Self care has become a popular term in recent years, but it’s meaning and impact are somewhat ambiguous. Many clients enter therapy with the sense that they need to “improve their self care,” but clarifying just what this means is important.
The truth is that there is no one activity of self care. Rather, self care is about attuning to the self compassionately and being willing and able to provide for those unmet needs, whatever they may be.
Self care is a fundamental part of person-centered therapeutic approaches, and if you’d like to learn more about integrating self care practices into your life, counselling therapy can ensure your approach is unique to you, instead of formulaic or prescriptive.
At its most basic, self care includes the activities of daily living, like eating and showering, but as today’s conceptualizations of self care advance, more clarification can be helpful. Self care falls into several categories, including:
● Activities of Daily Living: showering, laundry, tooth brushing, eating when hungry, etc. While many people who want to improve their self care might still perform these tasks, for some people these foundational activities can be impaired.
● Administrative/Executive Tasks: daily routines and schedule-keeping (being on time), paying bills, gathering groceries, etc. Some people have no trouble with other forms of self care, but find this subset in particular to be a challenge.
● Emotional Self Care: naming and noticing our emotional needs and providing for them, being present, etc
● Relational Self Care: setting boundaries, standing up for yourself, etc.
Basic self care is critical during crises of any sort. When the demands of our life experience—whether it be external or internal challenges—are overwhelming, it can become very difficult to attend to the daily requirements of the human organism. For many people, overwhelm can lead to long periods of staying in bed, eating insufficiently, and cleaning oneself and clothing intermittently.
For many people experiencing this level of overwhelm and collapse, guilt, shame, and hiding compulsions can become added onto an already stressful situation. Adding feelings of loneliness and isolation only makes things worse. If basic self care has become a problem, it is important to ask why. Noticing and naming the cause that leads to the effect can be a crucial first step in understanding, normalizing, and de-stigmatizing the loss of our most fundamental caring for the self.
Just as importantly, it is important to begin to take the steps to regain self care. Even in major crises, demonstrating to ourselves that we remain capable of attending to our organism—even just feeding and cleaning—can make a profound difference. Accordingly, the first step in therapy for those in this situation is to learn alongside a Counselling Therapist how to gently integrate meaningful acts of daily self care into our life.
But for many people, self care means something far different than just eating, sleeping, and cleaning. Magazine articles, books, instagram-influencers, and mainstream TV shows are all peddling different forms of so-called self care.
● candle lit baths
● nature walks
● “sitting with your feelings”
But what does it all mean, and why are these the tasks of self care? And what about for people who don’t like bubble baths!
To craft your own best self care practices, it’s important to know what the point or purpose of these activities even are. It’s not just about pampering yourself or “being present.”
Just as basic self care is about tending to the needs of the human organism—eating, excretion, and sleeping—other forms of self care are about attending to one’s needs. This may seem obvious, but it’s important: consider how we “outsource” some of our needs to others. For example, when we are scared we might look to a certain person. Or perhaps when we are hoping for a certain outcome, we might desire for someone else in the group to effect that change in our stead.
Self care, then, is simply about meeting more and more of your needs by your self. This doesn’t mean that we stop asking others for things or hoping others will do this or that, because humans are social animals. Indeed, we need others and we are healthiest when we are in fulfilling relationships with others. But, learning to attend to our own needs is a fulfilling and healing experience.
A reasonable question becomes, what needs of mine am I neglecting? To which needs should I be attending?
In the modern self help literature there are all kinds of guesses: is it your inner child? or perhaps you are traumatized and need to reconnect with yourself? Or perhaps you have no boundaries and need to set them as an act of self care?
All of these things are propositions, and they might, in fact, be true. But they are certainly not the only truths. Just as many people who have “porous boundaries” have the opposite, i.e. “rigid boundaries.” Just as many people who are disconnected from their bodies experience the opposite, i.e. are highly sensitive to every sensation. People characterized by the descriptions above would want to attend to a different set of needs, potentially using very different strategies of self care.
This is one of the reasons that Counselling Therapy can be helpful for those who are interested or in need of improving their quality of self care. Most resources are prescriptive and do not take into account the particular needs of each unique person, of you. This might result in becoming proficient at some aspect of self care that wasn’t lacking at all, while missing out on an opportunity to fulfill an unmet need elsewhere.
Below are some examples of unmet needs and activities that can help to meet those needs:
● the need for comfort when feeling sadness
● the need to set boundaries when feeling transgressed or violated
● the need to get active when feeling restless and antsy
● the need to socialize when feeling lonely
● the need to ground yourself when feeling activated
● the need to activate yourself when feeling collapsed
There is no singular need and no single cause; and, therefore, there is no single (or small group) of actions that can be called a system of self care. Endless yoga might be great for feeling movement in the body, for getting activated or for getting grounded, but it’s not an act of self care if what you’re needing most in that moment is the need to reach out to a comforting friend.
Learning self care is an act of creative attention. The first step is developing the ability to listen to your interior landscape—your body, your thoughts, your emotions—and to do that listening without judgement. When we criticize ourselves for our feelings, attending to those feelings in a positive way becomes impossible. By being critical of our feelings—or of the fact that we are feeling at all—we become like a discouraging parent, trying to scold the feelings away.
With compassionate attention to our inner self, we can learn to say something like the following: “I am having an experience of sadness. So what do I need most right now?” In asking these sorts of questions of ourselves, we can become creative caregivers—as we very often are for others—in finding ways to fulfill those needs.