The Self-Care Debate

Those of you who know me well, know that I am a fervent proponent of self-care. I would go so far as to say it is the cornerstone of my health coaching practice – helping others find ways to prioritize day-to-day lifestyle choices that will optimize their health and well-being. Some people, particularly women, think it is selfish to focus on self-care. I have always argued the opposite – that it is one of the most selfless things you can do, as you can’t take care of others in your life if you are not feeling or functioning at your best. I often use the oxygen mask analogy from the airline safety protocol – put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting those around you. After all, you can’t help your family or fellow passengers if you are passed out – or in this case, burned out or close to it.

I recently had my ideas about self-care challenged at a Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. We had a guest minister, Rev. Nate Hollister, preach a sermon titled “The Nonsense of Self-Care.” I have to admit that I found myself feeling defensive as soon as I saw the title. How dare this person cut down the work about which I am so passionate and have spent most of my life promoting as essential to health and well-being? However, I reminded myself to keep an open mind and hear what we had to say before making any snap judgments.

Rev. Hollister started off his sermon by acknowledging that we do need to take care of ourselves, but he challenged us to think about how we do so and why. He then addressed three points of contention with what he called the “reigning culture of self-care.” He suggested that we did not necessarily have to agree with his points but that he simply wanted to start a dialogue around the concept. I have outlined his three points as well as my thoughts about them.

Self-care is rooted in classism and consumerism
Rev. Hollister started with the notion that today’s concept of self-care is rooted in classism and consumerism, i.e., only people with time and money can afford to engage in the types of activities that are commonly associated with self-care. Think massages and other spa services. Splurging on a gourmet dinner. Activities that most “blue collar” workers don’t have the luxury of enjoying. He admitted that we all deserve to have access to nice things, but we head into “moral trouble” when taking care of ourselves means consuming material things – especially in a world that is becoming increasingly damaged due to overconsumption.

I would challenge his first point as, to me, self-care means different things to different people and thus, you can’t just lump it all into one generalized category. For example, he defined self-care as indulging in luxurious activities or services that take time and often cost a great deal. Although I agree that these activities can be part of self-care, to me self-care falls more in line with the little things we do (or should do) every day or every week to maintain our health and well-being.

I am more inclined to agree with the idea put forth by Tami Forman of Path Forward – that self-care is not an indulgence, but a discipline. As she so eloquently states, it takes discipline to “do the things that are good for us instead of what feels good in the moment.” She also reminds us that self-care is not something you do every now and then when life gets a little crazy. It’s about “taking care of yourself in a way that doesn’t require you to ‘indulge’ in order to restore balance. It’s making the commitment to stay healthy and balanced as a regular practice.” Thus, perhaps what is needed in our culture is a new image, a rebranding if you will, about the true essence of self-care that falls more in line with these daily habits that help sustain our health.

Self-care as the opiate of the masses
Rev. Hollister’s second point of contention with self-care was that its primary purpose is to “inure us to the injustices of our world” and desensitize us to the current structures of power. In his words, self-care could thus be considered the “opiate of the masses,” allowing us to escape from the harsh realities of the real world. He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who called for the need for “creative maladjustment,” wherein people refuse to normalize inequality and work continuously to expose injustice. Rev. Hollister argued that we are in terrible trouble when self-care keeps us resigned to the way things are, to accept the status quo rather than try to change things.

Anyone who is familiar with the UU faith knows that it is steeped in social justice. Thus, I wasn’t surprised when he made this argument – that for some, self-care is a way to cope with injustice rather than attempt to do something to change it. I’m willing to concede a little more on this point as I can see how some people could use what he defines as self-care activities as a way to soothe themselves when dealing with challenges in their day-to-day lives. It’s a lot easier to have a girls’ night out and complain about the state of politics in this country than it is to volunteer on a political campaign or – gasp – run for office yourself. I would propose that this goes back to my previous point of needing to redefine and broaden the definition of self-care, such as expanding the idea of self-care to include engaging in activities that serve a higher purpose. For example, one could volunteer at a local food bank or donate blood. Do something good for oneself as well as the community. For many people, it takes participating in these types of volunteer activities to truly open their eyes to the inequalities present in our society. After all, awareness is often the first step needed to bring about change – in ourselves and our communities.


Self-care promotes a culture of hyper-individualism
Rev. Hollister’s third and final argument was that the current approach to self-care is steeped in a culture of hyper-individualism, where it is “all about me” and has likely contributed to the recent epidemic of loneliness and separation in today’s society. You have probably heard that despite being more connected than ever through technology, humans in general report feeling lonelier and more disconnected than ever before. Rev. Hollister linked this back to the traditional American story of individualism – that you are essentially on your own and that you need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps in order to succeed. He noted however that this concept is relatively new, that most historical cultures and societies thrived on cooperation, not competition.

Rev. Hollister took a deeper look at this idea and challenged us to shift from the independent philosopher Descartes’ proclamation “I think, there I am” to the more interdependent African philosophy of ubuntu, which can be loosely translated as “I am because we are.” He wrapped things up by reminding us that yes, it is important to take care of ourselves but perhaps it is time to change the whole concept of self-care and move away from the perception that it is all about consumerism and being resigned to the status quo. In his closing words, he urged us to redefine self-care as taking care of one another, as we might survive on our own, but we can only thrive with each other.

