Getting Real About Self-Care
I recently started going to yoga classes on Wednesday mornings with a friend. My friend is a trained yoga instructor and avid yoga class attender. I, on the other hand, haven’t been to a yoga class for over 9 years. Becoming a mother seemed to have taken almost all of my free time and the commitment of attending a class was overwhelming and felt impossible. So why, all of a sudden, did I have time to start going on Wednesday mornings? How could I justify the hour and a half it takes to get to the class and attend the class? Not to mention, the amount of time it takes to process all of the feelings that came up for me during the yoga class. Why was it possible now?
The idea of self-care is something we talk about all of the time in the mental health community. We talk about it with clients and with fellow therapists and it’s always a difficult conversation. This illusive idea of doing something that is going to help us all keep our sanity, our jobs, and our relationships, is fleeting at best. It looks simple and practical on paper. But is it?
The Challenge of Self-Care
Self-care. What does it mean to you? So many people think about it in simplistic terms – “I’ll go get a massage, or a manicure, I’ll grab a beer or glass of wine to help me relax, I’ll plan a vacation…” But, in truth, self-care is far more challenging than it seems. To really get to a place where we are taking care of ourselves, we have to look at our lives holistically. We have to really begin thinking about where we spend our time and our energy and why, and that is not easy.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) “Self-care means taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health. When it comes to your mental health, self-care can help you manage stress, lower your risk of illness, and increase your energy.” They include examples that many of us have heard of such as, getting regular exercise, eating well, practicing gratitude, and getting enough sleep. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/caring-for-your-mental-health
Why Does Self-Care Matter in Relationships?
So, how does self-care relate to parenting, to being a partner, and to attachment? Well, the obvious answer is that taking care of ourselves allows us to be better equipped to parent well, to be responsive and healthy in our relationships, and to attend to the needs of others. Most parents have heard the analogy of putting on your oxygen mask before helping others with theirs (either from a parenting support person or in an actual airplane). But, simply put, you can’t help anyone if you aren’t breathing.
Sometimes I have to repeat that last line a few times, even to myself. I can’t help anyone if I’m not breathing. Dramatic, I know, but I understand the pull to give until I cannot give any longer, especially to those I love. Shel Silverstein wrote the book, “The Giving Tree.” In this story there is a tree that loves a little boy and continues to offer and to give what it has throughout the boy’s life. The boy takes what the tree offers until one day the tree is just a stump and the boy is an old man.
I have read this story with many parents and those parents have related to this story in many ways. Some are happy to give what they have and need to think about ways to continue to have something to give. Others feel the life-draining aspect of giving and giving and pull away from the story entirely, feeling like they cannot be this giving, even to those they love. I believe anywhere a parent lands on this spectrum is a fine place to be. It just means we have to take the time to understand where we fall. Are we gladly giving until we are a stump, or are we repelled by the needs of others and feel drained and resentful giving what we can, or are we somewhere in the middle? This understanding will help us with self-care. It tells us more about why we need self-care, what we value – either to continue to give in our relationships at a significant pace or to actively carve out space where we can take a break from giving and not feel shame.
Some of the most basic ways we play this out is in our relationships with others. Despite where you fall on the spectrum of giving, there are a few areas of your life that can dramatically improve your feeling of being cared for by yourself. Both of these spaces are great places to start when you are thinking about just how hard it is to care for others and take care of yourself.
You Need Personal Boundaries for Self-Care
The first area is one of personal boundaries. Take some time to think about what you really need and if you are getting it. If you find that you are being pushed to give up the things you need (i.e., yoga classes), then think about why. For me, it was an unspoken agreement between my partner, and father to my child, that I couldn’t ask him to take on more parent responsibility and he couldn’t suggest that he should. We were both too concerned with the way the other would react to actually talk about the thing that would help – I could have some time to recharge and he could spend more time with our daughter. Changing this did entail some hard conversations and it took some time and some significant lifestyle changes, but it was possible.
Boundaries can be a challenging subject. As we establish our needs and our personal boundaries there is a chance that the other people involved become upset or try to push us back into the roles/spaces we’re trying to get out of. People can become upset. But, without discussing personal boundaries and needs, we can become nothing but a stump.
Your Schedule Matters Too
The other area that I would recommend looking at for self-care is your schedule. How do you literally spend your time? This one can be really hard too because it means looking at ourselves and the ways we are interacting with the world. Are we scheduled to the second and coping with life by just not having any free time? When we do have free time, do we use things like alcohol, drugs, or staring at social media for hours to help us relax? Or do we refuse to take on things that might be good for us because we’re overwhelmed by the idea that that thing could consume all of our time or really upset someone else? Our schedule can tell us a lot about ourselves. Depending on where you fall on the spectrum of giving, looking at your schedule can provide opportunities to manage your time in a way that feels meaningful to you. Do you have time to give to others and interact with others in the way that you hope to? Do you have time scheduled where you can get away from the needs of others? Connection is important. Alone time is important too.
Now that you’ve thought about your personal boundaries and your schedule you can see how easy it will be to do the things that people call self-care (exercise, eat well, get enough sleep). You might also see how difficult it could be. Sometimes looking at boundaries and schedules can tell us we need more support in carving out space and time for ourselves. It can also show us the areas we have been avoiding out of fear, out of routine, and out of necessity. If you find yourself noticing that it won’t be easy to make a few changes to create space for self-care, you might want to talk with someone about these challenges. You are important and the people who rely on you and need you cannot continue to benefit from what you give if you don’t have any more to give. Sometimes connecting and scheduling with a therapist is needed self-care too.