Side Work and Dishpan Hands: The Unglamorous Side of Self-Care

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors! It’s good to be back behind the keyboard. Emily and I had a great time down in Florida, despite a few hiccups along the way- a bit of motion sickness, misplaced forms of ID, you know… the usual. Right?

As I hoped, or possibly feared, Florida gave me a lot of quiet time to think. Of course, my wife, mother, and in-laws were present to streamline things and make sure I didn’t spend the entire time sleeping or lost in thought- but there were plenty of moments when I knew I had to get my head in order, and more than a little worried about what that order might mean.

It’s a very frustrating and disconcerting thing to be afraid of your own thought processes. Here I was, trying to take a vacation that I sorely needed, and I couldn’t even do THAT right. My parents-in-law- who were putting us up in their house in the Lakeland area of Florida- gave us a blank ticket for whatever we wanted to do. “Treat yourself!” they said. “Whatever it is you want to do, do it because you can. You need to relax!”

A wonderful invitation, and certainly something Emily and I availed ourselves of- but self-care is not the same as “treating yourself.” Self-care is often doing things you don’t want to do- or are afraid to do- because they need to be done to make yourself better.


The term “self care” has become very popular in recent years in the wake of an increased awareness of the various chronic/mental illnesses that people live with each day. In some ways, it is a welcome backlash to the macho, “no pain no gain,” stiff-upper-lip, power-through-it philosophy that dominated professional life in America for ages. People are realizing that we are not called upon to be robots- we are human beings with bodies and minds, and those bodies and minds need maintenance. We can’t simply go full-throttle at all times for months on end and not expect something to give. People are slowly learning that it’s not a weakness to speak up about their mental/emotional well-being and that they need some relief.

Unfortunately, this philosophy has been co-opted and folded in to mean “treat yourself-” that self-care means indulging in long baths with expensive bath bombs and wine, or taking yourself out to an expensive dinner because “you deserve it” and that self-care is synonymous with “cut back a bit and relax. Buy the expensive chocolate. Drink that really good whiskey. You deserve it- look after yourself.”

Obviously, finding ways to relax and reward yourself for working hard IS important for one’s mental health. These are often presented as materialistic, commercial options, though they absolutely don’t have to be. It can be as simple as arranging a “mental health day” from work and enjoying some time sitting in the sun, or chilling out for a movie night on a weeknight. The issue arises, however, with the assumption that this is ALL self care is.

Self-care is also doing the simple, self-maintenance things that need to get done regularly but get pushed aside. When pushed aside long enough, doing those things can become daunting, frustrating, or scary- like seeking therapy for problems we’ve repressed, getting a handle on your finances, or organizing and cleaning your space. Not luxurious, or even especially pleasant in the doing of them- but they make your life better once they are done.
A vacation, a bath bomb, or a bottle of wine may help you relax for the moment- but they won’t make your problems vanish. A balanced budget, a clean room, and a therapy session will do much more for you in the long run than that bar of delicious chocolate will. All those treats are wonderful- but they are distractions and procrastination, not answers.
self care wheel by olga phoenix

From In fairness, yes, bubble baths ARE on there under “Physical”
As I was down in Florida, surrounded by palm trees, sun, and with all my biological/financial needs well-taken care of for a few days- this is what I had to face. Moving the body doesn’t get rid of your demons if they live in your head, and doing your side work sometimes means getting dishpan hands.
I tend to do my best, clearest thinking when I exercise. I took advantage of the cool, dark nights of central Florida to run through the quiet streets of my in-laws neighborhood, and worked out on the weight machines of their small fitness room. The sounds of various insects and wildlife enjoying the evening followed me down each street and past each perfectly manicured lawn. Since I started working out, exercise has always done that for me- not necessarily relaxing or a release, but a clearing of the mind. It would burn through just enough of the stress that I could think rationally about my problems, rather than get worked up over them.

