Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more. "Every hour is saved from that eternal silence, something more, a bringer of new things." – Tennyson
Over the past couple of years, life has been teaching me the importance of self-care. And the more time goes on, the more I realize how monumental this concept is (and the more my life reaps the benefits!). I want to share with you some of the recent developments in my thinking about self-care.
I have come to see that self-care is not just something I need to do; it’s something I need to embody as an essential part of who I am. I see more clearly than ever the kind of person I want and need to be: a woman who takes care of myself so completely and consistently that there’s never any question about that—I just take care of what I need, above all, period. The ready knowledge of what I need (physically, mentally, emotionally, etc.) and when I need it comes from consistently attending to the needs of my body and mind. As a result of my self-care, others can rely on me to be steady, stable, and clear about my needs and boundaries—and, therefore (because I’m well taken care of), lighthearted, secure, and able to love and attend to other people.
Let me take a moment and pull the key paragraph from my post “Getting Better at Self-care” in order to define the idea of self-care: “Self-care is not selfishness. It’s the opposite. Selfishness is easy and lazy, and it demands care from other people. Self-care is difficult, like most responsibilities of adulthood, and it is kindness itself: when I take care of myself first, I’m then able to take care of others, rather than needing them to take care of me.” In fact, do an internet search on “self-care,” and you will see tons of websites and training materials designed for professional caregivers such as nurses and social worker. In order to effectively care for others, self-care is a must.
Several books I’ve read lately have provided great insights about self-care, including Thomas Moore’s amazing Care of the Soul, which is so rich that I still haven’t finished it; I have to put it down for a while after nearly each page in order to digest what he is saying. One central concept of this book is that it’s important to honor all of our feelings and desires with care and attention, rather than deny or suppress them. Honoring our secret fantasies, for example, doesn’t mean acting on them, but just accepting them as part of who we are and listening to what we can learn from them, for the sake of personal growth. No good comes from judging any part of ourselves as wrong, sinful, etc., because then our “shadow” side only gains strength. Caring for our inner selves means letting our thoughts and feelings be what they are and then listening to them to see what we need.
But a less abstract and more immediately applicable book is my new Bible (I’m kidding—a little bit): Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman. This book is revolutionary for me. I always thought that having children (which I and my husband do plan on, eventually) would mean sacrificing my entire being in every way from sleep and figure to sanity and dignity; that is the typical American mindset, I think. I didn’t know there was any other approach. But lo and behold, according to Ms. Druckerman’s firsthand observations, French parents completely and consistently hold onto their own lives while raising children who are also extremely well-behaved when compared with American children. How, you ask? Read the book! But the gist, in my interpretation, is that the French view self-care as fundamental; they take care of themselves above all (as in, “please secure your own oxygen mask before helping someone else”), and they gently teach their children from the very start how to take care of themselves—how to endure waiting and solitude; how to restrain, comfort, and entertain themselves; and how to make pleasure and leisure as important in their lives as work. And listen to Ms. Druckerman’s lively description of French women vs. American women:
“New York [where Ms. Druckerman is from] likes its women a bit neurotic. They’re encouraged to create a brainy, adorable conflicted bustle around themselves…
That persona doesn’t fly in Paris….The ideal Parisian woman is calm, discreet, a bit remote, and extremely decisive. She orders from the menu. She doesn’t blather on about her childhood or her diet…In France ‘neurotic’ isn’t a self-deprecating half boast; it’s a clinical condition.
Even [Ms. Druckerman’s husband], who’s merely British, is perplexed by my self-doubt and my frequent need to discuss our relationship.”
– Bringing Up Bébé, p. 15-16
I want to be more like the ideal French woman and less like the typical American one. I want to be confident, self-assured, decisive, alert, powerful in my own strengths, honest about asking for what I need, inherently committed to the value of pleasure, and unquestioningly committed to taking care of myself.
