“Self-care is so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”

—Eleanor Brown

Self-care is a phrase we hear quite a bit in our culture, especially in wellness circles, but many of us have trouble implementing the concept and some of us may even find it somewhat superficial.   What one person experiences as self-care might be completely futile for someone else.  And self-care can actually be approached punitively just like any other activity.  For example, diet and exercise can be a profoundly powerful way one person may care for him or herself, but it can also become the source of more stress, guilt or even self-flagellation.  When it comes to self-care, motive is central.  This is why, aside from the broad category of social support, no particular self-care practice seems to be more effectual than another.  It is the attitude with which one treats oneself that matters most.  Self-compassion and gentleness are absolutely essential, in order for self-care activities to produce restorative results. 
All that being said, when I put together a self-care plan with my clients, I do follow a few basic guidelines.  Firstly, it needs to be holistic.  This means a comprehensive self-care plan should address the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual components of life.  Though the Western medical model can often emphasize a more compartmentalized approach, we are ultimately integrative beings and each component impacts and is impacted by the others.  As a counselor my work focuses on the psychological, but I am consistently amazed by the profound impact that physical, social and spiritual changes can have on mental health.
Secondly, a self-care plan should not feel like drudgery.  As I mentioned above, self-care can become another form of self-punishment.  It doesn’t matter how “healthy” the practice is, if it is motivated by guilt or shame it ceases to be self-care.  For example, if you hate yoga, yoga should not be part of your self-care plan.  Plus if you choose activities that genuinely feel enjoyable and restorative, you are more likely to actually do them.
Thirdly, self-care should not lead to shame and guilt either.  Most of us have probably had those stressful days when we come home and want to drink too much wine, eat an entire pizza and zone out in front of netflix.  This may feel good in the moment, but will most likely not feel very restorative the next morning.  Self-care never leads to feelings of regret, but our numbing practices often do.  It can take practice to differentiate between the two, and only the individual truly knows what works for him or her. 
This brings me to my final point, self-care is always changing.  What works during one season of life may not work during another.  Sometimes external factors influence our self-care needs.  Maybe you go from working a typical 40 hour week to a 60 hour week.  This doesn’t mean you can’t practice self-care.  In fact, it becomes even more important, but you may not be able to dedicate the same amount of time to it anymore.  My husband and I became foster parents to two little girls.  Our lifestyle and schedule changed overnight, but this just means I have to make some adjustments and choose a few practices I can do with kids.  Staying committed to caring for myself actually makes me much more effective in caring for them.  I truly believe that prioritizing ourselves is one of the most loving things we can do for those around us.  It takes practice to cultivate a caring attitude toward ourselves, but it is so worth it.
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Author whitneybranch

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