Self-care is a term that none of us had heard of 15 years ago, right?
I started hearing it in the past decade or so within the helping professions and now it has transcended to something that even Forbes magazine writes about.
The idea of self-care might evoke a sense of privilege, that is, the idea that it is something reserved for people with copious free time to get weekly massages and have a yoga teacher on retainer. I am here to tell you that it’s more than that and can have more meaning than spending all your free cash on $10 juices.
Self-care is really about finding ways that we take care of ourselves that nourish us and allow us to be present in our lives. In the grand scheme, self-care is about living a full life where you feel able to accomplish goals and living a happier life that feels less stressful. At its best, it should allow us to be more present, rather than so tired from our days that we are distracted when we do get the chance to spend time with our loved ones, or on our hobbies.
Messages We Send to Ourselves
When we engage in self-care there are subtle messages we’re sending to ourselves that actually have big consequences. The biggest one is about valuing ourselves. You are saying, “I am worthy of this time, I’m worthy of this care, I’m worthy of respect.” This can be a powerful message, especially if you are someone that struggles with self-doubt, or with messages from your childhood that you are not good enough or not deserving enough of good things. It may even be difficult for you to start the process of self-care because you are not sure that this is something that you deserve.
You may have also been told that your value comes through your service to others. While kindness, compassion and taking care of others are things that have intrinsic goodness and certainly some people in the world should prioritize more, many of us are over-compensators on this front and become self-sacrificial to our own detriment. The message you send to yourself when you engage in self-care is that you are just as important as the people in your life. You deserve your attention as much as they do. This, in turn, sends a message to ourselves that you are more than the roles you function as: “I am more than a worker, more than a mother, more than a husband,” etc.
Simply acknowledging these messages can be a powerful psychological experience that promotes healing and growth. Just imagine how less burdened you would feel if you knew that each week you were “allowed” to carve out a few hours just for you and that no one would punish you for doing so?
Our culture values busy-ness and professional achievement to a nearly extreme degree. To this end, we often internally value ourselves more via our work. We are also externally (by people in our lives and societal messages) validated when we are prioritizing our work life. Taking time away from work to take care of ourselves can be uncomfortable because it’s a way we’ve never thought about ourselves before. We also may not have had anyone modeling this behavior to us, so we quite literally are charting untraveled territory.
Messages We Send to Others
Self-care also sends important messages to others in our lives. When we take time for self-care, in many ways, we are setting a boundary with those that we care about. This would likely be a boundary you set with a spouse or friends by saying that you need time for one thing: yourself. For those that are caretakers, we can feel compelled and obligated to be there for others morning, noon and night, and it can be a shock to them when you’re not there for them for a period of time. Perhaps your partner starts to get upset that you choose to not cook dinner one night per week because you now go to the gym that night. Perhaps initially in your relationship you had never discussed who was in charge of dinner each night, but you continued at it for longer than felt comfortable for you because you felt compelled to, based on history and because it was easier to not have a fight over it.
In this way, you might be led to another area of growth for yourself, as you’re not just working on self-care; you are working on boundaries. For those that struggle with self-worth, you might be someone that also struggles with boundary setting. Often those that are caregivers can sometimes be boundary-less. This is a problem because it can create unsustainable dynamics in relationships. In this way self-care helps us to create better relationships with our loved ones. This won’t happen overnight, since by extension this means you will need to be able to communicate your needs. This area will have conflict and impasses; it will not be something that comes easily or quickly. However, having these conversations about our self-care needs can be very healing for our relationships.
One way that I feel taken care of in my life is having some unstructured time most weeks. This usually looks like having a Sunday without anything planned, no brunch, and minimal family obligations. I want to have the ability to do what I want, when I want. I might want to have coffee and read The New Yorker, go to the gym – whatever it is the only requirement is that it’s at my pace. This time allows me to think deeply and makes me feel more creative and connected to myself, and allows me to show up in my relationships. I know when I’m not getting this time, because I feel more restricted and less open to input from others.
I urge you to think about what your self-care plan should really look like beyond that once-a-year massage. A good question to ask yourself is: how do I feel most cared for in my life?
Try to find something that makes you happy and that doesn’t feel completely like an obligation, since some traditional self-care activities, such as exercise and eating right, can feel obligatory. So, what is it that makes you feel nourished? What brings you joy that you can bring into your life regularly? It might be on this list, or it might be something else:
- spending unstructured time alone
- reading every night before bed
- going on a routine weekly date with a dear friend
- going for a leisure walk in a place that you find beautiful (forest bathing)
- calling a faraway family member or friend
- creating artwork
- watching a “guilty pleasure” show or movie (without guilt or judgment)
- spending time looking at recipes and meal planning
- going to therapy
- going to bed early!
- taking a nap
- playing a game you like – video game, board game, crossword, Sudoku
- starting a large jigsaw puzzle
Whatever you choose to do, commit to it, block out time in your schedule, and begin having these conversations with your loved ones. If you find it’s difficult to have these conversations, this could be an area where psychotherapy can help you. Other resources that might be helpful are Nonviolent Communication and Dr. David Puder’s podcast/blog on boundaries.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catherine Wohlwend is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist (AMFT) at Well Clinic in San Francisco. She specializes in helping people navigate modern dating culture – specifically online dating.