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Self-Care Isn't Selfish

Self-care. It’s a new buzzword. At first glance, it can seem to imply self-absorption or even decadence. Real self-care is taking care of the self so that you are fully present. The mind, body and spirit are inherently connected and circular. What affects the mind can affect the body, for example. Research into trauma is revealing that trauma is stored in the body. I recommend Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s important book, “The Body Keeps the Score”, to explain this further.

If you’ve been a mentally and physically exhausted, stressed parent…if you’ve been burned out at work, or find yourself yelling at your spouse, then you know what it means when someone says, “my tank is empty. I just can’t give anymore.” That’s someone in dire need of healthy self-care. The APA (American Psychological Association) has stressed the “ethical importance” of self-care. One interpretation of this is that we have a certain obligation to be attuned to and take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. We can’t help or relate well to others if we are broken and empty or burned out. Anyone who has been too dried out and worn out to be a good, attentive parent can attest to this.

Our culture has done quite a number on us, convincing us that to take care of ourselves (first), means that someone else, usually our own children, have to suffer. This is a skewed message. Anyone who has travelled on a plane can recall the classic demonstration by the flight attendant of putting your own oxygen mask on first, before attempting to put a mask on someone else, even an infant. Yet, if we don’t make sure our own care is nurtured first, there will be two casualties instead of one. I learned this message as a divorced single parent of a toddler years ago. I couldn’t be a good and patient mom if I was constantly stressed and worn out. I began to use the time alone while she was away on visitation, to care for myself. It wasn’t just bon-bons and novels, but spiritual care. Creating a bucket list. Relaxing and attuning to my spiritual self. It wasn’t merely the things that made me laugh and play, but what built me as a person, and spoke to my desire to learn and grow. Creating some lists to help me get things accomplished. But primarily, it was teaching myself to stop apologizing and feeling guilty for saying “no” sometimes, or for declining an invitation and staying home with a good book and quiet time, or for gracefully pulling away from toxic or demanding relationships that weren’t helping me grow.

Self-care is all of those things. What does “self-care” mean to you? What kind of teaching and modelling have you experienced? Have you been taught, like so many of us, particularly women, that caring for self is “selfish”? Let this therapist assure you it is anything but selfish. How will you know you are practicing good self-care? Self-care is about doing the things that are direly necessary to build and maintain YOU, so that you can be fully present and participating in the things that matter most to you - - such as your family, children, work, community, church, etc. A spouse who is bone dry can’t be fully present to the other spouse, or to the marriage, family, home. When we are mentally and physically stressed and exhausted, that’s when costly mistakes happen and relationships suffer. I cannot over-emphasize the need for sleep and physical exercise. The research abounds with the positive benefits of both - and the risks and harm from deficits in both. The brain actually suffers when we become sleep-deprived.

Consider taking a notepad or journal and begin writing down some things that nurture your soul. Is it gardening? All I have to do is smell rich, black potting soil and it relaxes me. Pets are proven to help us calm and alleviate depression. Are you taking on too much responsibility that others can and should be helping with? Have you been putting yourself last, looking and maybe even feeling like a martyr, but in reality, suffering and becoming resentful for not feeling appreciated? Very few are the times others are going to take better or more insightful care of you than you will for yourself. Besides, it isn’t the responsibility of others to read our cues and provide that care. That’s why it’s called “self”-care. What do you need to feel whole and fully present, not dried out to a crisp? I encourage you to sit down, close your eyes for a moment, and really experience with all your senses what the last time felt, sounded, looked, like when you felt this way. Has it been too long? It isn’t heroic to constantly serve others to your own detriment, or to be a martyr.

Self-care is not a luxury but absolutely essential – to yourself, to everyone around you.

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