on self-care

I am concerned that the concept of self-care has become a capitalist buzzword to sell bath products.

I am also concerned that self-care is being used to mean ‘this will cure your mental illness’ rather than ‘this can help you cope’. It is not a substitute for therapy or medication.

My understanding of self-care is that it means just that: taking care of yourself. This can mean physically – I genuinely do take baths and use moisturiser as calming techniques – but it should also be emotional and psychological for it to be more than sitting in a bath and still feeling like shit.

One way I’ve found helpful for explaining the emotional aspect is to imagine being a good parent to myself. This means that when I am upset, I identify why and then think about ways to help myself.

On top of that, I try not to call myself names. I try not to berate myself for mistakes – fixing and avoiding them is more important than feeling guilty (and though of course I can and do feel guilt, piling self-recrimination on top of it helps no-one). I try to reassure myself that things will get better. I try to love myself.

Those are things that I think a parent should do for an upset child, which is why the analogy works for me.

So. Identify the emotion – am I stressed? Anxious? Tired? Angry? Hurt? Humiliated? Once I know that, I can find a remedy. If I am stressed, I will write a to-do list. If I am anxious, I will do something that relaxes me. If I am tired, I go to bed.

However, that first step can be really hard if you have conditioned yourself to ignore painful feelings until they finally whack you in the back of the head and take you out for a month. Repressing pain means that you’re leaving it to fester instead; but you have to take the bandage off at some point, and the longer you leave it the worse it gets.

Feel what you’re feeling. Whatever it is, it’s okay to be feeling it. What matters is what you do with that feeling. For example, it is okay for me to be angry. It is not okay for me to take it out on others. If you take nothing else from this post, please take this.

Anger is actually what I struggle with most. Not because I have a temper, but the opposite – I restrain myself too much. Most of the people who have made me angry have no idea.

So a big thing for me is just saying ‘I am feeling angry’. Then I think about why, so that I can understand it better. Then I write a poem, or vent to a friend (vocally is better than text), or sing an angry song very loudly.

But my way of looking after myself is not universal; for example, some people are really into yoga and meditation. These have never worked for me at all. I am into writing things down; some people find that this just makes it worse.

This is why, when trying to help someone look after themselves, I try not to recommend specific things (unless they tell me they don’t know what will help). Just try lots of different things until you find one that works.

Don’t do it all alone, either. Find the people you trust and reach out to them. If you have a therapist, talk to them; if you don’t, see if you can find one. The people around you can help you identify your emotions and suggest ways to cope – and being around them may well become one of your coping strategies in itself.

Another part of self-care, one that I really do think is important, is speaking kindly to and about yourself. This is a psychological thing.

I think words are incredibly important, so what I say about myself is incredibly important. Every time I say, either to myself or to others, things like ‘I’m so stupid’, ‘I’m unlovable’, ‘I’m a coward’, I am reinforcing these beliefs to myself. They feel a bit more true each time. It’s like your own personal propaganda: we have always been at war with Eurasia, and I have always been stupid.

So instead of framing them as fact, I recognise that they are feelings. I often do feel stupid, or unlovable, or cowardly. But that doesn’t mean they are true – or if they are, they are not constant states.

These are things that can change, especially if I want them to. So naming them as feelings instead of a statement about myself reminds me that these feelings do not define me. And frankly, telling myself that I’m an unlovable person is the exact opposite of taking care of myself – just like it would be bad parenting to tell a child that they are unlovable. So I try not to.

Then there is practical self-care. This can be things that future me will be grateful for, like chores (particularly taking the bin out. I hate taking the bin out.). Some of it is very basic things, like changing clothes, having a shower, doing my hair, cooking something. Even if it doesn’t make me feel emotionally better, I will be glad I’ve done it (and often it actually does make me feel more able to cope).

Self-care is also NOT doing things. It can be not going to that event because you are exhausted and you know you won’t enjoy it. Self-care can be walking away from a conversation because you are being bullied. Self-care can be saying no even though it’s obvious everyone else in the room expects you to say yes.

However, this is sometimes tricky to manage. For example, there is a difference between a conversation that is painful for you because someone is telling you a necessary truth, and being bullied.

Be brutally honest with yourself about these things and your reasoning behind avoiding them. Otherwise, you can end up using self-care to justify harmful behaviour. Self-care should not be something that hurts others or yourself in the short- or long-term.

For example, my problem is food and the line between ‘I should give myself something nice because I haven’t had any other good thing today’ and binge-eating. I am often on the harmful part of that line, but I admit it to myself and attempt to do better next time. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes like these. The problem is when you refuse to recognise they are mistakes and get stuck; or worse, recognise the mistakes and refuse to forgive yourself for them.

In short, my definition of self-care is:
– acknowledging and dealing with emotions in whatever ways are most helpful to you
– getting help where you need it from friends, family, therapists, etc.
– recognising and minimising your own negative propaganda
– doing what needs to be done to take care of your future self
– finding the places where saying no is more helpful than saying yes
– learning from your mistakes and forgiving yourself for them

Maybe this helps you, maybe it doesn’t; as I’ve said, none of us are the same in how we deal with mental illness. But if this doesn’t work for you – and that is perfectly legitimate and valid – then something else will.

H x

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