I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
I am in self-care school. It’s not a real school–wouldn’t that be awesome if such a thing really existed? Maybe I can create it someday! But for now, my classroom is life itself. I’ve been learning more than ever about self-care, and I know I still have much to learn–and now that I’m going to be a mother, getting firmly grounded in self-care is more crucial than ever.
So to supplement this “education,” I’m beginning a “Self-care School” blog post series to share some of the things I’ve been learning. Some of the posts will be more philosophical and/or personal, others more practical. You lovely long-term readers know I’ve already said a lot about self-care on this blog, including the posts “Getting Better at Self-care” and “Self-care: A Life-changing and World-changing Practice.” But I’ve got lots more to say!
“Why self-care?” some might ask. Some people–such as my husband (and perhaps a majority of men)–are naturally good at taking care of their physical and emotional needs. For example, when they need to rest, they just go rest.
How nice that must be.
I, meanwhile, seem to be driven by a tiny, invisible drill sergeant in my head who shouts things like, “Get this done! Now this! Hurry up! You can rest when you’re done!” Whether I’m doing something for someone else or trying to finish a project I’m working on, my natural instinct is to put off my own physical and emotional needs until “later”…but, of course, later never comes.
I’ve spent the last several years trying to undo the damage I did to my body and mind in my late teens and early twenties, when I drove my body far beyond its limit on a regular basis until my health broke down. This was partly the result of my extremely driven, ambitious, mind-over-body, perfectionistic, “Type A” personality, and partly the result of the atmosphere I had surrounded myself with–a fundamentalist Christian sect that was all about self-denial, sacrifice, selflessness, and service. Since my breakdown, I have distanced myself from those hurtful beliefs, but changing my personality has not been so easy.
Well, I don’t really mean I want to change my personality. A big part of self-care is self-acceptance, right? I’m a huge fan of Thomas Moore’s book Care of the Soul–you’ll probably be hearing more about it–and one of his themes is the importance of accepting the “shadow” parts of ourselves and listening for what they have to teach us, rather than trying to eliminate them from our lives, which just doesn’t work. Thus, I’m trying to take a more gentle approach of becoming aware of my natural instincts to work with them in the light of wisdom, to try to grow into a more effective way of living.
What Self-care Is
Because that’s what self-care is: consciously striving to take care of ourselves so that we are effective (healthy, happy, responsible, loving, productive, aware, mature, fulfilled) people.
To expand that definition further: I view self-care as the balanced medium between the extremes of selfishness and selfishness. A selfish mindset ignores other people’s needs and is all about getting what we want. A selfless mindset ignores our own needs and is all about serving some external goal (taking care of other people, living for the glory of a sacrifice-desiring god, seeking the approval of some demanding person, etc.). Neither mindset is effective in the long run for a healthy and fulfilling life. A self-caring mindset, by contrast, aims to consider all the needs clamoring for our attention–our own and those of others whom we care for–and to find the most realistic way to be effective in meeting those needs. (I would venture to guess that most people who struggle with adequate self-care probably lean more toward the selfless extreme than the selfish extreme.)
The key concept–Self-care School Lesson Number One, if you will–is that we must take care of ourselves first in order to be effective in helping others. Or, in the negative form, we can’t take care of others if we’re not taking care of ourselves.
Or, as blogger Leigh Kendall puts it so cleverly, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
We’ve got to keep our own cups full if we want to be able to pour from them into someone else’s cup. Keeping our cups full means attending to our own needs physically, emotionally, interpersonally, circumstantially, and in every other way. This effective self-care also requires an attitude of self-love, self-compassion, and self-acceptance–basically, treating ourselves with kindness the way we would treat someone else whom we care for, such as a child. For me, the related concept of self-parenting is also essential: I view myself as both a child ruled by desires and impulses and a wise, protecting parent who has to step in and take charge when my child side would run herself to exhaustion. We all have unique emotional dynamics like this; becoming aware of them is the first step towards taking better care of ourselves.
I hope these “Self-care School” posts might be useful to those of you who, like me, struggle with self-care…and I hope you will likewise share with me any insights, tips, or other thoughts you have gleaned from your own journeys!