Comfort Sponge: Emotional Labor and Self-Care

a yellow dish sponge
Image by brycecollier / CC BY

Saturday morning. Slept in. But I’m still exhausted from another long week at work.

It’s all conflict all the time now there. Between my coworkers, the mediation, the hearing people out.

The fear. The lack of insight. From everyone. And I’m sure there’s stuff I’m not seeing, as tempting as it is to judge everyone.

Even the people I agree with seem to have arrived at the same conclusions I have through dubious means. Selfishness. Suspicion. Outrage.

I have no “atta girl” left in me. And I’m starting to accept that it might take the entire weekend to recover from weeks for a while. And that I might have to redefine what “recover” means to me.

In the shower, as I’m waiting for the conditioner to do its magical untangling trick, I feel sweet fingers on my back. Stroking both sides of my spine. In a way that tells me they understand.

It’s a microsecond before I remember that Skyspook is still upstairs looking up specs for my car, so he can do some maintenance. Helping. But in a different way.

They’re my hands on my back.

They’re my fucking hands.

I’m hugging myself. I’m comforting myself.

Telling myself, “Shhh… sweetie, it’ll be okay.”

And in that moment I’m stunned. That’s not what I do. My inner monologue has long been the presence of Mean Mom Voice: “When was the last time you brushed your hair? The dog takes better care of hers than you do.”

“What’s the point of having a brain like that? You’re a waste of intelligence.”

And forget about hugs. New England Catholics, we always leave room for the holy spirit, like nuns at a school dance urging you to inch further apart. The two of you dancing with the splay of a sawhorse.

*

Looking back, it’s been a curious process. One thing has led to another.

I loved others first — long before I ever loved myself. And as friends and lovers (and many a mix of both) loved me, with their extraordinary patience, care, concern, and expenditure of emotional labor, they taught me.

They taught me how to do it myself.

For years, it seemed like nothing was happening. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get away from the feelings of shame, that every critic was right about me, that there was nothing good to be had from knowing me or from my very presence in this world.

No matter what anyone said or did, I believed I was worthless. I could act pleasant, but I felt miserable. Even as I managed to hold pain at arm’s length and convince everyone, including myself, that I was fine, super fine, great! Well, I hurt. All the time.

And then, I started to catch myself arguing, earnestly, with that inner critic. Repeating positive observations trusted friends had shared.

As it was modeled for me, by others, I learned to see positive things in myself.

And apparently to comfort myself.

*

Yeah, it’s kind of weird. Yeah, I should probably get more sleep. Find more islands of respite in the sea of stress. Spread out my coping into multiple buckets, so I don’t exhaust any one source. Or myself. Because I’m exhausted. I’m a comfort sponge wrung too many times. Falling half apart.

I gotta be careful, sure.

But the shower thing? It gives me hope. That maybe we can sponge comfort where we can and transfer it to the next.

Even if “the next” is us sometimes.

 

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