Self-care as a mindset and a practice: Redefining an oft-misunderstood concept

by Aga Grabowski, LCSW, Co-founder of Wildflower Center for Emotional Health              

“There is simply not enough time for everything” is probably the most common complaint I hear in my psychotherapy practice from busy moms, busy executives, busy students, busy colleagues. The other day as I helplessly looked at my mile-long task list, I caught myself yearning for a quick fix — a magic pill that could restore my body and mind, and eliminate the need for sleep. This is coming from a therapist who witnesses the profoundly negative effects of our overscheduled lives on a daily basis! It is fascinating that the mind’s response to not being able to keep up is to work harder and faster. 
This is NOT the solution. Instead, we need to re-learn how to slow down and what it means to truly rest. In this article, we will discuss why self-care is so challenging, what self-care is and is not, and how to make space for it. 

Our struggle with self-care

Being the complicated creatures that we are, we yearn for comfort and harmony and yet may simultaneously find ourselves more adrift, restless and, maybe even irritable when we disconnect from our devices, news, tasks. We might feel conflicted, even guilty, about the idea of permitting ourselves to slow down even though the body demands it. After all, the items on the to-do list are endless. An inner battle ensues — anxiety follows, trailed by frustration, and negative self-talk.  
Why do we struggle so? One of the root causes of such inner battles is that we are no longer in sync with natural patterns of activity and rest. Via marvelous technological advances, we have defied the call for slowing down. For thousands of years, this call was not optional for human beings who had to heed to it once the sun went down. The advancements this has made possible are breathtaking.

However, there is a price. In glorifying productivity, we have devalued rest. Sadly, in the process, many of us have lost touch with or never learned how to rest, how to pace and restore ourselves. We have also constructed a flawed, oversimplified definition of self-care as a set of relaxing activities to engage in, another batch of items on an overflowing to-do list. A busy attorney and mom of two looked at me with disbelief and mild annoyance the other day when I mentioned the importance of self-care: “I just told you how busy I am. You want me to add more to that? I can’t do it!” 

What is self-care?

When you get a plant, do you expect that it will grow and blossom without water, sun, and nutrients? When you purchase a car, do you believe it will continue running without any maintenance? No, you water your plants, you change your oil, you don’t try driving on flat tires. Interestingly, humans often do not apply the same mindset to their own bodies and minds. Instead, they expect ongoing performance while giving little thought to the question of what do I need in order to sustain doing what I am doing?

We need to recognize that self-care is fundamental to self-preservation. Without it, we break down – physically or emotionally (or both). We must stop looking at it as something that sounds good in theory but is not realistic due to lack of time, lack of money, lack of support, etc. We also need to stop reducing self-care to a set of relaxing activities inserted between frenzied obligations and everyday rush. Increasingly, many people report that while they will step away from work and, say, go to yoga or for a walk during their lunch hour, they cannot find the “off” switch that will put their stress on hold, clear their minds, and help them return to work feeling refreshed. They might still try to “do” self-care, but the benefits are not felt.   

Why is that? Self-care can be manifested through activities, but it is NOT reduced to a set of activities. Instead, it is an attitude and a mindset, a dynamic way of engaging with the world around us day in and day out that is oriented towards preserving our ability to be fully present to whatever it is that we are doing, manifest our values in the process, and remain whole. Self-care is about tending to all dimensions of our being: physical, emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual. That is not easily captured by a formula that is often promoted by articles of the “5 things to do to be happy every day” variety.

Composer Claude Debussy said once that “Music is the silence between the notes.” The rhythm of sound and silence is what makes it so pleasing to the ear; without the silence, it would simply be noise. Similarly, our lives descend into chaos and noise without the rhythm of work and rest. Many of us live lives of noise and do not even realize it. Our cultural obsession with productivity and achievement makes this way of living seem normal. Coming to recognize that self-care is what breathes life into your existence is the first and most important step you can take towards feeling present and whole.    

Make your own music

To stretch the musical metaphor, every human being is a unique instrument that needs to be tuned in an equally unique way. What I need to thrive is likely not what you need, although there may be some similarities between us. One of my clients told me that he loves winter, and in fact feels best during that season. Three other clients on the same day complained about how the gloom has affected their mood. Another client spoke about needing moments of solitude and quiet in her daily life. Yet another reflected on the importance of spending time with others on a daily basis to be energized. Some of my friends could care less about being outdoors. If I don’t spend at least some time outside every day, I begin feeling constricted and miserable. If I approach self-care as something “optional” to do when I have time, I will rarely make it outside. However, when self-care is treated as the foundation of my everyday life, ensuring that I get to go for a brief walk or run to a store instead of taking my car will be part of my design for each day.  

Self-care begins with exploration of two questions: What do I need to thrive? How will I live to translate this need into action? Much of my work in psychotherapy is devoted to helping clients find answers to these questions and act on them.  

