What Is Self-Care? Why Is It So Important?

Picture by Rachel Patterson, 2017.

Picture by Rachel Patterson, 2017.

With a study showing stress on the rise in America for the first time in 10 years (1), and a 24-hour news cycle reporting natural disasters and acts of terror, violence, and political strife worldwide, it is little wonder that more people are interested in the concept and practice of self-care.

History and Evolution Of Self-Care
In the 1970s, the medical community began using the term self-care to describe the ways people improved their health without the direct actions of a doctor (2). For them, self-care included immediate remedies like taking over the counter pain medication for a sprain or a headache, as well as long-term behaviors such as eating healthily and exercising. The medical community hoped people -- especially those with chronic diseases or reduced access to health care -- would live longer and feel better if they felt more personally responsible and empowered to invest consistently in their health.

People are not just bodies, however, and health is not just physical. In 1988, activist Audre Lorde expanded the definition of self-care to include psychological health, writing “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”(3). In a society that devalued her identity as a woman of color and a lesbian, Lorde viewed caring for her mental, physical, and emotional well-being as a countermeasure necessary to her survival.

(For a deeper dive into the history and evolution of this term, read NPR's article about the practice of self-care in contemporary culture, Slate's article on the origin and history of self-care, and the article in The New York Times examining self-care practices in relation to current events.)

When most people use the term self-care today, they are referring to a set of practices designed to support physical, mental, and emotional wellness. This is a whole-person approach to living a vital, useful, and meaningful life, no matter the circumstances or environment. But how does this definition translate into practice? Or, as I sometimes ask my clients, “what does that look like in your life?”

Self-care is not self indulgence. There is a common misconception that practicing self-care is the same thing as doing whatever you want, or whatever feels good. In fact, self-care is a practice designed to help meet your needs, especially when your circumstances make that challenging. Self indulgence isn’t about meeting needs -- it is about seeking sensations of pleasure or comfort, regardless of the implication.

When I was in school and studying for my licensure exam, the last thing I wanted to do was… study for my licensure exam. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be licensed, to have passed my licensure exam, I just didn’t want to study. Studying meant sitting down with books and practice tests. It meant sitting with my fear of failure, my feelings of dread, and my exhaustion. In the short term, avoidant self indulgence would have felt much more pleasurable. I could have rationalized doing a lot more of objectively helpful activities like exercising, connecting with friends, and even cleaning, but the truth is, I would have been using these to avoid the discomfort of studying. Spoiler alert: I passed. And I passed partly because I consistently practiced studying as self-care.

Self-care is an individualized practice. There are as many self-care practices as there are people on the planet. Each person has different circumstances, a different experience of those circumstances, and different needs. Figuring out what works for you might take some experimentation. A good way to do this is to ask yourself how you feel after completing a self-care activity. If the activity was nourishing to you and met some of your needs, you might notice feeling hopeful, confident, grateful, inspired, refreshed, or peaceful. If you notice feelings of tension, fear, irritation, aversion, fatigue, or disconnection, you may want to shift your practice. (4)

Actions that might be an act of self-care for one person could be avoidant or harmful for another. As you can see in the previous example, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with exercising, socializing, or cleaning, engaging in those things to avoid the discomfort of studying would have been harmful and counterproductive.

Self-care is not selfish. While self-care inherently benefits you as an individual, practicing self-care can benefit those around you. When your needs are met you are able to be the best version of yourself. You may show up as more present and loving with a partner or more sympathetic and available for a friend. You could be more productive at work, or more energetic and patient as a parent. There is a reason that those airline safety cards in the seatback pockets instruct you to put on your own oxygen mask first: you’ll be useless to others if you don’t take care of your needs first.

Self-care is empowering. As I am fond of saying, there are things that happen in life that are completely beyond your control. You may not be able to stop a hurricane or cure cancer on your own, but you can practice self-care. You can devote time to understanding your own needs and, whenever possible, engage in the practice of meeting them. Exert influence where you can to increase and maintain a healthy sense of self-efficacy.

Self-care is not expensive. You might see the hashtag #selfcare being used on social media to sell pricey supplements, personal care products, and vacations. But self-care doesn’t have to cost a lot (or even any) money. There are ways to move, breathe, and connect with others that don’t cost a thing. Please don’t let limited resources get in the way of tuning into your needs and experimenting with what feels nourishing.

