The Dolphin Way to Self-Care

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For interview #11 in the Self-Care series I have the pleasure of introducing you to Dr. Shimi Kang. When I first learned about Dr. Kang’s work, I felt like I was meeting a kindred spirit. Though I had never connected with her before, I knew I wanted to chat with Dr. Kang about self-care, and I am so glad I asked.

Dr. Kang is an award-winning, Harvard-trained doctor, researcher, media expert, and lecturer on human motivation. Her book, The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into A Tiger (Penguin Books 2014) has just hit #1 as a Canadian Bestsellar. She is the Medical Director for Child and Youth Mental Health for Vancouver community, a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, and the founder of the Provincial Youth Concurrent Disorders Program at BC Children’s Hospital. Dr Kang has helped hundreds of children, adolescents, and parents move toward positive behaviors and better health. In 2012, Dr Kang received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her years of outstanding community service. She is also the proud mother of three “awesome” children!

I feel so honoured that amidst her busy schedule, Dr. Kang took the time to share her insights on self-care.

1. Today I took care of me means…

I would say it means that the individual has their priorities right. As a psychiatrist, I see so many people who do not take care of themselves and they are ending up ill and suffering and unable to take care themselves, let alone anybody else. They become someone who needs looking after.

As a parent, “easier said than done” is what would come to my mind when I think about looking after myself. However, that is not an excuse not to do it. Despite my knowledge and experience as a psychiatrist, I still find it hard to do it as a parent. Knowing how important something is does not mean we will act upon that knowledge. However, recognizing importance is a first step towards making something a priority.

2. I practice self-care by…

For me, this is connected to the Dolphin Way. I use the acronym POD as my way of remembering self-care and how to bring balance back into our very imbalanced life.

P is for play. When we play we are actually stimulating the frontal cortex of our brain, really working on the part of the brain that helps us cope with uncertainty, deal with challenges, and problem solve. It is highly motivating to play. Play can be anything you enjoy – gardening, walking, hobbies… the things that make you feel good. The reason why we feel so good is because our own biology rewards us with a feel good neurochemical called dopamine when we play. Play is part of a healthy and balanced human life.

O is for others. Part of what I believe is involved with self-care is being connected to others. Social bonding or true connection is very motivating and also gives us a hit of dopamine. When I have connected with somebody in a meaningful way, that is good for me, and helps me look after myself.

D is for downtime. Simply not being so busy, slowing down, drinking enough water, sleeping enough are important aspects of self care. 85% of Canadians are dehydrated, 40% of Canadian children are sleep deprived… Like a computer sometimes you need to hit the reset button. Give yourself a rest and a recharge so you can come back to everything again.

3. What is a clue that you need more self-care?

I think our biology gives us signals constantly and they are all cues. When I feel frazzled, it tells me I need to slow down, when I am tired, I need rest, when I am thirsty, I need to drink water… My cue is being aware of my own signals and respecting and honouring them. “The Dolphin Way” really is a metaphor for the human way, so it is guaranteed to work. If we are in tune and in a state of connection – we will be in a state of balance. It works for positive aspects too, not just negative. For example, when we are feeling curious, that is a signal to seek information. We just have to listen to ourselves.

4. When is self-care hardest?

When I am a tiger or a jellyfish. I talk about these metaphors a lot in the book. When we are out of balance we become the overbearing tiger or the permissive jellyfish. When I am exhausted I am a jellyfish. I have no direction, no focus, turn a blind eye to my children’s bad behaviour. When I am stressed, I am a tiger and can be pushy and demanding.

When I am in either end of the spectrum, it is a sign to me that I need self-care. It is also noteworthy that the thing that takes me to those extremes is lack of self-care in the first place.

The “dolphin” in me is the balance between those two approaches. Firm but flexible in your interpersonal style and living a life of balance. Then self-care can fit in.

5. How do you think your self care, or lack of, affects the world?

In general, I would say we are living in an era of paradox because we are the most informed group of humans that have walked the planet in terms of our access and knowledge about healthcare information and resources. Also, we have incredible conveniences compared to previous generations, who, for example, had to wash clothes by hand and did not have the luxury of a washing machine.

