DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 21: SELF CARE
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. This month we will discuss a word that has virtually disintegrated through thousands of different interpretations in self care.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH SELF CARE: TWO DREADED WORDS?
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.”
— Audre Lorde
Maybe it’s the pure semantics. Maybe it’s the politicization. Maybe it’s just connected to the stigma of mental health in general. But the words self care certainly hold much more weight than the very concept of the term implies– especially when, most broadly, the term simply refers to maintaining quality of life in order to sustain healthy daily functioning. Or maybe, going off of that, it’s a secretly daunting activity that has been dressed up as a fun and exciting activity. Regardless of opinion, one thing is clear: self care remains undefined.
Our goal this month is to obviously explain the concept of self care and provide examples for how to apply it to our own lives, but a secondary aim is to highlight both the misconceptions and overblown pieces of the concept to hopefully help understand how to have a more comfortable relationship with self care.
MULTIPLE DEFINITIONS OF SELF CARE
Let us start by looking at some definitions– both correct and falsely assumed– that are out there. All of the following definitions are correct to some degree, but incomplete in fully conceptualizing self care.
Self care: doing things for yourself
This answer is correct, but far too vague. Self care does not simply mean doing things for ourselves just to cope or to distract or to soothe, but rather continuously upkeeping healthy habits that serve us. Obviously this also includes indulgences and activities that would not be traditionally seen as ‘healthy’ or ‘wholesome’, but a key aspect that is unacknowledged here is doing things for yourself that ultimately create a more fulfilling life at all levels. Self care is as simple as doing things for yourself, it is the nuance of what this looks like which makes things further convoluted.
Self care: putting yourself over others
This answer is technically correct, but worded in a way that is vulnerable to the interpretations of selfishness or disregard of empathy. Perhaps a better wording is not putting others over ourselves, as this frames things in a way that does not jump to the conclusion that the person is operating in pure self interest but rather takes their own needs as a priority. Self care is NOT selfishness, narcissism, nor adopting a ‘lone wolf’ mentality, self care is determining what things we need to do for ourselves IN CONTEXT of those around us. Self care is based around realistic assertiveness and compromise rather than domineering or demanding principles.
Self care: certain activities that are seen as positive for mental wellbeing
Again, true but problematically vague. Self care activities are typically seen as either exciting (“Treat Yourself” culture, self-pampering,’ extravagant’ relaxation) or routine (brush your teeth, exercise regularly, eating healthy), but include everything in between as well. As is certainly repeated ad nauseum in these blogs, everyone’s personal needs are very different as well. Running 20 miles a week is adequate and healthy self care for someone who is very active and athletic, but that certainly doesn’t mean that running 20 miles a week is a universally beneficial self care activity. Self care may even be not engaging in certain activities based on current mental status.
Self care: respite for burnout/stress/similar negative emotional states
True, but only if we are taking this statement on a daily and holistic level of interpretation. Perhaps most crucially, self care is a lifelong exercise. The idea of self care as a reactive strategy is similar to most proactive-reactive situations: it is likely too late. While self care can be easily seen as going out for a big meal at our favorite restaurant every month– which is self care!-- this will not be as continuously effective as smaller but more consistent self care measures such as working out every morning or stopping work at 6 every night. While this not only creates room for self care on a daily basis, it also allows for us to look at more accessible coping strategies as, unfortunately, we know that life breaks down quickly and with little to no room to prepare. Doing larger self care activities are still important, especially when things are feeling more difficult for us, but cannot be seen as the only piece of self care.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines Self Care as: taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health.
At the end of all of these frameworks that make self care seem like effort or work are ultimately deterring to the point: self care most accurately can be defined as living life in a way that is responsibly most fulfilling to one’s self. Self care, as is true of most of the “buzzwords” within mental health, might be best seen as maintaining a natural attunement to one’s needs rather than feel like another chore or self-help “must-do” scenario.
Let’s see if looking at the roots of this situation might be helpful in better understanding the concept.
THE “SEVEN PILLARS” OF SELF CARE
THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION DEFINES SELF CARE AS “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote their own health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker.” So basically, a literal interpretation of ‘one that can care for themself appropriately’. While this is not the official psychological interpretation, we can see that the roots of self care, which can often become glamorized or misinterpreted away from the original breakdown, are quite honestly… just a little routine and mundane. Per the International Self Care Foundation, the following facets are described as the ‘seven pillars’ of self care.
1. Health Literacy
Capacity and knowledge to understand what is and is not healthy for ourselves and access to these resources in order to make the best choices
2. Mental Wellbeing
Awareness, maintenance, and acceptance of our own mental health
3. Physical Activity
Maintaining a healthy and suitable level of exercise
4. Healthy Eating
Eating a nutritious and balanced diet that also allows you to enjoy it
5. Risk Mitigation
Taking adequate safety and prevention measures throughout life
6. Good Hygiene
Maintaining self-cleanliness as to avoid sickness and upkeep wellbeing
7. Responsible Use of Products and Services
Capacity to understand appropriate and healthy use of material goods and services
If we look at these 7 factors, we can potentially see more clearly why the mental health description of ‘self care’ comes to the forefront: it is hard to maintain these daily responsibilities if we do not first take care of our own mental states. The toll of this definition of self care can become extremely burdening should we ignore taking care of ourselves, and rather than try and drag ourselves through these tasks out of worry that we are not ‘doing it right’, we should try to get ourselves to a more favorable mental state first.