Self-care is self-esteem in action.  Practicing self-care, especially consistently, is a function of believing that you have inherent worth -- that you are precious, important, and valuable. If you struggle with self-loathing, a poor self-image, or low self-esteem, prioritizing self-care is a big ask. Even attempting self-care can trigger feelings of shame and seem inauthentic, or like a waste of time.

To truly practice self-care you must be willing to get to know yourself, acknowledge both your met and unmet needs, and prioritize your own well being. A number of things including stress, depression, trauma, anxiety, codependency, and low self-esteem can make practicing self-care seem hard or even impossible. If you notice that you’re struggling to show up for yourself or other people in a meaningful way, it could be a sign that you need skillful help and support from your community. Reach out to a trusted friend, mentor, doctor, family member, or mental health professional. Mental health providers in particular are trained to help you develop a better understanding of yourself and why you are worth caring for.

If you are interested in seeking this kind of support, you can find quality therapists in your area using GoodTherapy.org or Psychology Today. If you would like to learn more about doing this kind of work with me , you can learn more about my services here

 

RESOURCES

  1. American Psychological Association (2017). Stress in america: Coping with change. Stress in america™ survey. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2016/coping-with-change.pdf

  2. World Self Medication Industry. (n.d.) The story of self-care and self medication: 40 years of progress, 1970-2010. Retrieved from
    http://www.wsmi.org/wp-content/data/pdf/storyofselfcare_bdpage.pdf

  3. Lorde, A. (1988/2017). A burst of light: And other essays. Long Island, NY: Ixia Press.

  4. Center for Nonviolent Communication (2005). Feelings inventory. Retrieved from
    https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/feelings_inventory_0.pdf

Legal disclaimer: I am a mental health professional, supervised by Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S, and licensed to practice in the state of Texas. Reading my blog does not create a therapist-client relationship between us. My blog is designed for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for professional care. The contents of my blog should not be used to diagnose or treat illness of any kind, and before you rely on any information presented here you should consult with a trusted healthcare professional. If you are currently experiencing a mental health emergency please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Holy S#*t: Unexpected Lessons From A Port-A-Potty In The Woods

Please note: this is not the actual bathroom in the story. The picture of that one exists only in my mind.

Please note: this is not the actual bathroom in the story. The picture of that one exists only in my mind.

It was about 11:30pm and I was flat on my back, staring up at the faint stars through the mesh of my tent. Relaxed. Grateful. At peace. Then I felt it: an unmistakable wave of nausea. 

Until that moment, I had been enjoying myself. I was on a camping trip in celebration of a dear friend’s wedding. We spent the day preparing for the festivities, and the second half enjoying the fruits of our labor.  And now, as I lay in my tent with the peace of nature around me, I experienced a new, deeply unpleasant sensation. 

At first it was minor, and I batted it away with irritation. But as the minutes passed, it became clear that my insides were roiling, and I needed a bathroom. I lurched, dry-heaving, toward the bay of port-a-potties in the distance. 

And that is where things get interesting.

And I don’t mean gross-interesting (although they did). I mean psychologically interesting. As I proceeded to literally lose my s#*t, I noticed something. I was physically uncomfortable but I was not suffering emotionally or psychologically. I wasn’t making things worse with my thoughts and feelings. Even when the shaky beam of my flashlight discovered a large spider mere inches from my feet, my thoughts were clear, completely in the present moment, and helpful. Kind. I found myself thinking “what does your body need from you right now?” and “you are here, in the woods, doing the best you can in a tough situation that will not go on forever”. 

And you know what? That kind, friendly voice was right. The physical distress passed. Whatever had disagreed so vehemently with my body had been expelled, and I was able to spend the rest of my night sleeping peacefully in my tent by the river.

Out there, in the woods that night, a microcosm of life happened. As long as we are living life, we will encounter painful, inconvenient, and unpleasant circumstances that are completely beyond our control. The compelling parts--and the parts we can control--are what happens inside us when these painful things happen outside us. Let’s look at a few secular and spiritual wisdom traditions to see what they have to say about this. 

In Buddhism, the inevitable discomfort of living is often referred to as the “first dart” of pain (1). As long as we have bodies and go camping with them in the woods, these kinds of “first darts” will happen. They’re a sign we’re alive. Buddhism maintains, however, that most of our suffering comes from the thoughts and feelings we have in response to the pain of the first dart. These automatic responses are called “second darts” of suffering, and we throw them at ourselves -- unconsciously, automatically, and unnecessarily. 

Like all people, I am usually great at slinging those second darts. The darts I could have slung that night might have sounded something like: “This sucks and it is ruining my whole trip!” and “This is NOT FAIR! This is shameful and bad!” or possibly “This is why I can’t take any vacation. Something always goes wrong when I prioritize myself”. 

