Self-care. It’s kind of an amorphous, trendy category, but one that people (at least on the internet) generally agree is important. Google says there are more than 655 million hits for the term “self-care,” and 40 million blog postings related to the term. Plus there’s a wikipedia article on it. So, it must be real.
Actually, the Oxford English Dictionary says that the term has been around since 1904, in English at least. Now it’s often found floating around more often, unsurprisingly, in the health care field, as a term for both the health of practitioners (nurses, social workers, counselors, therapists,) and for their clients. Even my old grad school “buddy,” the 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault, writes about it, and traces it back to the ancient Greeks.
But what actually goes into effective self-care is hard to pin down. Most of the definitions I’ve run into say it’s about caring for our bodies, minds, and spirits, but figuring out what is good for each of those categories is slippery business. So often I think that we just want simple practical ways to think about and practice self-care–manicures or early bedtimes or personal retreats. But I think before you can decide if a particular thing is a good self-care practice I think figuring out the principles behind sustainable self-care is essential.
Three Guiding Principles for Self-Care
1. Investment. I have found that for me good self-care has to be something I can afford to do on a daily or weekly business. So, while I’m sure sailing to Cancun would be lovely, and probably quite restorative, that’s not in my current time or money self-care (or otherwise!) budget.
But just because I don’t have a big budget, doesn’t mean that self-care is cheap. It does takes an investment of time and energy, and even some money as well. And while, perhaps, taking a trip to Cancun seems like it is the height of taking time to be in nature and relax, I would suggest that when you take time out to daily affirm you and your body’s needs for rest, beauty, and healing, you are making it an even higher priority than a once a year big vacation. (Now, don’t get me wrong, I do love vacations! But if you haven’t learned to relax at home, traveling across the world almost always does not magically give you the tools to do so.)
2. Enjoyment. If I don’t like to do something, then I tend to avoid doing it. If want to incorporate self-care practices into my daily or weekly routines, then they have to be things I enjoy. So, while I’m sure eating an organic, raw carrot salad every day is an awesome way to practice self-care with fiber and vitamins, I hate raw carrots, so that’s not a good choice for me.
But that doesn’t mean that self-care can’t be some work. In one of the more mysterious aspects of healing and self-caring, the healthier you become, the more energy, desire, and stamina you seem to have to incorporate more practices. It’s an upward spiral. So, eventually you can incorporate practices into your life that right now are challenging. As you get stronger and more proficient in one area of self-care, you can turn and cultivate the habit and eventually enjoyment of other forms of self-care. And actually, since changing the way I eat, I think that raw carrots taste slightly better. (But I still think they taste roughly like the way new carpet smells.) So while I might not ever get to the place where I can dive into a raw, organic carrot salad every day, I do hope that I’ll be able to learn to journal regularly.
3. Benefit. Just because something is fun, and something I could afford to do often, doesn’t necessarily make it good for me. Drinking a bunch of cocktails at a wedding is fun, but it is not a good long-term practice. Alcohol is wonderful for celebrating, and marking time, but it’s not an everyday self-care.
Self-care is marked not only by feeling immediately good, but also by producing good long-term results. For me, self-care should be something that if I did it every day it would make a good long-term impact on my life. So, I love a good chick-flick, but usually that is more fun, not self-care. They tend to make me a little depressed at the lack of glitter and serendipity in my own life. It’s a bit like dessert, you can pick out good healthy kinds, but still you can’t have your diet based solely on desserts. There’s nothing wrong with fun treats, but I think that they are different than self-care. Self-care is the meat and vegetables that give you the health to enjoy your dessert and wedding champagne.
Learning to care well for yourself is a life-long task. Each season of life has new tasks we must be strengthened for, and those seasons may bring different forms of healthy self-care into play. So as we explore on and off throughout the Spring forms of self-care, ask yourself these questions:
1. Can I invest, on a regular basis, my time, energy and money into this practice during this season of my life?
2. Is this something I enjoy now? Or could I learn to enjoy it in the near future?
3. Does this practice offer long-term benefits? Or is it something I do for occasional fun?
Just because something is too expensive for regular use, or is something we think should be enjoyable but just isn’t, or something is fun and good for occasional consumption, doesn’t make that thing bad. We need occasional fun, we need to try things that are hard, and we can have the occasional splurge. But what we do everyday to refuel ourselves to care for our work, our families, and the world around us needs to be a good and reliable source of strength and solace to navigate the tasks again.
How do you practice self-care? What are your favorite types?
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