self over shame and destruction. Think about it, how would your abuser or parts of society want you to feel today? Embarrassed over your feelings, ashamed to be feeling the way you do, desperate for escape and generally struggling to be okay with yourself? Likely. So what messages can you send to yourself that directly counteract that framework? Can you send love, gratitude, and care? Can you create safety? Can you nurture your inner child like they always deserved to be? Can you cultivate curiosity for your experience? Can you remind yourself how powerful you are for surviving? It’s a radical act to break the cycle, and heal from trauma. But we are capable of it. I truly believe that we are miracles.
In Conclusion: Take Care
Be slow, be patient, be gentle with yourself. Do the opposite of what the trauma did to you. Your feelings are valid, whatever they are. Your experience is real, and it matters. I see you, I feel you, I’m here with you. May your emotional self care be a continual practice that defies that horror you’ve lived through. May you see your choosing of self as the radical, beautiful act that it is. May you take care, now and always.