What the Hell is “Self-Care” Anyway? by Gwynaedd Howdyshell

“Self-care” is promoted on the covers of magazines, in online advertisements, and all over social media. A common question I’ve been asked by clients and peers alike is, “what the hell is, is self-care”?

Perhaps you have asked this same question or know you struggle with it. Maybe it feels like another thing on your list of things to do and feels too time-consuming and self-indulgent while trying to balance work/school/personal life. After a while, your body might have something to say about that, and it might become very apparent that getting curious about self-care instead of ignoring it might be a good idea. Or, you can keep riding that train on a one-way destination ticket to extreme burnout. 

As mental health professionals – we’re encouraged to practice self-care in order to help our clients. We’re constantly reminded in our education that “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” I was under the impression that “doing everything” and getting things crossed off my “to-do” list was self-care. It turns out I was burning the wick at both ends. I also was under the false pretense that self-care was indulgent and cost money and time that I didn’t have.

It turns out self-care isn’t just face masks (you know- the cucumber ones- not the pandemic ones:-) and getting your nails done. It is actually much more than that. Self-care is the practice of ANYTHING THAT ACTUALLY FILLS YOUR CUP AND SERVES YOUR HIGHEST HEALING AND GOOD. Perhaps it can be a spa day and a bubble bath, but it is also setting boundaries with people, speaking your truth, going towards things you avoid, and letting go of relationships and habits that may have kept you safe but no longer serve you now. Wait? That sounds hard? yup- welcome to the self-care party.

I was not aware of how many ways you can practice self-care – and that everyone’s self-care regimen would look different. So, I dove deep into researching self-care, its varieties, and what it actually does for the self. 

I was never taught about “self-care” and what it might look like to refill the cup. When you are raised by individuals who are inconsistent with boundaries and rules, knowing what your caregivers need or want is very unclear, and so we learn to hustle and practice the “toxic grind culture” that society only reinforces. “This is the culture of “Keep going, push through, no pain, no gain and go until you crash and burn.” It is linear and productivity-focused, with no regard for natural cycles of life and energy and no room for one’s own well-being, desires, and needs.

This culture also results in “chronic codependency.” Many of us have a tendency to put what others want/need before our own wants/needs. It can be so difficult to even check in with those needs/wants and identify what our needs and wants actually are because it was adaptive to cut off from them. “Why would we tune into our desires and needs when we knew we weren’t going to get them met anyway- right?

For many of my clients, starting with physical needs is a good place to begin. Just checking in with, “Are you hungry or tired?” even if it is difficult to meet those needs, at least acknowledging them is a start. I have had to start practicing my check-ins regularly and try to implement whatever’s coming up at that moment. I had to start with basics, like defining self-care: “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress” and “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health.” (Don’t you just love the oxford dictionary sometimes)? For me – this was blanketing physical health – but physical health and mental health really linked and impacted one another. Mental healthcare is part of the entire picture. 

Below is a list of examples of different types of self-care.

A disclaimer to note – these are not easy habits to pick up for everyone. Sometimes our mental health gets in the way. These are merely the ways that you can start to take care of yourself at a deeper level. Being perfect at self-care is also not the goal here. Oftentimes, unpacking perfectionism and just showing ourselves some mercy and grace IS EXACTLY the self-care we need. These practices are simply putting your own needs into the equation.

A theme you might see here, and one of the biggest components to implementing any of these, is Boundaries. Both internally and externally. Take the boundary quiz here:  https://boundaryquiz.com/.

A second disclaimer: There is a trend now for companies and systems to weaponize self-care. Like telling teachers with 40 kids in their classrooms to just download the Calm app or telling nurses to meditate when they know good and damn well that they simply do not have the resources to provide the type of care, they know their clients need. Self-care is important, but it is insufficient in addressing SYSTEMIC ISSUES. So another form of self-care is just knowing that sometimes the game is rigged and we need collective, systemic change that no amount of meditation or bubble baths is going to fix. There cannot be an individual solution for a collective problem. Okay- soap box, preachy note done: Now let’s get to what you can actually put into practice. 

Types of self-care include: Physical, emotional, social, spiritual, professional, financial, environmental, and intellectual.

Physical self-care:

This includes anything that benefits your physical self. Drinking water, eating three meals, going to bed on time, and taking breaks to exercise or stand/stretch. Showering and brushing teeth. Etc. 

Emotional self-care:

Journaling, meditation, taking breaks from social media, therapy, and compassion practice for self and others.

Social self-care:

Hanging out with friends that actually lift you up and celebrate you- if you don’t have any of these- practice becoming this for yourself, setting boundaries when you need to, utilizing a support system when you’re in need of help, communicating, hanging out with friends

Spiritual self-care: 

Time alone, meditation, prayer, nature, or engaging in any spiritual practice

Professional self-care: 

Time management, work boundaries, taking breaks when you need to, and little sips of nourishment throughout the day!

Financial self. Care: 

Saving money, budgeting, paying bills on time, personal boundaries

Environmental self-care:

Establishing safety, cleaning your home, taking care of things around the house, decluttering

Intellectual self-care:

Hobbies, crafts, creativity, setting goals, living authentically, developing identity.

See if you can start small. Start with little shifts and habit changes. Be gentle with yourself. No one ever healed by criticizing themselves to death. Put yourself into the equation and see what happens.  

2 thoughts on “What the Hell is “Self-Care” Anyway? by Gwynaedd Howdyshell

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