That is who I want to be, who I must become, both for myself and for others—so I can be a better person (family member, friend, neighbor, insurance agent, writer, etc.) to them as well as an example. By practicing self-care, I will “be the change [I] wish to see in the world” (Gandhi)—because this is definitely a change I’d like to see in the world. I wish more people* would take responsibility for themselves through self-care—that those (usually men) who lean towards selfishness and shirking uncomfortable duties and issues would step up and face the music, while those (usually women) who lean towards selflessness** and total sacrifice of their health and personal needs would shake themselves free of their blinders and realize that making themselves suffer does not actually benefit anyone in the long run. Either way, it’s easy to follow our tendencies but hard to actively pursue a mature, responsible lifestyle of taking care of our own needs first so that we are then free to care for, and not burden, others (and just so that life is more enjoyable, too—but if you need an others-focused reason, happy, healthy people make for a happier, healthier world!).
*that is, middle- and upper-class adults of any culture. Those who live in poverty have more basic concerns that must be met first, before they can be free to focus on less immediate problems. This can still go back to middle- and upper-class people, because when they take care of themselves, they are better positioned to care for those in need (whether directly or indirectly). I know I am more altruistically inclined when I’m feeling healthy and content; my gratitude for feeling so causes me to think of and want to help others who aren’t as fortunate.
**Let me reiterate: “selflessness” is NOT a good thing, despite what Christian tradition claims. By denying ourselves what we need and want, we create unrest in our bodies and minds. And that unrest then translates into real-life problems, whether in our interactions with others or in the lives of those who are dependent on us. For example, a “selfless” parent who gives her life over entirely to her children will tend to create children who don’t know how to take care of themselves emotionally (or even that they should) and grow up subconsciously believing that their role in life is to give their parent someone to take care of rather than to have a robust life and sense of self all their own. I am a living example of this problem.
This is my life, and it’s hurrying by. So I want to grab the reins as far as possible and become the kind of person I want and need to be, as I described above. In my journal I’ve listed several specific, practical actions to work on in pursuit and application of this goal. I will summarize a few of them for you here to give you an idea of what I mean:
• Continue following (and revising as needed) my morning and evening routines to make sure I get consistent exercise, quiet time, and other things I know I absolutely need.
• Get more serious about pleasure: notice the taste of good food; savor great music; relish sunshine, heat, my cats, my husband, laughter, and beautiful things; try to do something every evening/weekend day that is purely for sake of pleasure; and as the French do (according to Bringing Up Bébé), always be seeking to profit from any given moment—not for sake of accomplishment, but pleasure.
• Allow myself to indulge more in taking care of my appearance (clothes, hair, skin, makeup, etc.) as a concrete, more external sign of self-care and dignity.
• Protect the sanctuary of my heart—my inner solitude, peace, and confidence—with boundaries, both with people and with sources of media input.
> With people: keep building and enforcing a barrier of dignity, so that I have the self-aware confidence to listen to myself before I speak, and, when I do speak, to be assertive and dignified—a professional employee and freelance writer, an independent but loving family member, an honorable friend, a graceful wife, and a polite, attentive neighbor and acquaintance.
> With input: surround myself, as far as possible, with edifying influences—authors who lift up my spirit and intellect (like the ones I wrote about here, as well as contemporary writers and fellow bloggers whose posts always brighten my day or at least make me think)—not wasting my time on critics, self-doubt fuelers (a.k.a. for me, writers [usually bloggers] who only brag about their own successes and don’t contribute anything useful or uplifting to my life, thus triggering in me a downward spiral of self-doubt and negativity), and general noise that clutters and hinders my soul rather than feeding and freeing it. (Sometimes what constitutes “noise” depends on how much energy I have at that moment to sort out interesting, good-t0-learn information from trivial yammer and unwanted sales pitches. So, for example, I only look at Twitter when I have good mental energy.)
In these ways and more (and still more that life has yet to show me), I am embarking on a lifelong journey to become a self-carer. Will you join me?
I think that what is going to happen is that I’m going to research and write a book about self-care, not just because I want to, but because it will kind of be inevitable, given the level of importance this topic has for me. But even if that doesn’t pan out, I know my life will continue to benefit in the thousands of ways it already has through the practice of self-care. 🙂