Self consent: when we have to do things we don’t want to

Woman yawning with eyes closed holding lots of folders.

Treating ourselves consensually isn’t always about avoiding the things our bodies say a loud ‘no’ to. Afterall, sometimes we just have to do things we don’t want to, and sometimes the alternative is more unappealing.  We can find things difficult and unpleasant and still give our informed consent to them. Nevertheless, working out that you’re experiencing a ‘no’ to something you need to do — whether it is a medical appointment, date, travel or work commitment — can feel pretty awful. Many of us ‘soldier on’ because we don’t want to make a fuss, and we know it is something that has to happen. We don’t treat ourselves with the kindness and compassion that we would with anyone else that we loved.

I invite you to change that script. I think working out what we don’t want gives us useful information. When I feel my body giving me a ‘no’ signal, it gives me pause for thought. I suddenly have options. Firstly, I know I am embarking on something that is hard for me and I might want to limit the other difficult things I am doing that day if I can. Secondly, it tells me I need to do what I can to look after myself in the experience. Finally, I can identify the things that make it most stressful to me and try to mitigate those.

I’ll give you an example. Like lots of people, I intensely dislike medical appointments. My experience of a decade attempting to get a diagnosis for and then treatment for endometriosis has done nothing to dissuade me of the view that medics are primed to disbelieve me. Nevertheless, I know I have to actually go see my doctor from time to time, and also go for medical tests and hospital appointments. There are no two ways about it, I hate them. I used to try to just ‘soldier on’, otherwise known as disassociation. Unfortunately, this often led to me getting a lot clumsier and falling over more, and more importantly not being able to give the doctor/s the information I needed to or to advocate for myself effectively. It wasn’t a winning strategy. So, a number of years ago I decided to take an alternative approach. I decided to try to be present when I was going to these awful visits, and that to do so I needed to figure out how to look after myself. There are a lot of techniques, tactics and strategies for getting through awful appointments, and I picked several of them. I started asking for company when I knew an appointment was going to be particularly difficult (such as the several oncology appointments I had to attend a few years ago). I found that headphones and an electronic device made waiting rooms much more bearable; ditto with chocolate and games. I planned nice stuff for after appointments – very low stress nice stuff. I planned in some recovery time. I’m not going to try to say that these things were easy – actually it was hard to feel entitled to this kind of self-care – but it really was effective. I started to receive better medical care and I found that I was less emotionally wiped-out in the days after appointments.

Sometimes it can be hard to feel like I am entitled to treat myself with care and compassion when I have to do difficult things. If I think about my closest people experiencing the same things, I have a profound sense of compassion and care for them and I’d want them to look after themselves. Funny how self-care is sometimes harder than caring for others, isn‘t it? But then, as Audre Lorde said, “caring for self is not self-indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Like me, many of my clients and friends (especially women, people of colour and disabled people) fall into the trap of feeling like self-care is the same as self-indulgence. It is understandable that it can feel indulgent to take some of your very limited time to look after yourself or to make things that are hard just a little bit easier. But it is important work. I invite you to experiment with it; maybe it will work for you, and maybe you prefer toughing it out. If you’d like to try it, my next post will give you an exercise that could help you to work out how to be kind to yourself when you have to do something you don’t want to.

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