In a culture where ‘self’ tends to be given high priority, it may seem surprising at first to claim that many people don’t actually take care of themselves. Taking care of oneself is a basic human need, yet external influences and internal pressures can come in the way of honoring this need. External influences could be demands and expectations of society, family, and/or the workplace. Internal pressures are often the demands and expectations we place on ourselves. Either way, the result is a feeling of having little to no time to be refreshed or rejuvenated, as well as feeling disconnected from our self and others. These difficulties can show up in routine responsibilities at work or school, monthly expenses, relationships with children, partners, and friends—not to mention the constant barrage of texts, emails, and other notifications that demand our attention daily. It is no wonder that at the end of the day, most people feel drained! The idea of carving out time to tend to one’s own needs may seem like an extra burden. This is where we might do well to examine how we value ourselves.
Healthcare professionals are quite familiar with the term self-care but often find it just as difficult to practice. Doctors, nurses, mental health therapists, social workers, and the vast circle of other helpers in this field also deal with the same types of stress as their patients. As much as self-care is talked about, a clear definition and practical training are often missing from the curriculum. Definitions vary slightly between programs and providers, yet self-care can be thought of as what you regularly do to take care of your heart, mind, body, and spirit (if you believe in this aspect of the self).
You might begin by thinking about the different ways in which we experience life. We are beings that live 24/7 in a physical body. We possess the intellectual capacity, described sometimes as the mind, as well as emotional capability, perhaps thought of as the heart. For those who believe in spirit, there might also be a connection to a dimension both within and outside of our self. When we do self-care, we ideally tend to our physical body, intellectual mind, emotional heart, and our spiritual connection.
Taking Better Care
Let’s briefly look at each of these areas:
Our five senses are constantly taking in and responding to the world around us. The brain, the control center, also receives and sends out messages to our bodies. What we feel in our body is referred to as sensation. Emotions are actually felt in our bodies, not just our minds. When we feel an emotion, like fear or joy, our body responds in a certain way and our brain and body record this emotional experience. The more we experience a particular emotion, the stronger the imprint on our brain and body (called conditioning). In order for our body to function at its best and to simply feel good, we have to nourish it with healthy food, do some form of physical activity regularly, maintain the right amount of sleep, and avoid abusing substances. When you listen to your body, even for a few moments, you will likely identify what it needs. Or perhaps due to another condition, your body is yelling loudly about what it needs.
How we think and what we think about has a huge impact on how we feel. Take a minute and write down all of the thoughts that come to mind. After the minute is up, go back and label each thought as past, present, or future. Where is most of your thought life spent: in the past, present, or future? What do you feel about each thought? Where do you feel it in your body? As intellectual creatures, we are drawn to analyze, plan, rationalize, ponder, reflect, imagine, and much more. We do not have to act purely on instinct: we have the capacity to choose what we think about and how we act. This is a powerful ability! Any of those traits can work to our advantage and growth. At the same time, we can employ these traits in harmful ways. We overthink, dwell, believe damaging thoughts, and become indecisive because we reflect too much on past disappointments. Becoming gently and nonjudgmentally aware of our thoughts, whatever they may be, can help us then choose how we act. Also, continuing to challenge our mind in healthy ways can build mental strength, such as learning a new skill, reading various kinds of literature, having a respectful dialogue with others who think differently, playing strategic games or creating art. When we take care of our mind, we embrace our ability to choose how to be.
Our hearts have an amazing capacity to feel profound emotion. Think of the people you love and care about. What would you not do for them? Think of the “mountaintop” experiences you’ve had: the birth of your child, hiking to the top of a mountain, accomplishing a goal you’ve worked hard for, traveling to a new country, falling in love. As much as our thoughts and emotions are intricately related, we tend to be the most convinced by what we feel. Self-care can be applied here in terms of how we guard our hearts from unhealthy behaviors or influences, as well as what we do to fill our hearts with the good: positive relationships, activities that help us grow or that we enjoy, and taking part in experiences that bolster life-giving emotions.
This area of our self is very personal. Some people identify with an organized religion, while others identify with paths that are unique to them or a combination of different spiritual expressions. However this happens, most people who consider themselves spiritual beings also have spiritual practices that strengthen their alliance with a power or entity beyond themselves. Some people do this by praying, attending places of worship, forming relationships with like-minded people, reading sacred texts, meditating, and so on. Experiencing meaning and purpose is often indistinguishable from spiritual experiences.
Implement a Plan
The above descriptions of the ‘self’ are not comprehensive, by any means. They are meant to help you consider what areas you might be attending to in your self-care, and which ones are being neglected. As you explore how to create and implement a self-care plan, perhaps with a therapist at Real Life Counseling, you will likely define how to incorporate self-care into your day, not just on vacations. May it go well for you!