Perhaps a better way to frame the topic is to look at the outcome: the goal of doing these mental health self care activities is to be able to maintain the WHO-defined self care activities, and this is why the ideas of connecting self care to selfishness or overindulgence do not actually make much logical sense.
SELF CARE: THE OPPOSITE OF SELFISHNESS?
Another way to determine the end goals of self care would be to view it as an effort to make ourselves better integrated into the environment around us. Certainly, this should start with taking care of our own needs, but this would be a shortsighted and possibly problematic task should we not consider ourselves in context of the environment and the people around us. Not dissimilar to the idea that using logic without accounting for emotions is in fact illogical, the idea of self care being something that would end up putting us into a worse space is also not taking very good care of self. The reality of the situation is that we often can find self care difficult, and this again becomes problematic when considering many view the concept of either complete respite or a distraction to cope with the world.
Let’s take some examples, as this feels too theoretical so far.
If we see ourselves as someone who enjoys helping others, this is a great and positive quality that we definitely do not want to squash. When we get an opportunity to help others, we likely do it. Others can appreciate this quality about us, we can feel proud and identify ourselves with the quality, and that can bring extensive amounts of satisfaction and personal benefit.
Now, self care in this example is NOT to look at this and say “I do too many things for other people, I should stop”. If you enjoy it, this is something you are getting value from. However… the nuance and lack of self care awareness is what can make this go south. There is a big difference between helping others because we feel good doing it and helping others because that is the only way that we see ourselves as good– and often times due to such an identity attachment or comfort in understanding self as a certain person, we can begin to overlook the negatives to continue to focus on the positive.
For this example, the person would be demonstrating healthy self care strategies should they set boundaries around when they are willing to help, view helping as a autonomous and voluntary feature of themselves rather than a requirement, and maintain the focus on themselves should helping someone conflict directly with their own needs or require more energy than is worth. If a person feels their only value is to help others, they can often overlook how detrimental that can be as far as maintaining own self, which in the end, takes away from the ability to help others. This individual is in some ways learning to form a more healthy relationship with their own identity, which is another potentially more accurate reframe of self care.
Now let’s look the other way: let’s say someone is working an intense schedule of 50 hours a week, and then looks forward to getting extremely drunk every saturday night. We can even stretch this further and say that the person is experiencing relatively little immediate negative consequences from the behavior outside of a hangover, so there are no actual substance dependence issues affecting things.
While this example would be fine in moderation, the invalid perceptions of self care here come from the continuous cycle and lack of awareness of how, essentially, fragile this system can be when considering a long term development angle. While all humans are indeed at different levels of thousands of spectrums, it is safe to assume that eventually the 50 hours without self care would become tolling, may create more negative feelings, and the natural reaction per this system would be to try and drink more, or at the very least stop feeling an equal balance on the one night that a person is enjoying themselves. Again, all people are different, but typically we are much more likely to maintain and sustain adequate self care when we integrate it into our lives rather than rely on one method or one large event. Not to mention that in this example, we know that chronic alcohol use could also lead to issues over time as well as actual inhibition of the brain while drinking leaving risk for more extreme behaviors.
Both of these examples can be done in a completely healthy manner, could be healthily incorporated into life, but neither is showing true self care. While this is largely obvious to most, it is not quite so explicit when we are in the moment.
PROACTIVE VS REACTIVE
One way that we can continue to feel more engaged in self care is to break it down into categories of being proactive and reactive and focus mostly on the latter. Surely, reactive self care is just as important– we definitely cannot prepare for crises or even just the sporadic moments of life that require quick response. But even in these moments, we would still be better off taking proactive measures towards self care.
For this example, I can use an actual personal experience in my summers spent working at camp for autism. While I will be looking at a group situation, the same principles would apply towards individuals. As you might imagine working with the population, there were certainly more reactive type scenarios than proactive, as there is simply no fathomable way to be proactively ready– at least in a specific or precise way– for all that would occur within a day amongst 60+ kids working on emotional regulation in a foreign environment.
This is, psychologically speaking, a recipe for a complete nightmare. Ironically, I probably miss those days more than any other part of my history BECAUSE OF how smoothly things became resolved in this situation. While we were quite literally thrown into crisis multiple times a day at times, there was foremost attention given towards who was being overworked, who could be called if the counselor became overwhelmed, and multiple resources on hand in case of a range of issues from overstimulation to misinterpretation of social rules and other common situations. If a certain camper required more attention or was more easily managed with multiple people, this would be accounted for. Ultimately, the presence of constant communication and support being made available to all counselors created a cohesion and trust that meant no crisis would ever be faced alone, and all counselors would have an arsenal of ‘tools’ that made them feel prepared for crisis. No crisis was ever too large or so disruptive– and the flexibility allotted from the proactive measures made all the difference.
