Earlier today I was talking to my roommate, and he seemed like he was in a rough spot. His cat was missing, his job was up in the air, and, most present, he was desperate for sleep. I told him to get some rest, take care of himself; we’d talk later. It was a funny sort of thing to say, considering the morning I’d had. I was just coming home from seeing my own therapist, to whom I’d whined gloriously and had my expectations for what reality owed me properly reset. My advice to my roommate, as is so often the case with advice, was the sort of thing that I needed to say to myself instead. But it begs the question: how does a person take care of themself?
The issue of self-care is a big one in therapy, both as a career practice for those of us in the therapist chair and as a frequent refrain to our clients as they look for some relief. Self-care is sometimes looked at in this weird, too-big-picture kind of way, as both an umbrella term and a cure all for any mental health issue. As an umbrella, it can encompass any activity pursued alone or, paradoxically, in a group, that brings some kind of personal relief either physical or mental. As a cure all, I see people recommending things like yoga as complete solutions to severe mental illness. And while a good exercise regimen and spiritual practice are certainly helpful in managing one’s mental health, it’s probably not a good idea to get too carried away with them.
This is a tricky thing, because obviously we want the term self-care to have something approaching a definite meaning, but by dint of being self-care it has to be subjective. In my case, sometimes self-care is the standard healthy fair of going for a run or meditating or spending time outdoors, and other times it’s polishing off an entire bag of chips while I play decade-old videogames. And often it starts as one of those activities and gradually morphs into another one. The point being, self-care seems to express in a multitude of varied and often contradictory activities.
Which is a clue to the puzzle! If self-care activities for any given person can be so inherently contradictory, then maybe self-care isn’t an activity. Maybe self-care is the thing that precedes the activity, and because we all grew up in a culture that prizes action over contemplation we’ve been attributing the benefits of the procedure to the result. By which I mean, maybe finding the wherewithal and self-awareness to follow through on treating yourself to something you consciously want to do - yoga, meditation, ice cream, what have you - is what the self-care was all about in the first place.
As a Buddhist-informed therapist and a look-before-you-leap type, this makes a lot of sense to me. The business of doing something because I think I should and calling that taking care of myself seems to actually be the business of business as usual. “The realities of a monotonous job you can’t yet leave got you sad? Well, you should make yourself do something productive in your down time then!” just doesn’t sound like a meaningful solution to me. Right? Turning joy into work seems like a cure for joy, not for work.
So let’s talk a little bit about how to avoid all that. I think the first step is to really understand that self-care isn’t the activity, it’s the mysterious thing we all do beforehand that lets us enjoy the activity. You might call it awareness, but I think there’s more to it than that. There’s a certain righteous selfishness that comes in the moment of taking space for yourself. Living in this world of demands and expectations, the simple idea that one could carve some time not to do something they enjoy but, rather, to be themself, is absolutely revolutionary. On the Cartesian graph of time and money, being yourself is the Z-axis. Being yourself is a metaphorical popping out of the programming of the lives we lead, one that leads to a chance to enjoy whatever is arriving form within.
One thing that’s very exciting about this is it turns anything into self-care, potentially. Once you realize that the fatigue you need to rest up from is caused by being whatever the world wants you to be that isn’t your self, you can find solace in doing anything so long as you do it as yourself. It’s like that moment in your third hot yoga class where you realize that you’re actually catching your breath in down dog pose; even though the center is mobile, it’s still the center. Now, if it turns out that you yourself want to spend your time doing something pleasurable, no one could blame you. Just make sure you’re doing it for you and not for the people around you.