How do I feel about what I do?”
Is it something I want to keep doing in the future?”
“For how long? Do I need to do something else for a while?”
“If so, what?”

Part of self-care is mindfulness- being aware of your own thought processes, and identifying when they are or are not serving you. In my case, I know that I am prone to letting my thoughts run in circles and catastrophic thinking. It’s an old habit- the notion that if I can predict the worst-case scenario, I can prepare for it, and maybe make it not happen. A sound idea in theory- except for when you burn so much energy wrestling with a possibility, you let actual likelihoods slip past you.

“Stop. You do well with processes. You like lists and procedures in your sleep. You rely on them daily. Make a list, an order of operations, and act on it.

 I’ve told friends that one reason I love working in a kitchen is because, in a kitchen, everything “makes sense.” I have an order things need to be done in- dictated by mise en place, mise en temps, the needs of the cafe, and the time/materials at my disposal. What I need is an order- a list to follow and complete. As I sweat through a workout and jog home through the cool air, my mind finally slows down- the first step in making a plan.


PictureEmily’s Naruto OC Kaiya.

The last evening Emily and I were going to be in Florida, we walked around Mirror Lake a few times. The breeze was winding itself around us as the sun went down. We were to meet our parents for dinner shortly, and had had the entire afternoon to ourselves. One thing Emily has helped me with is understanding and giving voice to my thoughts, rather than bottling them up and stewing over them. We discussed the mindfulness exercises that she had learned for herself. At some point, we discussed our respective fictional writing efforts- Kaiya, her original character in her on-going Naruto fanfiction and fan art, and Han, my current character in the Pathfinder RPG.

“Do you ever find yourself thinking ‘what would Kaiya do in this situation?’”

Every now and then- usually it would be compartmentalizing. She’d focus on whatever was at hand, and sort everything else out later, not let it interfere with her missions.”

“I can understand that… I feel like Han would find something to laugh at about all of it, and because he’s a Lawful Good character, he’d likely take comfort in the notion there was SOME kind of order to everything, and just let the process happen.”

Ahh.. yeah, probably. It’s a shame there really isn’t much of a process for this.”

“Han’d probably have a saying for that… something like “There’s an instruction manual for everything- sometimes you just have to be the one to write it.’”

…That’s actually really good. You should write that down.”

Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, as depicted by Grafik

The Monkey King Sun Wukong, by Grafik. My inspiration for Han.
Well, now I did.
Sometimes, depersonalizing your problems- or your solutions- makes them easier to accept. As odd as it sounds, that advice was great- it just had to come out of the fictitious mouth of a monkey-like Shaolin monk, rather than mine to myself.

When I got home, I started in on my own “instruction manual-” dealing with my worries one at a time, step by step.
Mise en place means having everything you need in the form you need it before you do anything.
The legendary ronin samurai Miyamoto Musashi suggested “attacking the corners-” cutting at the weak points of an obstacle rather than driving for the heart of it.

First was budgeting- making sure all my bills were paid, my savings goals were still on track. The software I use, YNAB (short for “You Need A Budget”) made it easier.
“Good. I don’t have to worry about that, but I should keep my eye on it.”

Then came cleaning and unpacking- getting my physical space in order. In the kitchen, a messy workspace reflects a messy mind.
If I can have direct, immediate control over this thing, I can have direct control over other things in my life. No more distractions.”

Finally came addressing my professional life:
1. Am I happy with where I am and what I’m doing?
2. If not, what would I like to be doing?
3. What are things I can do RIGHT NOW that under my control to make that happen?

1. Maybe, maybe not. I’ll keep an eye on that in the coming months to see.
2. I would like to keep baking and writing. I want to travel more, and ideally be paid to do it.
3. Ask around, keep my ear to the ground for opportunities, and keep doing the work I love. That is what makes it worthwhile.

Here is my plan. My order of operations. My instruction manual.

I wasn’t going to find any of it in a bathbomb.
Besides, I prefer showers anyway.

Stay Classy,

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