Society’s idea of “self-care” is a load of crap.

Yep, I said it. Hear me out.

I could not even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard a lecture on “self-care” in graduate school or during my time as a mental health therapist. This subject seems to constantly be hanging in the air during staff meetings and trainings. I am equally as guilty of overusing the phrase to clients and former staff members- urging them take care of themselves in order to continue doing the hard work they are faced with. Tropes like “you can’t pour from an empty cup” or “make sure to put your own oxygen mask on first” are littered across the pages of self help books and Facebook parenting groups.

We hear these urgings to care for ourselves and nod and agree that yes, we need to take better care of ourselves, but recently I was struck with the implication of these “self-care” urgings. I started to notice myself inwardly rolling my eyes every time the subject was brought up. Every time I came across an “inspirational quote” about self-care on Instagram I was noticing myself feeling overwhelmed or angry just thinking about someone encouraging self-care.

I realized that the way society traditionally views self-care is completely backwards. By encouraging someone who is burnt out, stressed, or overwhelmed to take care of themselves so that they are not trying to “pour from an empty cup” sends the message that they need to care for themselves in order to continue pouring out. Self-care should not be a vehicle to increase productivity. At a deeper level I noticed that there is a hidden message of shame that surrounds this. To be told you need to practice self-care sometimes felt like  a roundabout way of suggesting you are underperforming and therefore you need to add additional activities of self-care into you already crammed to-do list so that you can get back to being happy and productive and fulfilling the needs of the people surrounding you.

If we are only taking care of ourselves in small doses so that we can continue to react to the needs of others, doesn’t this miss the point? As humans we need to get curious about why we are feeling dysregulated. By exploring what we are longing for and taking active steps to make these things a priority in our daily life, we will be able to reclaim our joy. The purpose of self-care should be to meet our own human needs. Full stop. Yes, utilizing our resources to care for ourselves will positively impact our ability to serve and pour out on to others, but it shouldn’t be the reason we are practicing self-care.

So what does self-care actually look like?

There is no right or wrong answer to this because it looks different for everyone. In my last career I supervised a team of therapists and caseworkers that worked with people in crisis. I was in charge of leading this team during the swift pivot to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic onset. During this time, my eyes were completely open to the importance of self-care being specifically tailored to individual needs and personalities. We were all struggling and stressed at a high level but I found that what was effective in addressing the stress varied immensely from person to person. Environment and personality had to be understood in order to care for the array of needs.

During this time, I was pregnant, parenting an energetic toddler full time, trying to manage a team of other stressed staff members, and making tough decisions on the management end all while conducting virtually therapy to clients in crisis. As you can imagine, my environment looked completely different than a colleague who was single, close to retirement and living alone. Her struggles surrounded loneliness, whereas my longing was for a moment of quiet. When conversations about returning to in-person work started happening I found that some people were thrilled, while others, having grown accustomed to tele-work, were upset to have to leave behind their newfound love of being able to conduct their work from the comfort of their own home. A rhythm they had come to cherish as something that absolutely filled their soul – perhaps the very type of “self-care” they were needing all along. This experience completely opened my eyes to the fact that there is no cookie cutter way to practice self-care. A bubble bath and a manicure for one person may be bliss, while to others it may seem boring or like a waste of money.

In order to practice true soul filling self-care its important to take an inventory of your life and figure out where the deficits are and how to fill them. I suggest the following things :

  • Take some time to think and journal about some favorite days you’ve experienced. Describe these days in detail, then go back and pinpoint the things that made these days great. Can you implement some of this in your current life?
  • Reflect on the happiest time in your life. When was it? What did a typical day look like? Perhaps this was way back in childhood and your adult interests have changed, but at your core you are still YOU. For example- I used to love spending hours outside catching frogs in our family pond. As an adult, I don’t have any desire to catch frogs, but the quietness of nature and the solitude I experienced can be re-created with a hike.
  • Be bold and ask for what you need. Schedule it. No excuses. It can be fun to dream of these things and then never get around to actually doing them. You deserve it.
  • Look for opportunities in your day-to-day life. You do not need a full weekend, day, or even afternoon to put some of these things in place. Examine a typical day for yourself. Do you have 10 minutes in the car between daycare drop off and work? Are you spending that 10 minutes mentally creating to-do lists for the day and listening to bad music on the radio? Could that time be spent better?

Lastly, I would like to encourage anyone in a position of caring for others, whether your a parent, spouse, boss, or CEO to encourage the people in your life to do the things I mentioned above. This should be a top priority. Tune in and notice the needs of those around you and realize that people have a hard time asking for what they need. There are countless studies, like the 2016 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and this study from Stanford University   that show that treating people with real compassion (people can see past the fake stuff) and trust will reap positive results for everyone involved.

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