The four Rs: A framework to help you set boundaries, practice sustainable Self-care, and do more of what matters.
By Justine Sones
In 2018, I had a mental breakdown after becoming a mother of two — it turned out that the pressure to build a business and raise wee ones was a little much.
At this point I’d been in the wellness industry for nearly a decade: first as a massage therapist, helping people manage their physical pain, then as a stress-management coach, supporting clients as they work through their mental/emotional discomfort and practice Self-care.
When I found myself momming hard with a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old. I “knew” all the things I was “supposed to do” to stay physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy…or so I thought. Imagine my shock as it all became too much when my natural predisposition towards anxiety and depression collided with postpartum and the stress of becoming a mother.
For the first time in my life, I couldn’t stay ahead of my self-care game as the stressors in life stacked faster than my ability to cope. Crying kids, unending laundry piles, sleep deprivation, etc etc drained my capacity to deal with those stressors, and the cycle got more and more vicious.
Part of the problem is that by the time that I realized I was struggling, I was already in too deep to find a simple fix. Those coping mechanisms that had helped in the past — like exercise, work, alone time, meditation, sleep — weren’t helping, even when I was finding time to fit them in.
Without the space or capacity to take care of myself, I wasn’t able to fill my cup. But I kept pouring out for others, until I had completely emptied my Self — and was suffering as a result.
Enter, the first of the 4Rs
Retreat: A Survival Skill
There was a time that I would hear “retreat” and think about a super bougie experience that required advanced planning, time, and money: An escape to The Spa, time spent at a cabin in the woods without any Wi-Fi, or a silent meditation experience with a woman who smells like patchouli but calls herself Sage.
What I didn’t think about was retreat in the context of self-preservation, like a wounded rabbit who flees to escape the threat of a predator.
But that’s what Retreat refers to — when you have to remove yourself from a threatening situation and find a safe space so that you can recover…and heal from any harm that was caused in the process.
Retreat is a natural survival skill, which is why we see animals do it. Animals don’t take bubble baths or drink wine, but they do Retreat; otherwise, they’d be eaten alive.
This process can look different for everybody — from taking off for a week of alone time, to closing yourself in the bathroom and locking the door for five minutes at a time — and it can look different for the same person, depending on the day or stage of life you’re in.
Retreat is about finding a safe space so that you can figure out what you need.
No matter where you are, it’s possible to engage in Retreat with what’s available to you — because what Retreat does is create space between you and the threat or source of stress…and when it comes to our mental and emotional well-being, finding that safe space is an inside job.
When I came out of the Retreat I needed in 2018, the safe space I had claimed (five days of alone time house sitting for a friend) allowed me to meet the immediate need to heal from the stress of full-on momming.
I was able to develop a stronger anchor in my Self, and start filling my previously leaky cup by practicing new ways to manage the stressors in my life. Ultimately, I was able to create new, more sustainable, systems of support for when the next emotional riptide threatened to take me under.
Because waves keep coming; they always will.
And as you learn to navigate the waters (by holding your boundaries and practicing sustainable Self-care), you’ll get better at riding those waves.
That’s what the second R is all about.
Recovery: Processing stress as it happens
One of the biggest lies I was sold during my indoctrination into growth and self-development culture was the power of (toxic) positivity. I believed that happiness and feeling good all the time and in all circumstances was the goal. This practice often resulted in bypassing deeper issues or coating them with a glittery veneer of gratitude and affirmations.
If we aren’t willing to admit that “negative” emotions exist, we can’t do anything to tend to their effects, or to address the root cause of the pain.
Feeling good all the time isn’t the point. Learning how to navigate the waters and surviving in spite of the challenges is.
Whether we’re facing big changes that we’ve been working towards for a while, or are caught off guard by a sudden change of plans, it’s inevitable that not-so-good-feelings and stressors are a part of life. We are wired to respond to the stimulus in our environment, “good” or “bad”.
Stress is normal, and even healthy, as long as we make space to process and tend to it.
That’s why we need Recovery.
Recovery is about developing an awareness of how to manage our fluctuating needs and creating routines that help us extend the value of our retreat and rest.
Recovery practices allow us to honour our feelings (and boundaries!) as they come up, so that we can find resolution and keep going — instead of getting stuck in the emotional riptide that neglected feelings can perpetuate.