By the end of the sermon, after making his final point, I found myself less in a place of defensiveness and more in a state of appreciation for having the opportunity to revisit my own ideas about self-care. Rev. Hollister made some compelling arguments for why we need to shift our perspective about self-care. For me, self-care is still about taking care of yourself so that you are able to take care of others – family, friends, colleagues and even strangers in your community. It is clear now that not everyone sees it that way, so I will do my part to try to help change perceptions about self-care. I am also more inclined to broaden what kinds of activities fall into my own self-care – and encourage others to do the same. Maybe next time I need a little break, it will mean picking up litter when I walk in my local park versus splurging on frozen treats at the local ice cream parlor. This way, I benefit from the walk and we all benefit from a cleaner environment. That’s a win-win situation.

(Note: Click here if you would like to listen to Rev. Hollister’s sermon on self-care.)

Positive Psychology – Part 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently started using The Book of Extraordinary Things, a guided journal to help explore the principles of Positive Psychology and see what impact they have on my own health and well-being. I thought I would share how things have been going since I started using it a few weeks ago. But first, a little background about my journaling history…

I have kept some sort of diary or journal since my adolescent days, although I admit I have not always been consistent in my efforts. There are definitely gaps where I (sadly) did not write at all and there are years where I documented my thoughts and experiences every day. I often like to look back at these journals to see what I was doing or feeling at a particular time in my life.

In January of this year, I committed to journaling every day and I have made it a part of my bedtime ritual to put my thoughts to paper before going to sleep. However, in the last couple of months, I started to notice that my entries were becoming quite rote – mainly just a rehash of my daily routines, and often a bit of fussing over something negative that happened to me. As helpful as it was to get these thoughts out of my head before going to sleep, I wasn’t feeling inspired and started to notice that it even soured my mood to revisit the “bad” parts of my day. For these reasons, I was excited to start using The Book of Extraordinary Things as a way to refresh my whole perspective on journaling.

Preparation

I first set aside some time to answer the questions in the “Preparation” section, a self-inventory where you can describe who you are and what you want in your life. It is a place to identify your strengths, values, and achievements as well as your goals and dreams. I especially loved the questions regarding what you want to do more of (reading for pleasure!) and what you would like to do less of (worrying!). There is also a “visioning” section where you can list things you want to celebrate in the next three, six and twelve months – and a full-page mini vision board for your complete creative expression around these desires.

Exploration

The majority of the journal consists of the “Exploration” pages, which can be used daily or weekly. As you’ll see in the screenshot below, the left side of the page has “Top Three Quests,” where you can list your most important tasks for the day. Below that is the “Field Notes” section which is flexible space that you can use however you’d like, e.g., plan your day, make lists, draw, doodle, etc. Personally, since I journal at night, I use the Top Three Quests to identify the most important or meaningful things I accomplished that day. And so far, I have been using the Field Notes as a general overview of the day, capturing any key thoughts or experiences that aren’t covered by the journal prompts – which are my favorite part of the journal (so far).

On the right side of the page are journal prompts based on the PERMA-V principles of Positive Psychology (click here for a refresher or if you missed Part 1 of this post). These questions are designed to cultivate awareness around what is “going right” with you and your day. It starts with identifying one good thing from your day (or week). Then, you can share how you used your gifts, and how you helped someone – or how someone helped you. You can describe something that inspired you as well as something of which you are proud. Finally, there is a line to simply express your mood.

I have found these prompts to be so helpful in expanding – and shifting – my perspective on what I want to document about my day. Even in just three weeks, I feel like I am much more focused and aware of all the good things that happen on a daily basis. Sometimes it takes a little time to think about it, especially at the end of a long day but I can always come up with something. It may be as small as patting myself on the back for making dinner at home when I really just wanted to order takeout. Or expressing gratitude for the super-friendly post office employee who made my day with her pleasant attitude in our five-minute encounter on a Friday afternoon.

I believe these journaling exercises are also helping build my resilience, as I find myself looking for the silver lining on those days when it seems like I am surrounded by negativity. For example, in the wake of all of the recent mass shootings in this country, I chose to focus on the brave police officers and emergency responders who put their lives on the line to help others in need. I was also inspired by the El Paso community members who rallied around the gentleman who lost his wife, his only family member, and feared there would be no one at her funeral. At his request, the funeral home invited the entire community to attend – and strangers came from El Paso and all over the United States to support him. The response was so overwhelming the funeral home had to move the service to a larger facility to handle the crowd. It is acts such as this that restore my faith in humanity in these challenging times.

Reflection

At the end of the journal, there is a section called “Reflection” with some prompts to examine your journey and reflect on the path forward. The journal is essentially designed to last three months if you use it on a daily basis, or close to two years if you use it weekly. I currently plan to continue using it on a daily basis and I look forward to some reflection and introspection at the end of three months. I plan to write a follow up post at that time too.

I typically refrain from endorsing health and wellness products, but I am willing to make an exception in this case. I love The Book of Extraordinary Things and I am so proud of my colleague, Alexis Buckles, for sharing her vision and bringing this book to life. It is beautifully designed and crafted from front to back and filled with the magic of possibility on the pages in between. If you are looking for a way to increase self-awareness and positivity in support of your well-being, I highly recommend checking out The Book of Extraordinary Things.

(Note: I am not being compensated in any way for blogging about this journal. In fact, I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to help Alexis bring the book to life, so I paid for my copy. I just believe in supporting other wellness practitioners who have high quality, meaningful products or services to offer to those of us wanting to optimize our health and well-being.)