Those second darts are profoundly powerful. They heap suffering on top of pain, and often invite more suffering. If I would have picked this route (like I have so many times in so many situations) I might have ended up frustrated, angry, and scared on top of feeling uncomfortable. And then later, when feeling better, I might have judged myself harshly for my response to discomfort. Having judged myself, I’d have felt disappointed and frustrated during breakfast, which would have distracted me from being present with my dear friend in the beautiful woods. 

This is not a uniquely Buddhist observation. Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) looks at this phenomenon through a secular psychological lens (2). REBT was the first type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and is concerned largely with how our thoughts and feelings affect our perception of reality. Albert Ellis, the theory’s creator, calls uncomfortable life circumstances “events” or “activating/adverse events”, and claims that all humans have responses to these events. He calls our responses “beliefs” and broadly classifies them as either “rational” or “irrational”. The irrational beliefs, akin to Buddhism’s second darts, come from past experiences of pain, and are distortions that we’ve come to believe are true. Ellis contends, just as Buddhism does, that these irrational beliefs increase our suffering and make the inevitable pain of existence worse. 

Even the serenity prayer aims to illuminate this idea: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” 

When people recite the serenity prayer, they are asking for the ability to accept the inevitable discomforts in life, the courage to shift their thoughts, feelings, and actions wherever it is helpful, and the wisdom to tell the difference between inevitable and optional pain. 

So, if I would have said the serenity prayer in that moment, I would have been begging for the ability to accept the reality of the woods, my body, and the spider. I would have been praying for the courage to stumble my way through the dark into the bathrooms and the courage to be compassionate and present even though it was painful. I would have been asking for the wisdom to use my energy and thought where they could make a difference for my experience. 

In Buddhism, the wisdom to tell the difference between inevitable and optional pain comes from mindful self-reflection. In REBT it comes from disputing irrational thoughts using logic and humor. In the serenity prayer, the wisdom is a gift from a higher power. But the message is the same: you can’t get through life without experiencing discomfort. But you can learn to respond to the discomfort skillfully and in a way that will not increase it. 

Based on my experience of being human and working intensively with other humans, slinging second darts and responding irrationally to pain is often unconscious and automatic. It happens below our awareness, and before we even realize we’ve made meaning and connected dots. 

So, how do you stop throwing second darts and believing irrational thoughts? Like most things in life, it is a constant process. Here are some ways to start:

  • Practice mindfulness. We can only work with the thoughts and feelings of which we’re consciously aware, so create some mental and emotional quiet time to meditate. There are as many ways to meditate as there are people in the world, so do not be intimidated by thoughts of sitting in full lotus position for hours at a time. Experiment with brief guided walking or seated meditations, and see what you notice. (This article is a great introduction to meditation, and Insight Timer is a great free app with both a timer and guided meditation functions.)
     
  • Attend to your physical needs.  Are you sleeping enough? Eating food that helps fuel you throughout your day? Moving in a way that supports your body? Treating any chronic/ongoing illnesses as effectively as you can? Being a person in the world can be hard enough. Choosing to develop awareness in our hearts and minds can feel, at times, even harder still. Control what you can control by making conscious choices to nourish your physical body with quality movement, rest, food, and medical care.
     
  • Know when to get help. Are you struggling to make time for mindful awareness? Are you overwhelmed or judgmental about what comes up when things get quiet inside? Are you afraid that you’ll never really know how you feel or what you need? You might find that working with a skilled therapist can help. Therapists are trained to accompany you on a wide variety of inner journeys, and can help you develop self-compassion, insight, and resilience. As human beings we are wired to connect, and it is often healing to have the objective, compassionate, and skillful help of a trained professional.

You can find professional therapists in your area through websites like PsychologyToday.com and GoodTherapy.org. If you’re in Austin and like what you’ve read, you can learn more about working with me.  

 

1. Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

2. Albert Ellis Institute. (n.d.) Rational emotional behavior therapy’s a-b-c explanation of emotional disturbance [Brochure]. New York, NY: n.p.
 

Legal disclaimer: I am a mental health professional, supervised by Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S, and licensed to practice in the state of Texas. Reading my blog does not create a therapist-client relationship between us. My blog is designed for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for professional care. The contents of my blog should not be used to diagnose or treat illness of any kind, and before you rely on any information presented here you should consult with a trusted healthcare professional. If you are currently experiencing a mental health emergency please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.