Sometimes I think people believe I have it all figured out.
I’ve always been characterized as an “old soul.” I’ve been called wise-beyond-my-years, “the most self-aware teenager” someone’s ever met, and more than a few times been assured that I must be at least 500 years old if we’re counting past lives.
When I was little, I didn’t play well with other kids because I didn’t understand baby talk — my parents refused to talk to me with it. When I was in preschool, I got in trouble for telling all the kids how babies were made (very scientifically, I might add). When I got older and moved onto high school, my focus wasn’t on things like prom and drama and boys as much as it was on using yoga to figure my shit out and try to move on from an eating disorder and lifetime of anxiety.
Growing up, this felt more like a curse than a blessing. I felt inherently different from my peers, unable to enjoy things like staying out late or going to parties thanks to my good ol’ constant companions of mental illness and perfectionism. I put the weight of the world on my shoulders at the behest of these companions, convinced that everything was my responsibility and, by extension, my fault. A bad grade on a test didn’t just mean a lower GPA to me, it meant I was lazy, unmotivated, and unintelligent. Socializing brought with it the inevitability of some form of anxiety or panic, which of course didn’t send the message to me that I needed help but instead that something about me was broken and unnecessary.
Things that should have been a part of the normal teenage experience only served to remind me of how unworthy I felt I was.
When I first began writing publically, I shared the revelations I had on my yoga mat that helped me accept my nature as a perfectionist and begin to move past it. I shared my musings with the world as fearlessly as I could in an attempt to talk back to the voice in my head that made me feel so foreign in a world that seemed to value people who were fun and spontaneous and naturally perfect instead of my forced perfectionism above all else. When my writings (and eventually, my teachings of yoga) began to resonate with people, I felt a new sense of purpose. The things I had learned, the lessons that had come from many years of intense internal pain and struggle, were helping people. It was that purpose that allowed me, perhaps for the first time in my life, a sense of peace and acceptance of myself even if I couldn’t be as perfect as I’d always tried to be.
I’ve come to find through this process that helping people is what brings me that peace. The knowing that my life’s work thus far has touched even just one person in the process of figuring my own shit out is what wakes me up and fills me with joy each and every day. I’m never as fulfilled or happy as I am after a yoga class where someone tells me something I said resonated with them or shifted their perspective in some way. Or when I receive a thoughtful letter or email from someone who’s read something I wrote, seen the CNN article, or watched the movie and said the same thing. To think that I’ve touched someone life in even remotely the same way as my teachers have touched my life is a blessing beyond anything I can put into words.
So it makes sense that I try to spend most of my time helping people.
At this point, it hardly feels like trying. Those who need the kind of help I can offer seem to naturally wander into my life nowadays, right when we need each other the most. Growing up I never knew exactly what kind of job I wanted to have, but I knew what I wanted it to feel like: like I was making a difference. And it’s that spirit of intention that has made every hour I’ve spent answering emails, calling practical strangers to offer advice or a listening ear, working with kids, and writing things here worth it with every ounce of my being. My life would be, honestly and truly, empty without being able to help others the way I have the opportunity to do now.
A few months ago, I took a class with one of my teachers back home. As we lay in a spinal twist, she asked us to list in our head the things that fill us up and bring us joy. The first thing that popped into my head was the position I’m now in, where I’m able to give back to the world the energy I was given to help me heal. Where I once used to be the one who needed all the support I could find in order to simply be alive, I’m now able to be the one helping others up from the dark place I used to call home. Stepping into my role as a guide of some sort has been like flipping a switch in my life from ambling misdirection to intentional joy.
But of course, my teacher called me out once she must’ve read my mind. As she always does.
“And if you thought, ‘helping people fills me up,'” she said to the class over the soft hum of the heater, “Think of something else. Something that is purely for you. Purely self care.”
Well shit. I thought, as I often think in yoga class, Now what?
Since then, I’ve sought a resolution. You see, I’ve got the self care thing pretty down pat. I’m really good at making time to get on my yoga mat, and eating foods that make me feel happy and nourished, and getting enough sleep, and seeking out alone time when I need it. I schedule my own therapy sessions like an adult and I have gotten very comfortable telling friends when I “need to introvert for awhile.” Being my own self-advocate? I’ve got that one.
But allowing myself to not do the work and just be taken care of?
On Thanksgiving I took another class with another well shit moment. As we lay in savasana, a seemingly insignificant memory popped into my head, almost like a dream. It was from last May, when I’d spent all day teaching at the Girl Scouts bridging event in San Francisco and come back to my dorm with a wicked sunburn on my chest. When she saw what had happened, my friend ran down the hall with a bottle of aloe vera for me to use on it. Laying on my mat, I felt overcome by the happiness and gratitude I’d had in that moment, not too long ago. And I asked myself, why did this memory come to me right now?
I realized it was because it was a moment where I’d felt taken care of.
When I was little, my mom went back to work after being a stay-at-home-mom for the first decade of my life.
We’d been constant companions that entire time, and those memories are ones that I’ll cherish forever. But one that sticks out in my mind was a rainy day in first grade when I’d made plans for a playdate with a few friends. I stood out in the rain on the playground, my pigtails soaked, waiting until long after the the last kid had left their class for my friends to arrive. When they never did (turns out their daycare had cupcakes that day, which to a little kid seems way more important that any other plans you may have had), I trudged through the rain to where my mom was waiting in her car, more than a little concerned with where I’d been.
Of course, I did what little kids do best when they’re sad, and I cried. At the time it felt like the worst rejection possible, like I’d been entirely forgotten. And I’m sure to an adult it didn’t seem like that big of a deal, just a little bit of miscommunication, but my mom stepped into my shoes and allowed me to feel everything I was feeling in that moment. She drove me home, drew me a hot bath and peeled off my cold and wet clothes, and let me cry for awhile in the steamy water.
