The term “self-care” is getting pretty big in the popular wellness industry these days. If you’re not attuned to that industry, you might not even be aware that it is a thing — I didn’t, until I became a therapist.
Before my career change, I was working as the Corporate Services Manager in a national law firm. I had to co-ordinate the work of several paralegals, take care of the needs of 20+ lawyers at a time, project manage and draft documents for the tax reorganizations of huge corporations, liaise with all the national department heads, and also solve all the crises that arose daily. Stress was my middle name and I’d come home from work exhausted every day.
In order to de-stress, I might treat myself to a glass of wine or a piece of gooey chocolate cake (I am firmly on Team Cake, and I just don’t understand Team Pie). I might read an Oprah magazine or a chapter in the novel I hadn’t gotten to for months. I might book a mani/pedi for the weekend, or go for a long trail walk, or take a bubble bath.
Whatever I did, I did it in order to relax and shake off the tension of the day or week.
I also knew that in order to remain physically and mentally healthy, I had to do sort of healthy things: eat more vegetables; sleep for at least 7 hours; move my body in some form of exercise. These variables changed as I found things I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy. I realized that I’m okay with kale but I’m not much of a smoothie person. I like walking or lifting weights, but those seats on the spinning bikes hurt like hell. I still need an alarm to wake up, but if I get one of those ear-worm songs in my head (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swift), I will be grumpy all day.
I’m sure you’re thinking right now of the things you enjoy that help you unwind or relax. You might enjoy yoga, or napping, or travelling, or socializing with friends. Or you might go, “Uh, what’s relaxation again? I don’t have time for that!”
Now that I’ve been around the block for a while, I know that these “self-care” routines are useful and useless at the same time.
We seem to be perpetuating a kind of a dysfunctional pattern: Get stressed, do self-care. Feel a bit better. Get stressed again. Do self-care again. Feel a bit better again. Get stressed, get overwhelmed, get burned out…. the self-care doesn’t work.
I could read all the magazines I wanted and take an infinite number of bubble baths, but they didn’t solve the fact that I was in the wrong career and was steeped in the uncertainty of not knowing what to do next. The stress was merely the symptom, not the actual wound in need of healing.
What I was calling self-care was really just self-comfort: pleasurable ways to soothe the stress which didn’t work in the long term, because they were just coping mechanisms.
And because they felt good — however temporarily — they really just masked what was really going on.The things we do for self-care are really just comfort and coping mechanisms for our pain.Click To Tweet
What does self-care really mean?
Self-care isn’t merely triaging the stress, or reducing the symptoms of ill-health (mental or physical), or distracting ourselves temporarily with pleasure.
Self-care does include learning to love and nurture ourselves. Self-care does include doing the things to keep ourselves healthy, like eating well and exercising.
But what if these things are just the results of self-care, rather than the acts of self-care?
Self-care is really about healing emotional pain and limiting beliefs, and health will then follow.
If we don’t heal the pain, then it will continue to sabotage our self-care efforts.
If our thoughts are filled with worry and fear, how will we get a good night’s sleep?
If we hate our bodies and are filled with shame, how will we really learn to eat healthily for the rest of our lives?
If we have so much emotional pain that we avoid it with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, or work, how will mani-pedis or fancy lattes really help?
If we are taking on too much stress because we’re mired in beliefs of perfection, or we are terrified of losing that job or relationship even though it is causing us pain, how will a few yoga classes lead to a long-term solution?
If we are arguing all the time with people who seem to hurt us and we never learn how to set boundaries and express our needs, how will we relax over the long term?
These are the kinds of underlying wounds that badly need care. As they begin to heal, the effects of better health will naturally arise.
Why we avoid real self-care
The reason we avoid this deep healing is that it often feels a lot worse before it begins to feel better (the mantra of doctors and therapists everywhere).
The pleasurable stuff that we think is self-care feels better right away, right? We feel virtuous for eating fruit and veggies. We feel relaxed after yoga. Exercise revs us up. A good night’s sleep refreshes us. Socializing helps us feel connected. All good feeling things!
These actions are relatively easy and quick. Real self-care is difficult and takes time.
The real healing begins with a deep dive into what your mind, your body, your soul really needs in order to thrive in whatever situation you face.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- What are the situations you regularly find yourself in that make you feel like you need to de-stress or take care of yourself afterwards?
- What are your typical methods of self-care? How do you feel after you do them, and how long does that feeling tend to last? Do they feel really loving, or are they just attempts to cope with the pain?
- When you’re feeling “stressed” or “unwell,” what other emotional words could you use to describe how you’re feeling (be as specific as possible)? Sometimes we call things “stress” when they’re really emotions like anger, frustration, disappointment, anxiety, fear, sadness, etc. It’s really important to let yourself feel these feelings instead of denying them or covering them up.
- If you’re feeling a very specific emotion like anxiety, what is that really about? Is it about that specific situation, or does it go deeper? For example, you could feel really frustrated at the amount of work you need to do. But the deeper meaning is that you feel resentful that you get asked to take on more tasks than others, because you’re so agreeable and find it difficult to say “no.” Or you just really hate your job and want to leave, and the anxiety arises when you tell yourself that you can’t.
- Identify the things that you can change yourself in order to lighten your experience of it: you may be able to think about it differently, or take an action, or ask for help, or communicate your needs. Because we can’t control external situations or the responses of other people, it’s important to be able to get a sense of agency over the things you can control — and that starts within you. Your thoughts can change in an instant and provide some relief. You don’t need to go all “positive-speak” but you can speak to yourself more kindly. You can also acknowledge what you can change now or in the near future to get some momentum going.
This is just the beginning of the investigation process, but if you do it often enough every time you feel stressed or overwhelmed and in need of self-care, these questions may help you get to the bottom of bigger patterns in need of change.
When you start acknowledging the real issues, allowing all the messy feelings, taking on friendlier thoughts, and making preparation for change, you may find that the things you typically want to do as self-care just naturally arise because you’re feeling better and more empowered.
What patterns do you recognize in yourself that need deeper healing and self-care?
Leave a comment and share your insights below.
Keep shining the insight light,