What better time than amidst a pandemic to talk about self-care. I say, “revisited” because here I am going to offer some new ways to think about self-care. Hopefully, these will be welcomed additions to whatever means you already have in place. After all, self-care is not a luxury to be implemented only when you have the time or money to do so. Good self-care is an essential prerequisite for day-to-day baseline health and it is an even more important aspect to have in your repertoire during stressful times. With the pandemic dragging on and on and predictions looming that it is likely to last another year or two, the inability to recover from burnout has reached epic proportions. So what can we do to become better armored against stress during these challenging times?
Pre-pandemic, the notion of self-care was often pitched more to women than men and talked about in terms of deliberate action steps that could be taken to ensure time for relaxation, pleasurable activities, quality time with loved ones, adequate sleep, and regular exercise. As well, self-care was sometimes defined by a “no” list of things to stop doing because they no longer serve you. Examples were: always doing for others, attending gatherings out of obligation, forgetting to eat lunch, or putting yourself lowest on the totem pole. Self-care is about taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being whether it relates to things you do or things you decide to stop doing. Not enough has been said, however, about the inner dialogue that can sabotage any feelings of wellness regardless of how well-intentioned you are and what activities you have implemented or ceased as a part of your healthier lifestyle. I put to you that the real essence of self-care is not just about your behavior but even more importantly, about how you treat yourself as you go about the course of your day. A general theme during this pandemic whether the talk has been about teachers or mothers or children or business owners has been to cut people some slack with the understanding that times are difficult. Are you being kind to yourself when the going gets rough? Self-care more than anything is about finding that inner parent in your psyche who knows how to be understanding, forgiving, supportive, and compassionate. Whatever your gender, without access to this internal voice, the best-made plans for a more self-caring lifestyle can become tainted and/or just feel like one more chore.
As a therapist who has worked with people for over forty years, I can attest to the fact that whenever I have asked clients to identify their inner critic, in other words, that voice in their head that puts them down and criticizes everything they do, people have little trouble understanding what I mean. However, when I suggest that there is also an internal self that knows how to be supportive, kind and encouraging, people often give me a puzzled look and report that this voice is more difficult to locate. Whenever your critic works overtime, you are likely to feel shame, guilt, or anxiety as a result; then your auto-immune system becomes compromised and health problems are likely to follow. Now that we have access to more sophisticated brain research, we know that stress lowers immunity, and lowered immunity leads to disease. It is important to understand, however, that more damaging than stressful “circumstances” is the stress that you put on yourself by the way you talk to yourself in your own psyche. In all likelihood, no one is harder on you than you are on yourself. Knowing how to be self-critical seems to come naturally but how well do you know how to face your blunders and still be kind and compassionate toward yourself?
If an essential aspect of self-care is knowing how to treat yourself with kindness and understanding, how can a person learn to do more of this? I was listening to an interview that the well-known Buddhist psychotherapist and teacher Tara Brach did with Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “Eat, Pray Love” ) as part of a Sounds True course entitled “Radical Compassion Challenge”. In this interview, Gilbert talked about being in a place of tremendous pain and depression many years ago and deciding to sit down and write down everything that she had always wanted to hear somebody say to her. This inner voice which she came to call “love” said something like this: “I love you no matter what. I will never leave you. Even when you screw up, I am here for you. I don’t need you to do or be anything. I don’t need you to get better, feel better, do better. I am here for you always. There is nothing you can do to lose me…” As she remarked, everyone has something that they wished somebody, anybody over the years would have said to them. We all know what it is that we want to hear. We also, every one of us, have been there for someone else when they have needed empathy and encouraging words. If you can access this voice and dial it inward, you can get through just about anything. I strongly agree with the message of this course: the most important self-care routine you can implement, and one that could save your life, is self-compassion.
We are co-creators in this world and we impact one another. When there is little tolerance for mistakes or failure within, you will likely attract others who agree with you; other people who, like you, will be critical and/or stingy with their praise. Our pain shows up in our relationships more than we think both in who we choose to befriend and how we impact those close to us. If you are more of an enemy to yourself than a friend, you will attract enemies. So, not only does a steady diet of self-compassion help you, it nourishes everyone around you. So whatever you decide to implement in order to take better care of yourself, do so with kindness and self-compassion. When you are under stress take a break, get hydrated, go out for a walk, do some pleasurable activity, or call a friend. Whatever you do though, be kind and gentle with yourself. If you do, others will benefit and the tribe you surround yourself with will be the ones who lift you up and make you more. If ever there was a time that we need to treat ourselves with the same compassion and understanding that we show others, surely it is now.