Eventually, she came in holding a big red box. I still remember exactly what it looked like: covered in stars and the fancy kind of cardboard that’s soft to the touch. She had it turned around so that the side with the clear plastic window was pressed into her chest, but I still knew immediately what was inside.
“It came a few days early, and I was going to wait to give it to you, but I want you to have this.”
It was the fancy doll I’d been saving for months to buy with my pocket change from doing odd jobs around the house and for neighbors. She was blonde with a tiny braid running down her fringe and she had on the most delicate clothes I’d ever seen. She had a perpetual smile on her face and big brown eyes with real eyelashes and eyelids that really closed when she laid down. I’d wanted her so badly and for so long, and she was magically here just when I needed her.
I felt taken care of.
As I got older and my mom started working harder and longer hours, building a successful career that she never thought she’d have the opportunity to have, the little moments like this between us began to spread further and further apart. It wasn’t that I was neglected or ignored, our focuses just shifted. She was focused on work, I was becoming consumed by school and, eventually, my disorder. When we could spend time together we were tired or cranky, usually getting into fights or bickering with one another.
When I was a sophomore in high school one of my closest friends and I split apart. They no longer wanted to be my friend and I no longer could be theirs. It was someone I was deeply close to and cared deeply about, but I didn’t want to show my mom (or anyone else for that matter) how much it hurt me to no longer be their friend. Keeping all my feelings inside made it easier to keep up my charade of perfectionism, after all. And even a year or two into my recovery and my yoga practice, I was still learning how to be honest with my emotions.
But that night, when my mom picked me up from yoga class (because I still couldn’t drive, and she was on her way home from work), she handed me a slender silver box. Inside was the tiniest necklace I’d ever seen, with an elephant charm smaller than the nail on my pinky finger on it. She told me she just wanted me to know someone was always there for me, no matter what happened. I didn’t cry because that would be revealing too much emotion, of course, but I wanted to.
Because I felt taken care of.
It wasn’t about the material things. It wasn’t about the items themselves. It was about feeling like I was noticed. About feeling like I was a little kid with someone looking over me to make sure everything was okay. It was about getting a little reminder that someone was there, a gift that wasn’t given because it was a birthday or holiday or obligation.
I’m older now. I’m a sophomore in college. My parents still pay my rent and let me live in their house when I’m not at school. I have health insurance and my parents bought me a car when I was 16 that I still drive. Objectively and materialistically, I’m taken care of. There are so many people who would look at me and wonder how I could ever feel anything less than taken care of.
Which is why I felt so much shame when I realized these memories I cling to touch me so much because I often don’t feel taken care of.
I’m sure a lot of it is my fault. I’m fiercely independent to the point of stubbornness. I’m the kind of person who always says, “I’m fine!” when someone offers to help me carry something heavy upstairs. I’d rather help someone else with their problems than try to bring up my own. I’m oftentimes empathetic to the point that it’s easier to me to feel someone else’s pain that to sit with my own and allow another person to help me navigate it.
I have multiple jobs, earn my own money, manage my own time, couldn’t be described as anything less than enthusiastic in pursuit of opportunity. And I love that about myself. I love that I’m helpful and eager to ease others’ pain.
But sometimes it stands in the way of admitting that I’m not 500 years old.
I’m not just a teacher.
I’m not just an old soul.
Sometimes, that little kid in the rain is still there, who just wants to be hugged and drawn a hot bath. Sometimes, that sad little sophomore creeps out, wanting someone to remind her she’s taken care of. Sometimes, I don’t want to be the one who people think has it all figured out. Sometimes, I want to be the one taken care of instead of doing the caring.
But even as I write this, my ego pops up and asks me who I am to feel this way. How selfish, how stupid, how childish of me to think that I deserve to whine about not feeling taken care of. I’m loved and people tell me I’m loved all the time. I have a place to live and food to eat. Who am I to think I’m not taken care of?
I try to take a step back and imagine what I would say if someone else came to me with the same words I just wrote. Would I shun them and assure them that everything is fine and they should just get over themselves? Or would I tell them their feelings are valid and they deserve to be heard and understood? Am I so special that I’m the single exception to my own advice?
But perhaps what I need to do is take a step even further back. To realize that yes, I am an old soul. And yes, I am a young yogi. And yes, I have the ability to help people and happened to learn some lessons in life a little earlier than most. But I’m still just 19. I’m still just a kid. I’m still someone who needs to just be shown a little love sometimes. To be refilled so that I can continue to help others.
And I need to let my guard down and allow this to happen.
I can’t keep always saying yes, yes, yes. I can’t keep giving when I have no more to give. I can’t keep pushing away the people who try to take care of me. And I need to acknowledge that while self care is wildly important, so is allowing in the care of others, too.
Because when the idea of getting your hair washed and cut by someone else as you try to plan a hair appointment makes you want to cry at the idea of having someone just take care of you for an hour or two, something is out of balance. And I don’t have the answers yet as to how to navigate this or what the real answer is, all I know is that it’s been on my mind, and I feel compelled to share it.
Maybe someone out there, maybe you, doesn’t feel taken care of.
And I don’t want anyone to think feeling this way is okay.
We all have that little kid inside of us, that little kid who hopefully remembers what it was like to just be held while we cried or made our favorite dinner as a surprise or something else that made us feel completely taken care of. That little kid is still in there, still needs to be nourished and cared for, even as we grow older.
I’m good at the self care thing. I’m good at the caring for others thing. I’m working on being taken care of.
Photos by Isabella Elmore, shared with love.