Recovery is physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. It can look like running, baking, gardening, spending time with friends, organising the closet, watching a movie, sleeping, saying “no” to a loved one, reading, chopping wood, or just being.
Recovery depends on not only being able to name our needs and find ways to meet them on our own, but it also requires finding and nurturing connections with other people who are doing the same thing and, as a result, have the capacity to support us in this whole-hearted pursuit of life.
When you start to recover you build up to the third R.
Reserves: It feels good to give
I remember the year I started making enough money babysitting and could buy my friends and family Christmas presents.
Prior to that, holidays had always been about receiving gifts. But being able to pick out a special present for someone that I loved, imagining how much they would love it, and actually seeing the look on their face when they opened the gift and loved it … that felt good.
Whether it’s giving the perfect gift, dropping off dinner for a friend going through a rough pocket, or being with someone until they make it to the other side of a hard feeling, showing up for and supporting the people that we love is part of what enriches our life.
And while a lot of wellness advice culture is focused on the routines that we create to meet our needs, the Self-care picture isn’t complete without talking about community care. Community care nourishes connection, allowing us to depend on each other.
But the only way that we can maintain the Reserves that allow us to participate in community is when we’re also willing to receive support from others.
Our Reserves will be at different levels during different stages in different relationships.
For instance, I could have the Reserves to hold space for my friend as they navigate some emotional turmoil, while feeling completely unable to hold space for my partner at the end of their long day.
Or I could feel more tenderness towards my baby when he cries than my toddler who’s throwing a tantrum. Reserves are not available for everyone at every moment, and that’s OK. I focus on the fact that the more I allow myself the space to Retreat and Recover, the more Reserves I have available to give.
These days, when I’m consistent with my Recovery practices, I’m able to build healthy Reserves to give from so that I can support the people I love, and ultimately, create meaningful change.
Which brings us to the 4th R…and why all of the Self-care matters in the first place:
Revolution: Challenging unjust systems and creating meaningful change
Self-care isn’t just about feeling relaxed as you drift off to sleep at the end of the night, although that is really nice. It’s about keeping yourself alive — and maybe even thriving — in spite of living in a world that grinds so many through racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, colonialism…the list goes on.
More than tending to our physical needs, Self-care is also about meeting our emotional needs; so that we’re able to set down our defense mechanisms, sit with our feelings of discomfort, and grow through them so we can learn how to do better — challenging these unjust systems and putting in the work to change them…for our Selves, and, for the people around us.
That’s where real Self-care comes in; the kind that helps you create space so that you can name the feeling, the story, and the reaction — and make better choices that minimize the harm we cause and maximize the contribution we’re able to make.
Self-care provides you with the resources you need to be doing the work without burning yourself out — or others down — in the process.
When I’m defensive, I’m not listening, I’m not learning, and I’m sure as hell not going to do better. In fact, I’ll probably continue to repeat harmful patterns the next time I’m confronted with information that makes me uncomfortable.
Real Self-care doesn’t allow us to avoid or bypass the discomfort: It equips us with the tools we need to lean into it, and to tend to whatever comes up in the process.
Anti-racism, social justice, and the fight for equality require Revolution.
The 4 Rs are all about healing the hurt that’s holding us back, breaking old patterns that aren’t serving us, and creating new ones that support us in doing more of the things that matter.
A deadly combination of white supremacy and capitalism (with a dollop of patriarchy) has taught us that “self-care” is something we buy from an Instagram ad, and that the end goal is to “feel good” or “look our best”.
It’s also taught us that rest is something we have to earn, and our worth is something we have to prove.
The 4 Rs are an antidote to that indoctrination. They are a life-long commitment to ourselves to keep showing up, holding the people we love accountable to what’s right, and to keep doing the work that really matters.
Especially when it’s hard. Because it is hard.
But we can’t show up for the Revolution and be part of the change this world desperately needs if we don’t have the Reserves to give from — and that tank will quickly run dry if you aren’t honouring your human needs for Recovery and Retreat.
And remember: This process isn’t about achieving or arriving, it’s about practising. These aren’t linear steps to follow or boxes that you check, they’re part of a framework to help you assess how you feel, what you need, and what you’re available to give — because at the end of the day, what we really need is each other.
For more from Justine Sones visit www.justinesones.com and follow her @justinesones
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