Life’s hardest lessons are easy to understand and difficult to put into practice. We struggle in predictable and painful ways until we come to terms with things as basic as our own needs and limitations. These lessons are made all the harder because many of us were taught to take excellent care of others but not ourselves. The inescapable wisdom of sufficient self care is as simple as the adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
I’ve come to understand that acceptance of my limitations is a form of self respect. More importantly, I’ve come to see that I don’t have to like something to accept it. Too often we make choices based on how things feel. This is especially problematic because for millions of us, it feels selfish to care for ourselves and rewarding to care for others.
Obviously, self care is not selfish, it’s necessary. Unfortunately, it’s most often something we see as episodic, like taking a day off, or pampering ourselves on rare occasions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines eight dimensions of self care to ensure holistic health and well being:
1. Emotional—Coping effectively with life and creating satisfying relationships
2. Environmental—Good health by occupying pleasant, stimulating environments that support well-being
3. Financial—Satisfaction with current and future financial situations
4. Intellectual—Recognizing creative abilities and finding ways to expand knowledge and skills
5. Occupational—Personal satisfaction and enrichment from one’s work
6. Physical—Recognizing the need for physical activity, healthy foods, and sleep
7. Social—Developing a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support system
8. Spiritual—Expanding a sense of purpose and meaning in life
Physical self care tends to be the dimension we’re most aware of. With the New Year upon us, we will again resolve to diet and exercise. Some of us will achieve short term weight loss but fail to maintain long term commitments. Others of us will maintain rigorous routines because we are highly invested in maintaining outward appearances. What’s most often overlooked is the interconnectedness of self care. Example: our immune systems are undermined by poor stress management and insufficient emotional self care.
We tend to be negatively aware of our financial and occupational dimensions. According to recent Gallup polls, less than one third of us are engaged in our jobs. Over half of us are ambivalent and a significant percentage of us actively dislike what we do for a living. The place we tend to spend the most waking hours is a place we don’t want to be.
According to a 2015 report from the Federal Reserve, over 76 million Americans report they are “struggling to get by” or “just barely making it.” Financial stress is a reality that has an objective basis, yet it tends to overwhelm many of us to the point that we make no investments in ourselves. Few of us would consider that ten dollars a week saved has the potential to create a safety net that clearly constitutes self care. Quite often we fail to put common sense into practice because everything feels like it takes too long and requires too much of us.
Emotional self care is the one folks seek professional help for the most. The common thread amongst those we serve is a desire to “just be happy.” It’s infuriating to consider the plethora of things that make us unhappy and to consider eliminating them. It’s too simple, too obvious, and it requires a great deal of change.
Too often we approach ourselves as a problem to be solved. I urge folks to view themselves through what a therapist would call a relational paradigm. In short, try to view yourself as you do others. If you tend to look for the best in others, look for the same in you. If you tend to be supportive of others, be that to you.
In relational terms, too many of us are avoidant of self, are ambivalent toward ourselves, or can even identify being our own worst enemies. We would consider these approaches unacceptable in relating to people we care about, but justify them toward ourselves. We maintain two different perspectives, two ways of judging, two ways of relating — one for ourselves and one for people we care about.
We do not have to change how we feel in order to modify our behavior. Self care does not hinge on how we feel about ourselves. It’s functional and necessary. It begins with greater awareness and choosing to pay attention to our own needs. This enhances manageability and sustainability. It expands to a choice to be fair and respectful toward self. In essence, if we use the Golden Rule in reverse, we will experience improved health, increased enjoyment of our lives, and best of all, we’ll have more to offer to others.
Our friends at Maine Behavioral Healthcare urge us to attend to self care all the more through the stress of the holiday season. Advisory Committee member, Christina, shares her personal experience, “Self Care is an idea, attitude and practice that we do good things for ourselves. Some of the ways I take care of myself and manage my bipolar illness is to monitor my stress level. I make sure I am exercising several times a week and focusing on meeting the basics such as getting enough sleep, eating regularly and healthy and making sure I am taking my prescribed medications.
I stick to a daily routine and establish structure during my days and evenings by making a list of activities and tasks I can accomplish and feel good about. I celebrate the holidays in ways that bring me joy such as volunteering to wrap presents for people, listening to Christmas music and baking Christmas cookies for family, friends and neighbors. I also tell myself that I will make it through the holiday season and that it will come to an end and I will return to my daily routines.”