What Is Self-Care
10 years ago I’d never heard the word self-care, now it’s everywhere. Generally it’s used to describe (or let’s be honest, sell) things like massages, bath bombs, or manicures. There is of course nothing wrong with any of those things. But more and more of us are realizing that pampering falls short if we’re talking about effective self-care strategies. Read on for all you need to know to build effective self care.
At it’s most basic self-care means doing things to care for ourselves, be that physical, spiritual, emotional, or otherwise. Self care is hard for many women because we have been raised to put others first. Our culture expects it. The radical practice of self-care began with poet, civil rights activist, and librarian, Audre Lorde.
As a black woman and a lesbian in the heart of the civil rights era Ms. Lorde taught self care as a radical (and counter cultural) practice of caring for the body that the society around her said was less valuable than others. Her practices were not indulgent treats, but survival.
A Modern Wrinkle
While modern women (especially white women) have the advantage of a culture that is becoming more and more OK with us attending to our basic needs there’s another issue in the modern world that complicates self care for all of us.
The prevailing vogue seems to be to run yourself utterly ragged, then do “self care” with some scented bath products, as if that fixes everything. Then we are expected to go right back to running 100 miles an hour. Shame on you if that leaves you sick, or depressed, or stressed to the point your eye twitches randomly. You must be weak.
We hear about work-life balance, and productivity, and having it all, but in the end it’s all about that requirement that we work ourselves to death and then slap band-aids on as self care.
Worse yet, what popular self care does is sell us more stuff when what we really need is rest, dignity, and connection.
Frankly I’m done with that bullshit. It’s rubbish, and it’s creating a world full of strung out, stressed, angry, self hating people (especially women.) And we’re all sure there is something wrong with us just because a 20 minute manicure didn’t solve our crushing urge to crawl into bed and never come back out.
There is not enough chocolate, massage, or pedicures in the world to make up for the fact that you are working 60 hours a week to make ends meet, raising two kids, and hold down a second job as executive assistant and chauffeur to your children. Oh, and you still have to somehow keep the house from becoming condemned, or featured on an episode of Hoarders. And you might like to speak three words to the love of your life in there somewhere.
It just isn’t realistic. Add on that we all need to be involved in the concerns of our state, nation and world and no wonder as a society we’re perpetually grumpy.
Self Care As Radical Spiritual Practice
Self love is not narcissism. Self love and self care is not selfish. My religious tradition teaches that each and every human being is made in the image of God. We are all holy, good, and infinitely precious. Caring for yourself isn’t wrong, it is the least we can do.
And let’s be clear: not everyone gets that message. Far too many people have been raised to believe that they, their bodies, or something else about who they are is fundamentally wrong. Too many have been convinced that they do not deserve to be loved or cared for.
Caring for yourself, like Audre Lorde’s example, isn’t just about you. With her radical acts of self love Ms. Lorde showed an entire generation of women who had been told they were worthless that actually their worth was immense. She showed them that their bodies, their selves, and their souls mattered.
Your body, your self, your soul matters. Even if you don’t fully believe that yet imagine what it might mean to someone else to see you acting as if you believe it? Imagine what it might mean to someone who has known abuse, to see you caring for yourself as a holy and beloved creature.
Let’s get down to the how.
Self Care Strategy #1: “No”
But let’s back up. One of the most basic principles of self care is that novel idea that you can’t take care of others if you aren’t OK yourself.
In an emergency we imagine that it’s all hands on deck, everyone working until the emergency is over. But my short time with a search and rescue organization was a wake up call for me. Before we were allowed to do anything we had to answer simple questions: how much sleep have you gotten in the past 24 hours? When did you eat last, are you ill? If we hadn’t eaten, or slept, or if we were battling an illness we got sent to take care of that first. A rescuer who falls asleep behind the wheel isn’t any good to anyone, and might just create a whole other emergency themselves.
Maybe you aren’t rappelling into ravines from a helicopter, but you still have deeply important duties to fulfill. And those duties need you in peek condition.
Boundaries build health
Which is where “no” comes in. “No” will look different for all of us. But the best summary I ever heard was this: if we don’t say “no” to some things we are less able to say “yes” to the truly important things. In other words, we’ve all got limited resources. Learning to prioritize and put our energy where our values are makes us more effective, and healthier.
