“Ah you mean like manicures and pedicures?”, joked my 21-year-old client, his eyes sparkling with amusement when I mentioned self-care. “Sure,” I replied, gently smiling back, “If that’s what will make you feel that you did something to take care of yourself.” I caught a fleeting expression of melancholy and sadness before he quickly straightened up and firmly, stoically told me that he had not focused on himself in a very long time. “I don’t know how”, he shrugged.
My client’s comment highlighted a valid point: Many of us do not realise we need to look after ourselves, and even if we do, we may not know how, or it may feel too self-indulgent. Although self-care is a term that we encounter often enough these days via all kinds of media, we are not sure of the “why” and the “how”.
As mental health professionals, we often stress upon the value of self-care, because it is a way to focus inward, to nurture the self before becoming available to others, because we recognize that in order for us to be able to perform the various roles that life demands of us, we must first show up for ourselves. But why is that important?
Why self-care? What is the big deal?
We live in a world where we are expected to perform at an optimal level at all times, in the various realms of our lives – we work long hours while trying to balance personal responsibilities, wearing multiple hats all at once, being instantly available thanks to smart phone technology, often not realising that we are doing so at a cost to ourselves. When we start to feel exhausted, resentful, burnt out, angry, bitter or depressed, these are all warning signs that we need to pause and replenish our physical and emotional reserves.
If we take some time to reflect on how we treat ourselves, most of us will find that we can be harsh, unforgiving and often hold ourselves to unrelenting standards. We power on relentlessly, trying to reach those standards, suffering consequences while we are at it, putting ourselves on the back burner and staying there, as the thought of investing in ourselves feels self indulgent, resulting in guilt. So the cycle continues. What we then need most at such times is self-compassion. We need to hold ourselves kindly and give to ourselves whatever it is that we need in that space in time. Therefore self-care is not a luxury. It is in fact, a physical and psychological necessity. It is a valuable ally that helps us to not only handle life’s pressures but also to move forward . As Anne Lamot famously said:
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you”
What is stopping us?
Knowing what we know about it, many of us still struggle to indulge in self-care.
We feel we are undeserving.In a world that is performance and output driven, self-care can feel like an indulgence we don’t deserve. We may have been raised to view it as an act of vanity, perhaps we were invalidated and discouraged from expressing our needs. And so we continue to put ourselves last, telling ourselves that our well-being is not a priority, not right now. The time, in fact, is now.
It feels like too much hard work. With endless to-do lists, self-care can feel like another task on top of everything else. However, it does not need to take up too much time and can be built into our daily routine. The smallest of rituals count towards self-care, such as a few extra minutes in the shower, or sitting down with a cup of tea.
Guilt and shame. The concept of self-care often invokes feelings of guilt and shame, as that to-do list looms and reminds us of all that is not done. Those lists are here to stay, and it is essential to pause every once in a while to surface for air.
Avoidance. Keeping ourselves busy without pausing is a way to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings, as we are too afraid of having to face them. In the short term, it may serve the purpose but at some point we need to get off that wheel, acknowledge those feelings and work towards processing them.
What then is self-care?
This is a question that still confuses many, which is understandable.
The Oxford Dictionary defines self-care as: “The act of caring for yourself, for example by eating and sleeping well, taking exercise and getting help so that you do not become ill”.
This definition pretty much sums it up, even if it may sound rather clinical. In simpler terms, self-care is doing something for yourself that makes you feel nurtured, when you know that you have done something to take care of yourself.
Which brings us to the next question: What would that “something” be?
There are different aspects to self-care:
It is no big secret that any form of movement makes us feel better. Exercise or dance are wonderful ways to get the body moving. Remember those manicures/pedicures? The physical aspect of self-care also includes going for a massage or taking a nap. Anything that enhances our sense of physical well-being is a form of physical self-care. Think about what physical activities would make you feel good.
It is essential for our emotional well-being that we honour and care for our emotions. This begins with acknowledging how we are feeling and taking time to nurture our emotions in order to fuel (or re-fuel) our emotional tanks. Take time to think about what your emotional needs are and how you can fulfill them. For some, emotional self-care could mean spending quality time with someone, or spending time alone. Journaling, connecting with nature or doing something creative are all forms of emotional self-care. An important aspect of emotional self-care is recognising our boundaries and communicating them, learning to say no. Being vulnerable and asking for help is also a big part of emotional self-care. Reach out to someone you trust, a coach or a mental health professional.
Other kinds of self-care:
Spiritual: Spiritual self-care involves connecting with your beliefs and values. It could mean following a personal practice such as yoga, meditation, prayer, or being in nature.
Intellectual: Fulfill your intellectual needs by exploring opportunities to stimulate the mind. Career development, courses, learning something new or pursuing specific hobbies are all a part of intellectual self-care.
Social self-care: Social connections are important for us human beings – even the most introverted of us, because the truth is that we thrive on feeling a sense of belonging and connectedness. Social self-care involves cultivating relationships within and outside of your family who can be your support system. You can reach out to friends, join community groups, memberships or hobby groups. Combine physical and social self-care by carrying out an activity with someone!
Whilst self-care does not mean that we are being self-indulgent or selfish, it is important to remember that sometimes we do need to be selfish in order to look after ourselves. The big picture is that charity begins at home, with ourselves, for it is only by fulfilling our needs first are we enabled to attend to the demands of life.
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” – Maya Angelou
Making self-care a continuous practice will ensure that we hold ourselves with one hand and not let go, because only then can the other hand be strengthened to tend to whatever else it is that needs us.
Gayatri Singh, Associate Counsellor
Master of Counselling (Monash University, Australia)
Provisional Clinical Member, SAC
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