WHAT EXACTLY IS SELF-CARE? SOME THOUGHTS

The term self-care... came up A LOT in my graduate program. It was constantly thrown into every lecture, referenced in every assigned reading, mentioned among other students when they talked about their weekend plans and stress getting papers done. I would hear it talked about so frequently but I don't think I ever gave the term real thought; I sort of assumed self-care meant the freedom to get a manicure, watch housewives marathons and add a little mac and cheese to my to-go box at Whole Foods, without feeling bad about it. Self-care was basically a more personal version of YOLO. My professors put so much emphasis on mastering this practice as burgeoning social workers, however, never discussed the concept in real detail. What exactly did self-care mean and how the hell are we supposed to do it? Of course we learned pretty quickly why self-care was important and the strong impact it was supposed to have on our minds, bodies and souls in doing this hard work. But there was never any solid explanation that I can recall about what that looked like in practice. 

And now, after working in this field for about 5 years, I kinda get that. It’s not a concept that can easily be taught, measured or applied equally to everyones lives. As I reflect back, I think my early understanding of it often felt like a bandaid. A somewhat superficial act of joy in response to adversity, with great intent, but not an authentic way to feel better. Getting my nails done, going to the dentist, saying yes to an extra drink; these things didn’t really do much for me because it was really a check off the list or an in the moment thing that caused more harm the next day. I remember very clearly being in my first job out of graduate school and being extremely unfulfilled, overworked and really burdened by the whole experience, to put it lightly. So my way of dealing was to try and equate the dismay of my day job with what I thought was self-care; spending extra time out with friends, buying expensive shoes, indulging in everything without any real consideration of the consequences because it felt like a worthy opponent to my hardships. 

I quickly realized this was not only not self-care, but that even engaging in real self-care wouldn’t have solved the problem I was in. I had been living a life that at it’s core was failing to meet my basic needs. I had absolutely no stability or balance. Self-care can't fix that. Self-care is a restorative practice, therefore there needs to be something to restore.  It’s what keeps us in an essential harmony with the reality of daily life. I realized that in order to do this I not only needed to engage in real self-care, but also not rely on it. I needed to be able to function reliably at baseline first, then add in self-care to remain balanced. This meant that getting a better apartment, more followers on Instagram or a boyfriend, was not going to cut it. The main source of my unhappiness was coming from my job and so if that didn’t change, nothing else would. So I made the leap of faith and after about six months I was able to find that essential harmony I needed so desperately. It took a while and wasn't an easy process but eventually I was clearer, stronger, safer. It wasn’t until then that I was able to learn what self-care wasn't, starting my journey to discovering what self-care was. 

At its core, self-care is the practice of restoring balance. Meeting your basic needs is a necessary basis for any self-care practice and those needs are not just basic. Having food, shelter and water is one thing, but what self-care provides is a step closer to peacefulness, wholeness and fulfillment. I would say I don't feel 100% this way, 100% of the time, but I will say that the more I practice balance, the easier it is to maintain it. Just like anything, practice makes better. So what is considered an act of self-care? I could create lists of activities that would fall under the umbrella of self-care, but the key for me is to ask a few questions, "How will this time spent meet a need the day has brought? Will doing this bring me balance today or will it exacerbate my pain?" 

Finding a practice that is healing, is not necessarily always enjoyable. And vice versa. I have often confused having fun as always being helpful. Sometimes it is, sometimes not so much. For example, a mini shopping spree might have made me feel great after a stressful day at my internship, but didn't always make the next day less stressful. Adding extra salty food to my plate was an indulgence I might have felt I "deserved" after submitting a big paper, but it didn't reenergize me or release the stress I accumulated in getting the work done on a strict timeline. I remember one semester when I finished my last assignment, I felt this insane urge to go for a run. I hadn't been consistently exercising at the time, but I just felt this intense desire to move my body, particularly my legs and release whatever had been building up for so long. Now this was certainly a one off, typically I would see a movie by myself or crave a margarita after being done with finals, but I think it really spoke to our need day after day to release ourselves from the stressors of daily life. Exhibit A being the sheer concept of "happy hour," which tends to just leave us dehydrated and tired by 7pm. This is not to say that enjoying a nice meal, eating a slice of cake or sipping a few pretty cocktails is wrong, but it just comes down to consciousness. If we can be a bit more conscious, albeit honest with ourselves about what's truly helpful, then we are more capable of choosing something healing over hurtful.

Often times self-care means scheduling time with friends, time for my blog, or just plain time with myself. The time with myself, I have learned, is often the most restorative. And this time with myself can look a lot of different ways. Sometimes that means laying down for ten minutes and watching stories on Instagram, other times consuming media will worsen my mood. Considering how much time I spend online, I often consider good self-care to not involve any devices, but that's just something I have learned from my own experience. Remember this is a practice, not a default response. So what's helpful today might not be tomorrow. Being conscious of the energy we are carrying can weed out a lot of ideas. Like I mentioned before, a practice that is healing, is not necessarily enjoyable. Sometimes a tough day might require more than a just walk outside. Sometimes addressing our issues head on, talking to someone about them, or contemplating making a change is neccessary. It's essentially about being more in tune with ourselves so that we can adequately restore balance as needed. It's a daily practice that sometimes I'm pretty good at, other times not so much.

But the good news is this; we know ourselves best. We might not always be 100% in sync all the time, but we will always have that opportunity to find ourselves again. Again and again and again and again. That's essentially what this practice of self-care is, right? Well again, only you could know. 





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-MGN

Photography via Danielle Heinson

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