Everyone’s boundaries are going to be different, because our values and priorities are different. But there are some basic fundamentals for setting healthy boundaries as an individual or as a family. There are things you can’t say no to, like paying the mortgage and doing the work that lets you raise those funds. All too often we put too many things into the “can’t control” category, because of shame, or social pressure, or our own need to be useful, or loved.
Boundaries: My self care strategy
Over the years I’ve developed my own set of boundaries to help me learn to say “no” and achieve some sort of life balance.
- Only two nights a week away from home and family.
- No work outside of work hours.
- Keeping a gauge on my mood, relationships, and energy levels and zero guilt for saying “no” to something (even if it would be fun) when what I really need is quiet snuggle time with the hubby.
- A healthy balance of work, rest, and play inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict (yes really!)
- Eating at regular times and real meals.
Pretty simple, right? And yet those few “rules” have made a huge difference! They have helped me reduce stress, increase happiness, and remember what is most important to me.
Tools For Success
The idea that the most important self-care activity would be setting boundaries was sort of counter intuitive to me. There is nothing to buy, nothing to add to your routine, and yet it impacts you whole life.
To help make keeping those boundaries easier for me I created a tool. It’s something I use on a regular basis with my planner to make sure I’m saying “no” to the things that need a no, and yes to the stuff that matters. It puts my values right there on paper and makes it a task for me to actually plan my life around them. Neat huh?
You can find more information about how to use it here and you can download it below!
Self Care Strategy #2: Yes
I know I just said that “no” was the best word for self care. But so is “yes.” I’m listing this second because often we have to first learn to say no before we have the space in our lives for a yes.
My story of yes changed my life. Almost ten years ago now I was given an opportunity to live a life long dream. It required saying “no” to my safe job with good pay and benefits, moving to the other side of the country, and changing just about everything else in my life (except my cat who came with me). I said yes to the biggest leap I have ever made, despite the fact that there were people in my close family who thought it was a mistake.
Ten years on I can tell you that yes to becoming a poor graduate student was the best decision I ever made. It has led to a life, and beloved people I could have never dreamed of at the time.
Self Care Strategy #3: Get Back to Nature
No, I’m not talking about moving to a remote cabin in the woods somewhere or going off grid. Instead this is about taking cues for the way we live our lives from the natural world. Unless you live near the equator life is fundamentally different during different seasons of the year.
Modern humans are quite cut off from the natural world. Our global culture means we can eat avocados and bananas in the middle of January and that we are a plane ticket away from the skiing holiday in the middle of summer. While there are distinct advantages to modern life our disconnect from the rhythm of the seasons is not one of them.
Tailoring your self care strategies to the seasons is a good way to reconnect with the movement of the natural world.
- Fall Self Care Suggestions
- Winter Self Care inspired by the season, including a whole new definition of “cozy” that goes beyond fuzzy slippers and robes.
- A comprehensive spring guide is coming soon. But I find this spring challenge to be an excellent self-care opportunity.
- Summer is my favorite time for resetting and adjusting course. (That’s right, not New Years!)
Allowing the rhythms of the natural world to influence your life does something important. It breaks the unnatural cycle of overwork and consumption that our modern world forces us into. Like the famous poem from Ecclesiastes says:
To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
There is a time in your life for busyness and flourishing, but you also need time for rest. Your life needs to be pruned, for those thing which no longer serve you to whither and die like fall leaves. When we embrace the seasons in our lives we are reminded again and again of the great drama of life in which we have small but important roles.
Self Care Strategy #4 – Infinity
No one can create a self care plan for you. Because you are a unique individual. Your needs are different than anyone else’s, your situation is different, and the tender places in your heart are yours alone.
In the end it comes down to this: you are a precious and beloved creation, unique in the history of the universe. There will never exist another being like you, not in all of time and space. Your worth is more than the stars. You deserve wholeness, wellness, connection, and care. And only you in the end know what that looks like.
Which means the way you care for yourself will look unique to you. It also means you can ask for help. If you cannot feel your own worth sit down with someone you trust, a priest, pastor, rabbi, therapist, wise older woman, the possibilities are many. You are not an island, and you do not have to figure this life thing out all by yourself.
Some of my greatest self care has been simply building relationships with people who love and value me for exactly who I am.
And you can offer a gift to others as well. What has been the most important self-care strategy or too that you have discovered (share it in the comments to help others)?