On June 6 I will be co-facilitating a new group at MDABC. This has been in the idea stage for well over a year so it’s gratifying to see it come to fruition. This group will focus on good self-care, self-acceptance and the elements of self-compassion. (See the Self-Compassion model at the top).
As it says in our Preamble, the purpose of this group is to share our knowledge and experience with different aspects of self-care and self-compassion. We will start each group with a short reading or video and then open for discussion on the topic. After a short break we will have some time to share our experiences working with these concepts.
Our first session will focus on self-care, since that’s the first part of the title. Below is an excerpt from my booklet called My Constant Companion: Self-Care, Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion. (I hope to provide a link to it when it is a finished product). This is what we will be reading and discussing next Tuesday. If you have any comments you can send them to me (see Contact at top).
Why do I even bother asking people in my workshops what self-care is? Isn’t it obvious? Maybe not. There have been people who have said “I don’t really know what it means”. At first, this surprised me somewhat but when I thought about it, it made sense. Many of us have been raised with poor role models for good self-care. And I say ‘good’ because bottom line, all of us are constantly taking care of ourselves to some degree. Otherwise … we would be catatonic or dead. Most of us manage to get out of bed at some point during the day, even if it’s simply to go to the bathroom and grab something to eat. We spend our whole day taking care of ourselves in some form or another. But I don’t believe many parents sit down with their children and talk specifically about self-care and what it really means. Therefore, this is that talk.
When participants in my workshop answer the question ‘What is self-care?’ they invariably answer things like ‘Time alone’, ‘Making sure I’m healthy’, or ‘Having good relationships’. They are not wrong, of course, but they haven’t defined self-care. And I think it’s extremely important to understand what it really is, to put it into proper perspective.
The one answer I do agree with as a definition of self-care is ‘taking care of my needs’. That, I think, is the crux of it. Look at it this way. What we are all trying to do, every day of our lives, is create and maintain a certain equilibrium, a state in which we feel, at the very least, okay, and if we’re really fortunate, we may feel absolutely great. By taking care of the needs of the moment, I am trying to get to that balance within, where I am feeling at least okay (if not great). And all the time, if possible, thank you very much.
How I do that is by paying attention to what I am telling myself. I am hungry, I need time alone, I need connection with others, I’m lonely, etc. Then, if I can, I take care of that need and in a way, that does not harm anyone, including myself.
Think of a car. I have to keep it running well in order for it to get me from A to B. I have to take care of its ‘needs’. I have to keep that car in a state of equilibrium in order for it to run effectively. It is the same with myself. If I don’t take care of my needs I may become quite miserable and unhappy. And that affects those around me as well. So, by not taking care of my needs, I may adversely affect myself and others. When I do take care of my needs, I tend to be much more pleasant around others and I’m sure they appreciate it as much as I do.
Self-care, in a nutshell, and just like the analogy of a car, is about me taking care of my needs so that I can get from A to B in the best form possible – without polluting the air with my toxic fumes. And that’s all about my relationship with that car, I mean with me.
A good relationship
As I said in the introduction, this booklet is, above all, about the relationship we have with ourselves and how that affects our well-being and our whole life. What constitutes a ‘good’ relationship with myself? Well, I think it’s one where I put my own needs as TOP PRIORITY. Now that doesn’t mean I ignore the needs of those around me. All it means, is that my needs are JUST AS IMPORTANT as those of others – not less. I’m going to talk about ‘selfishness’ in a minute but let’s get back to defining what a ‘good’ relationship with myself might look like.
First of all, my needs are TOP PRIORITY. It is also the manner in which I talk to myself. I think most of us, if not all of us, have some kind of voice in our head. Let’s call it The Storyteller, or if it’s particularly harsh, The Self-Critic. That voice tends to narrate a lot, analyze things, be an observer and often tells me what to think and do. Maybe for some of us that voice is kind and compassionate. Maybe for some it is a voice of constant criticism and belittling, mostly of us, but often others as well. In order to have a good relationship with myself, I need that voice to speak kindly to me – ALL THE TIME. The moment it belittles and condemns me for something I have said or done is the moment I cause myself unnecessary emotional pain. I say ‘unnecessary’ because we don’t have to do this to ourselves. We can live quite well without a Self-Critic. I will talk about that later.
I can also look at my relationship with myself in terms of how I respond when I am in pain – physical and/or emotional. Do I try to dismiss it and deny its existence or do I acknowledge it and quickly engage in compassion for myself, as I would do for someone else? I don’t know about you, but when I’m in pain, especially emotionally, I need comfort and reassurance more than anything. When I can provide some of that comfort for myself I feel a sense of strength within. It helps me bear my pain and helps me know that I can get through difficult things in life because I know that I have someone to rely on ALWAYS. When I am there for myself 100% of the time, I do not feel so alone and isolated. I still need others too but it makes such a difference to have me for a friend first. A CONSTANT COMPANION.
In every workshop I have done (more than a dozen by now) there has always been someone who thinks they are being selfish when they put their own needs ahead of someone else they take care of — a partner, children or an elderly parent. There seems to be tremendous guilt for some when they think of taking care of their own needs first.