Dimensions of true self-care

Our self-care activities thus make a meaningful impact on our lives when they are part of a larger philosophy towards life and the activities of daily living. Often when self-care is discussed, we are instructed on what to do: take a walk, get a massage, call a friend, slow down and read a book, meditate. The doing of self-care is important in that we need to figure out what works for us. And, what we do when we are taking care of ourselves is not as significant as how we do it. For instance, if I am taking a walk on the lakefront in Chicago and ruminating on my struggles and to-do’s, the spirit of self-care is lost. 

True self-care is:

Intentional  

We make a choice to engage in it, recognizing that our minds, bodies, and spirits need nourishment in order to continue serving us and our values and goals. One of my clients, Emily (name changed to protect confidentiality) shared with me that in her sedentary job she used to ignore signals that a break was needed. Her back would hurt and she would come home feeling wired, unable to slow down, and disconnect from work even though she very much desired to do so. She began to intentionally ask herself throughout the day: How am I feeling? Do I need a moment away from my tasks?  Emily began to then deliberately step away from her desk, stretch, sometimes take a walk, or even just listen to some music.

Purposeful  

True self-care is not only deliberate but also purposeful. If we asked ourselves the question of what we need to restore ourselves in this moment and decided to seek it without a purpose driving it, the endeavor would lose its urgency and importance. It would likely be relegated to the very bottom of our list of priorities. It is critical to know why you are prioritizing self-care. You don’t need a profound answer to this question every time you engage in self-care. The overarching purpose to keep in mind is self-preservation. Emily came to fully recognize this as her health started breaking down. She saw that she could not expect to feel fulfilled in her life without tending to herself. Equally importantly, Emily wanted to be more present to her loved ones, and saw that her capacity for presence increased exponentially when her mindset became one of prioritizing self-care.
Often in response to the notion of elevating self-care to a way of life, people worry that this will become a thinly veiled justification for selfishness. Far from it! In reflecting on the purpose of self-care, we are connecting with our most cherished values. In doing so, we make sure no harm is caused to us or others.

Mindful

We must be fully engaged and present for self-care to be meaningful. Imagine standing at the center of the Yosemite Valley at the crack of dawn as the sun begins to paint the granite summits shades of pink then yellow. Now, also imagine that at that moment your eyes are glued to your smartphone and you are going through your Facebook feed. What a waste of precious moments! Be present to what you are doing – the being part of self-care is more important than the doing. 
Our minds are fickle and restless so we cannot expect them to simply cooperate with the request for presence. Instead, prepare to notice your mind’s habit of taking you out of the here and now, and bring your attention back to the moment every time it strays.

Compassionate

There is a spirit of gentleness, kindness, and compassion to true self-care. Bringing these qualities to our experience is something many of us struggle with. We may be used to motivating ourselves through negative judgments and harsh beliefs about what it takes to be successful or happy. Over the long run, this manner of approaching ourselves will take a toll on every area of life. It is not sustainable. To be compassionate means to recognize the vulnerability and fallibility that is part of being human and to wish to bring relief to the pain that sometimes besets us. After a long and particularly challenging day of work, I might come home and find an extensive task list awaiting my attention. Perhaps that morning I planned to tackle them upon returning to work. I did not anticipate feeling so depleted in the evening. To be compassionate means to honor my limits and prioritize recovery over everything else at times. 

Finding balance between effort and ease

Our cultural emphasis on consumerism, productivity, and performance has seeped into how we think of self-care. Many of us believe that in order to do self-care “right”, exercise classes, massages, and other paid activities are necessary. Surely these can be part of your self-care activities, but this is not what meaningful self-care is about. Self-care is the fuel that energizes the physical, emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of our being. The act of watching the sun rise above the lake could be a supreme, unforgettable experience that nourishes us spiritually and emotionally (and it costs nothing!). The act of having a cup of coffee can do that as well. The mindset is what matters. 

It is also important to note that self-care is not always about helping us unwind. A plant will wither if it receives an overabundance of water. It will also wither if it is not watered enough. Excessive rest and lack of exertion will eventually lead to fatigue, disconnection from self and others, and a sense of emptiness. Making an effort to, for instance, exercise our intellect, can be an act of self-care if we have noticed that we have not been receiving enough mental stimulation. Taking a break from mental activity after a long day of thinking, learning, and problem-solving is an act of self-care too. Thus, whether self-care is expressed through effort and activity, or through pursuit of ease and rest, depends on whether our energy has been depleted through significant exertion or not expended sufficiently. 

Ultimately, we are most alive and present when we respect the need for overall balance in our pursuits: between work and play, activity and rest, exertion and ease. We must act on this simple yet profound truth daily if we wish to experience our lives as vibrant, meaningful, and enjoyable.