The phrase “self-care” often brings to mind bubble baths accompanied by a glass of wine, shopping trips, spa days, feel-good movies, and ice cream eaten straight out of the tub. The popularity of this “treat yo self” philosophy has turned self-care into a bit of a modern buzzword, but it’s still a widely misunderstood concept.
As the world navigates the long-term realities of a global pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we learn how to take care of ourselves properly so that we can handle the stresses and uncertainties that we all have to navigate in our day-to-day lives.
So, what exactly is self-care, why does it matter, and how can we practice it in a way that’s compatible with a desire to love and serve others?
What is self-care?
According to Julia Hogan, therapist and author of It’s Okay to Start With You, self-care can be defined as “any practice that promotes your overall well being.” She breaks it down into five different areas of focus:
- Physical: taking care of our bodies with exercise, a nourishing diet, and enough sleep.
- Mental: caring for our mental health by noticing any unhealthy thought patterns or behaviors, and getting the help we need to overcome or work through these problems.
- Emotional: giving ourselves room to process feelings, and exploring different methods of positive self-expression.
- Spiritual: nourishing our souls with prayer, meditation, and the sacraments.
- Relational: building and maintaining strong, healthy bonds with loved ones.
Our bodies, minds, souls, and life circumstances are totally unique, which means that the ways you need to look after yourself are unique, too, and will shift and change throughout your life. There’s no one-size-fits-all self-care plan, and each of us need to look at where we might potentially be experiencing an imbalance so that we can address our most urgent needs.
What do people often get wrong about self-care?
A truly holistic approach to self-care starts with a deep understanding and belief that our lives — and our bodies — have inherent worth.
Karen Doyle is the founder of The Genius Project, an initiative designed to help women discover and live out their unique calling in the world. She believes that the struggle to balance self-care and self-giving love is one that particularly affects women, but it’s really important that we engage with it if we want to lead a fulfilling life. “I’ve come to realize that self-care is really far from self-indulgent,” she says. “We can’t love others until we have learned to love ourselves.”
As Karen pointed out, many people confuse self-care with selfishness, not understanding that when you truly take care of yourself, you’ll be in a much better position to give to others. If you don’t get enough sleep, for example, or drink too much, you won’t feel great the next day, and will struggle to love and serve those around you without snapping and being irritable.
Taking good care of yourself has a direct impact on how you relate to others; the biggest misconception around self-care is that our wellbeing is in conflict with the wellbeing of others, when in fact these two things are complementary and need to work together in balance.
Self-care isn’t always fun or easy — “it can actually be more of a discipline,” Julia says. You have to develop self-control and self-awareness to know what’s good for your body and soul, and to act on that knowledge. It takes time and energy to incorporate exercise into your daily routine, to drink enough water, to prepare healthy food, to go to therapy, and to maintain meaningful connections with loved ones. And, according to Julia, this is key: self-care “means making a better decision, but it’s not always the easier decision.”
Why is self-care important?
In her work as a therapist, Julia works with a lot of individuals seeking to live a more meaningful, authentic life, and she believes that self-care is a powerful tool in that effort. “When you take care of yourself,” Julia says, “you’re able to be fully present wherever God has put you, and whatever He has called you to do.”
When we’re not tending to our own needs, we might find ourselves hurting the very people we’re trying to love and look after (as well as hurting ourselves in the process). Especially in situations where we have a particular duty of care to others, a phenomenon known as “compassion fatigue” is very common, where people end up hating the work they do, and stop being able to connect with the people they originally set out to help. As Julia explains it, “If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, we can’t be there for other people in the long-term.”
So, when you take care of yourself, not only do you feel happier and stronger, but you’re also able to give more to those around you — to be a more supportive partner, child, parent, friend, and colleague.
This is why Karen advises people who want to pursue a dream, passion, or purpose to make sure that their identity is rooted in the belief that they are a beloved child of God. “Once you have this revelation,” Karen explains, “then what you do comes from a place of wanting to give back, rather than trying to get your worth from what you do and from people’s affirmation and validation.” Once we can operate from the deep security this knowledge offers, “then we can serve others with joy.”
How can we practice self-care?
As Julia points out, you don’t have to necessarily be in therapy or spend money to learn to look after yourself well. Learning to say “no” and establishing boundaries is one totally free way to prevent burnout. The old adage is true: when you say “no” to someone, you’re actually saying “yes” to the things you’ve already taken responsibility for.
We can use the five elements of self-care that Julia highlighted (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational) as a starting point to check in with ourselves and see where we might need to focus more attention. While your physical health and wellbeing is quite an obvious factor, mental and emotional health might require some intentional reflection. Remember to consider the importance of things like spending time outdoors in nature if you can, as well as the power of creativity — both of which can lower cortisol levels (the “stress hormone”) and help you to recharge. And, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and finding it hard to focus, you might also want to check your tech habits.
While people often perceive the Christian principle of self-giving love as being somehow at odds with self-care, the Bible is, in fact, full of radical ideas about the importance of rest and the inherent value of life regardless of achievement or worldly notions of success. If we ever doubt our value, or the importance of rest, we just need to turn to the creation story in Genesis to read about how God declared His creation to be “very good,” before resting. If we’re ever tempted to love others but withhold that love from ourselves, we only need to re-read the greatest commandment to see that God asks us to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
As Julia Hogan shared, self-care is a discipline that requires us to take our long-term health and happiness seriously, and taking a bird’s eye view of our wellbeing the way that a parent does with their child (think: reminders about taking your vitamins, wearing sunscreen, and making sure you’re eating your veggies).
Self-care empowers us to contribute to the world around us in a sustainable and smart way, so don’t feel bad for making sure you’re getting what you need, especially during these hard times.