But what is selfishness really? I think it’s when we ignore the needs of others, or when we take care of our own needs in a way that is clearly harmful to ourselves and usually to others as well. Selfishness is about being egocentric and self-centred. It is about not caring about others. And from what I can tell, those of us who worry so much about being selfish tend to be the people who don’t ignore the needs of others but give others’ needs priority over our own.
What happens when we don’t take care of our needs? For me, it means I am grumpy, irritable, miserable, depressed, anxious, and stressed out. I’m not very nice to be around. However, when I take good care of myself, I make everyone’s life easier, including my own. So what is really selfish here? Caring for myself seems to make everyone feel better.
Again … why ask?
So, why is it important to understand what good self-care is? Because we need to look at how we care for ourselves in a very serious way. Many of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our self-care and yet it is absolutely critical to our well-being. When I first started doing workshops and groups around self-care I asked myself what self-care and, in particular, what good self-care meant to me? Two-and-a- half years later I think I am still answering that question, still finding things that could and should be included in ‘good’ self-care.
Clarifying self-care can help me to see that it, on the one hand, is not complicated. It is simply about me paying attention to myself, in a kind and compassionate way, and especially paying attention to what I need. It helps me to understand that when I take care of my needs I am not being selfish but I am helping myself get from A to B. Being human, that means being able to do the things I really want to do in my life.
Of course, on the other hand, it can be very complicated. Acknowledging what I need can sometimes be emotionally painful. Many people feel badly about being lonely, for example, as if it’s some weakness of character. So they don’t want to acknowledge it, don’t want to think about it at all. However, not acknowledging something we need seems to be the same as denying its existence. Unfortunately, the need does not go away when we do that. It is still there, and unanswered in any way, can cause a lot of emotional pain, depending on what the specific need is.
Because we are all human beings we tend to have a lot of the same kinds of needs. However, we also have unique needs as well. For example, one person may need music to fall asleep to while another person may have trouble falling asleep with music on. I like video games a lot, (I mean a lot) and I feel a need in my life to play them quite often. However, other people have no desire whatsoever to play them.
Let’s look at our typical needs…
We all need food, water, air, shelter, rest, sex, medical and dental attention, care for illness and injuries.
Most, if not all, of us require some connection with others. We want to feel a sense of belonging, whether to a family, an organization or a community. We want to feel cared about, and loved. And … we want to be able to love back. However, some of us want more social contact than others. I, for example, am a bit of a hermit. I love my time alone and that is my own personal need. But I still need to have some connection with others – a few close friends.
We all need enough resources to live on. And I’m sure we’d all prefer to have as little debt as possible. Some of us, more than others, like to have nice things. Some see financial status as important and they have a need to have a certain amount of income.
Many of us like to be in pleasant surroundings – whether it’s our home or in a park, or even an art gallery or museum. Many of us place a lot of importance on having a healthy clean environment. Some of us require a constantly clean and uncluttered home while others are fine with a bit of a mess. It all depends on what is most important to each of us.
This can be a challenging one for some as we don’t always know clearly what spirituality means. It seems to me to be about making sense of the world, of life and feeling a purpose of some kind. Some like to be involved in a more formal doctrine such as Christianity or Buddhism, others have a very private spirituality. Many of us in this culture don’t have a strong spiritual sense of the world, nor even feel the need for it. But for others of us, it’s a vital part of life.
Autonomy and a sense of control
Many of us probably don’t think a lot about these two qualities yet when we feel like we don’t have them in our lives then we really notice. Most of us do have a sense of autonomy once we reach adulthood yet being mentally ill usually means we are engaged in the mental health system in some way and that can feel like a loss of autonomy to some degree. The more dependent we are on this system the less sense of control we might feel. We have a system that is not perfect and does not meet everyone’s needs. Those gaps can affect us strongly and this can make us feel like we are helpless and a victim.
However, we can get a sense of control over our lives and that can help us feel less a victim. I will talk more in-depth later about a sense of control and how we might achieve that in our own lives. It helped me immensely to understand that the mental health system could not give me everything I needed. There are gaps. The resources simply are not there and the amount of people who need it seem to be increasing every day. When I could accept that I couldn’t get everything I needed from my doctor, my psychiatrist, or hospitals then I could take charge of my own life and find other ways to meet my needs. I could feel some sense of control over my life.
Dealing with illness
Becoming ill gave me new things to deal with such as frustration at not being able to do what I used to be able to do, limitations I had to accept, and anger at being ill. Above all, it was a loss of plans for my future. Suddenly everything looked very uncertain and I needed reassurance a lot from others. Comparing myself to someone who was healthy and ‘normal’ only fueled my depression so I had to let go of doing that. I came to understand that what is normal for someone who is ill is not normal for someone who is well. I needed to put myself in that very special group of people – those who are ill – and use that as my context for ‘normal’. And I saw us all as simply different, not less than anyone else, not inferior. We are a select group of people who are given the challenge of mental illness in our lives.