Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Habit, Identity, Self-Care, and Shame
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2016 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
Lately I've been working to acknowledge and honor the difference it makes to me to invest in various activities and habits when they do make a difference to me. Exercising every day, and setting out my workout stuff the night before so I can just grab it in the morning. Witnessing live music. Talking with friends via voice or in person, more often than would happen by chance. Using Beeminder to increase the quantity and frequency of good habits, and LeechBlock to reduce the amount of time I spend on Twitter or MetaFilter. Praying every day. Keeping my work area and my chunk of the bedroom relatively uncluttered, so I feel more peaceful and focused. And beside the noticeable positive effects are some strange echoes and murmurs that are also worth attention.
When the bedstand and bureau and desk are clear of clutter, sometimes I feel unmoored, as though I am surely just moved into or about to move away from this apartment. A life with great expanses of unused horizontal surface area is unfamiliar enough to me that it feels liminal, not mine. Yet, anyway; perhaps I can get used to it.
And sometimes, I feel shame about what I want or need, shame about what sustains me. This is different from anti-"guilty pleasure" bias. I engage in self-care in response to specific stress or disappointment. When a blow hits me, I curl up with the latest Courtney Milan romance novel and some combination of tea, cognac, corn nuts, and chocolate. And feminism has helped me overcome fatphobic and anti-feminine prejudice that castigated these forms of comfort. For instance, I now much more rarely use the word "trashy" for a certain genre of fiction; just as Disneyland takes a hell of a lot of engineering, fiction that conveys engaging characters and a diverting plot through accessible prose takes quite a lot of craft. And besides, what I'm feeling isn't guilt anyway; guilt is about what you've done. Shame is about what you are.
I can see that it helps me to use Beeminder and LeechBlock, to exercise, to pray, to make people laugh, to see live music. So why the sense of shame? I think it's because if I like or need those things, then I am not entirely autonomous, I am not entirely self-disciplined, I am not a brain in a jar. My body needs things, my sociability needs to be fed, my focus and persistence need assistance. The analysis presented by the social model of disability holds true here; I get the message that the way I am is wrong, but when I stop accepting that assumption and start systematically asking "why?", I figure out that it's because there's an assumption in my head that I should be as efficient and autarkic as a space probe.
So perhaps, along with "trashy", I should watch out for places in my internal narrative where "need" and "weak" and "strong" show up. Because yes, I need, and maybe needing feels weak, but if I recognize that need and then take care of it, aren't I strong as well?
I'm also disentangling my intuitions about care and power. I am the one setting up these habits, these guardrails, and I'm doing it as self-love, not as self-punishment or as a power play against another faction of myself. My mindfulness meditation practice has been reminding me to be less clingy about what I think my identity is, and Emily Nagoski's excellent Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life suggests it's helpful to think of one's self as a swarm or constellation. This approach helps me get less hierarchical about all the varying bits of me. So instead of rebelling, I can say "argh" and then say to myself "yeah I know" and then breathe and do the process anyway.
And I can see how I need to show myself self-love via accommodation. I am like both the builder of the building and the person with accessibility needs who needs to use that building. Wouldn't I want some other builder to build hospitably, and wouldn't I want other building users to joyfully make full use of the accommodation available?
And that loving approach, plus seeing my past successes, makes it easier for me to work the way that works for me. Timers, minigoals, setting up mise-en-place ahead of time. The timers and minigoals don't have to be optimal, just right enough to get me in the right neighborhood, then iterate from there. I can have patience and trust the process.
Perhaps the biggest change, the biggest unmooring, is to my identity. I was always behind on correspondence, always surrounded by clutter, fairly sedentary, and I had not realized how these formed part of the furniture of my mind until I started dismantling them. I am curious what the new configuration will be, and whether it will have a chance to consolidate before another set of changes begins.
Thanks to my friend J. and my friend and meditation teacher Emily Herzlin for conversations that led to this post.