However, lifestyle related conditions – diabetes, depression, anxiety, heart disease – they are rooted in genetics but all increasing at alarming rates because of the imbalance in our lifestyle. Not paying attention to self-care is a big part of that. That means that lack of self-care is correlated to the current biggest threat to our humanity. It also means the biggest threat can be modified or mitigated with acts of self-care.

6. Do you have any self-care strategies that always do the trick?

Sleep – sleep will not take your problems away but I can guarantee, you will cope better with your problems when you are rested than when you are sleep deprived. I tell my patients if they are sleep deprived, they will not get better. In fact, they will get worse.

The dolphin metaphor comes in here too. Dolphins sleep with one hemisphere of their brain. They get 8 hours of rest by keeping one eye open for sharks! If they can do that, why can’t we too?

I think the hardest time in life is being the parent of young kids, in our time, without the “village” (or pod) to support us. There was a reason those systems were in place, to support our basic needs. These days, so many people are trying to do it all on their own and it just isn’t healthy. You can accept sleep loss for a time limited period, like an exam crunch, but you can’t do that for long periods of time. If you are getting into 6-8 months of sleep deprivation, you will end up in my office. The message is to use your pod. Have other mom’s you can call upon to take your child and help you, and then return the favour. You can’t do everything alone.

7. What are words you live by? Or wish you did?

“Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.” ~ Albert Einstein

We are living a very unnatural life. Our twenty first century lifestyle is not in congruence with our natural ways. To play, rest, connect and share with one another, that is human nature. It is not all about being highly competitive and constantly working.  If we can be aware of our nature, and live according to that, then we are limitless in our potential.

“Exhausted” has come to mean “driven” in our society, and “rested” as “lazy”. We need to stop making exhaustion the status symbol and move toward healthier choices.

8. How would you summarize how Dolphin Way of parenting relates to self-care?

The metaphor of the dolphin, the underwater version of ourselves…is a message of balance, nature, intuition, and adaptability.

It comes down to two things. The first is having a balanced interpersonal style – not over-directing Tiger and not permissive Jellyfish. When you are parenting from the Dolphin Way, you are balanced – firm, flexible, and collaborative.

The second part is having a balanced lifestyle, including your P.O.D.

9. Can you speak about self-care and the parenting intuition that you feel our culture is losing?

Intuition is activated when we are calm and have awareness of choice. When we are not in a state of calm, and not doing self-care; we are in fear mode. Many parents operate in fear mode. It is hard not to when you are bombarded by 3000 messages a day saying you have to buy things, or do things, to ensure you parent right. Baby Einstein is a classic example. Parents were sold the marketing and the products. But, in the end, research showed that kids who used it actually learned seven words less per day than those who didn’t.

In chapter 1 of my book, I talk about the components of the fear based mode – overgathering (flight), overcompetitiveness (fight), overprotecting (freeze and use of perfectionistic armour). We are all guilty of these when we are not ourselves in a state of balance. When we have self-care, we move ourselves into a state of calm and can make a parenting decisions from that place instead of fear directing our actions.

10. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

The other key message of The Dolphin Way is the idea of adaptability. We are part of nature, and those individuals who adapt survive in nature. Self-care requires a certain level of adaptability. If your child is teething and up all night, you have to be aware and find time to adapt and catch up on your rest at another point in the day or week.

When we are able to adapt and be flexible we can move forward. When we are rigid and stuck to ideas, it just isn’t healthy. You may think self-care is a day at the spa. Then you say, I don’t have money to do that, so you opt out. Individuals often make the choices to not get self-care because they fill a helpless role. Someone with diabetes may ask, ‘what am I supposed to eat?’ But, there are choices. With diabetes for example, and easy choice is to just drink water and not any sugar filled drinks. If you can’t afford the spa day, you could use a free meditation app while pushing your child in a stroller and getting sunshine at the same time. That would be great self-care.

The single most determining factor of health is self-care because when we are not in balance we need self care to get there.

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