It is inevitable that we will face some kind of negative– distress, barriers, oppression, a myriad of things– and that is why we will benefit more from proactive self care even in the most unexpected of reactive situations.
NOVEL IDEAS FOR SELF CARE
Self care, even more so than most concepts, requires a very individualized and personal understanding around it. Here are some generalized strategies that may be helpful in considering how to engage further with self care.
REACHING OUT WHEN WE FEEL LONELY
Here is an aspect of self care that can often become twisted up in the idea that self care should not be selfish– it is a very human tendency to retreat inward when we need communication most. We can feel guilty, undeserving, or a burden when making this decision, even though we ultimately usually know that this would be helpful for us. Particularly for people who feel more extroverted, externally processing, or have trouble compartmentalizing distress, understanding that we will have resistance towards this self care decision can help us realize that this is only preventing us from re-regulating or coping, and certainly many, many people would feel genuinely happy to help us out.
DRINK MORE WATER
You’ll have to excuse me here as growing up in Arizona certainly ingrains this as perhaps too much of a miracle fix, but I cannot tell you how many times I attributed negative emotions to mental health when it was in fact just dehydration. We become dehydrated far more quickly than we can realize, and once we are feeling effects such as lightheadedness or increased heartbeat, we may very quickly assume we are experiencing something from a mental level. Not only is this an undesirable mindset to be in, dehydration can also drain far more energy and create further misattributed dysregulation if it goes unaddressed. As a person who continuously works against emotional dysregulation, you can probably see why I aim to drink well over 100 ounces of water a day.
FIND NEW MUSIC
This may be again a little bit personally based, but in the spirit of reframing being a very effective strategy for change, we can sometimes change our outlook by just shuffling the deck in certain ways. Finding new music not only creates a distinction of progressing life beyond the current state, but also can allow us to look at the previous state as something separate and compartmentalized. Not to mention, who does not like finding a new song that they love and the positive feelings that come with it!
GO DO SOMETHING ENTIRELY FOR YOURSELF
(obviously still abiding to the responsible part.)
The best birthday I have had yet was 24– just by random circumstance, I was in a situation where I was not locally around a single person that I would consider more than an acquaintance. While this certainly felt like it was about to be the most lonely and isolated birthday I could experience, I decided I would just simply write out 50 things I enjoyed in life and went out to go do them.
These ranged from small (listen to my favorite song at the time) to large (go to the zoo) to just bizarre (text my friend trash talking sports, hear one of my acquaintances say a catchphrase I thought was funny, etc), and at the end of the day, I felt absolutely euphoric and self-validated to a degree I had not experienced ever before. This day was truly important for my life since, mostly because it made me realize how powerful self care truly is. While it may seem to contradict many concepts that we covered earlier, trying to go live a day that has zero outside influence besides what we enjoy may actually be more difficult than we would expect and may help us better recognize and reconnect with what our needs and wants truly are.
DO PAMPER YOURSELF
And again, perhaps just as a reminder, self care does also include all of the generic and typical examples as well! Virtually any behavior that does not have a direct negative consequence could be considered self care, it just depends on what a person gets out of it. Taking time for pampering is a direct reminder to be kind to ourselves, but can also help in a large swath of secondary ways around confidence, health, positivity, and other benefits. While spending thousands of dollars on the fanciest of spas without adequate funds may not be the most healthy decision, taking some time to do things that we enjoy though may see as “superfluous” absolutely can be a healthy decision. Much like exercise, the balance of finding a sustainable and enjoyable consistency is more important than anything else here.
REARRANGE YOUR SPACES
And finally, self care (and really, habits in general) might be most easily facilitated when we can see things from a new perspective. Moving things around, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, challenges our ingrained patterns and can really highlight areas where we do have room to make changes. As we have learned here, self care can easily become routine, monotonous, and potentially ineffective in reality; starting things from a fresh perspective, even if it is just moving the couch in the living room to a new spot, can be a highly successful countermeasure.
Well, did we get any novel information in this one? I would guess… probably not.
As was part of the intention here. Self care is actually very obvious– it’s simply taking care of self. Where we can truly try to change our approach with this scenario is probably more about becoming more comfortable and aware of how we DO actually feel better while finding the balance between keeping ourselves as a priority and giving ourselves what we deserve. Self care could be seen as ‘taking personal inventory’-- just with less stigma around the wording.
A last example for self care comes in a very common trope: someone who is bitter and angry probably just did not receive enough love throughout their lives/ “they just need to love themselves”. While this is certainly a valid series of events, it also highlights the great need for self care and what can happen if we disregard ourselves in lue of other’s needs or because we are expecting others to take care of us. Self care is recognizing our accountability to ourselves while also monitoring the avenues we are vulnerable to missing– a truly difficult middle ground to find a median from.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
So logically, I suppose we will move on to the next misunderstood mental health buzzword in mindfulness, and what this can actually be interpreted as.
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