What Is Self-Care Anyway?
I spend a lot of time talking about “self-care,” particularly when I am advising my clients, colleagues, and loved ones to practice it. I tell people to take care of themselves or give specific instruction, to “eat,” “sleep,” or “get outside.” The more I preach the gospel of “self-care,” the more I feel inclined to explore the term itself and its history. Sometimes, what we, or our clients are already doing by “showing up”, is in itself all the self-care that can be mustered at the moment.
The term “self-care” became a household term seemingly overnight, following the 2016 US Presidential election — an indication of the term’s political origins. I knew that just because the term had become a buzzword overnight, it did not mean “self-care” was a new concept. I had seen it before. In 2014 I spent a lot of time grappling with my own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which for me meant reading a lot random stuff online, and “self-care” kept coming up in beauty/health/wellness columns in blogs and online magazines. From that context I had gathered that self-care was grooming for yourself and not to please others. But as the term gained more popularity I came to understand that self-care is anything you do for yourself to take care of your health — both physical and mental. Just about anything can be self-care, it is not the act as much as the intention behind the act.
Before Self-Care Became #selfcare
As a concept, “self-care” took its more modern shape as part of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. Activists, specifically women of color, recognized that the less privilege you have, the less access you have to healthcare. And yet the less privilege you have, the more likely you are to want to fight to change the status quo. In order to stay healthy enough to survive, and especially to fight the current system, these activists recognized the need for “self-care.” Self-care was the intentional and radical act of self preservation. What made it self-care was the intentionality behind it. This holds true today.
This means that “self-care” can often look and feel quite boring, contrary to much of the #selfcare we see on social media today. While struggling to recover from my trauma-related back injury, I spent many months in what I called “outpatient rehab for PTSD.” Nobody made this program for me — I made it myself by cobbling together a schedule of therapy, physical therapy, massage therapy, and a daily meditation practice. Each day I went to some sort of therapy and sat to meditate. The rest of the day was often spent showing up to life as best I could — which looked a lot like the life of a very depressed mom. In the language of trauma, I was not depressed: I was immobilized which often resembles depression. Life was pretty boring — out of necessity.
A few months back I saw the hashtag #BoringSelfCare on social media, and I snickered knowingly. I thought about all of those months where the only things I could get myself to do were go to one of my therapies and sit or lie in my meditation spot hoping to be able to practice. I couldn’t watch TV. I couldn’t read. I certainly couldn’t whip up an all natural facemask. I coulddrink a glass of water and eat something. It turns out I could do the very important step of #boringselfcare.
Hannah Daisy, is an artist, illustrator, and Mental Health Activist who uses her art to recognize that sometimes self-care is literally as simple as calling to make a medical appointment or buying groceries, and that is a-ok. As she says “boring self-care is survival.”
Remember, modern “self-care” has its origins healthcare and preventative care and it often looks like providing yourself with a checklist based on the basic tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
If you are meeting your basic needs, congratulations — you are laying the foundation for more. If you work with clients and right now that’s all the can manage to do, that is ok too. I would cry in therapy because it felt like all I could do was show up. My therapist kindly, and repeatedly, reminded me that “just showing up” was plenty. I was taking care of myself, and I was taking care of my PTSD too.
Self-Care is About Intention
With time and space I was able to see that what I had been doing was pretty phenomenal, even if it did not look like it to others. And I slowly got better. I put training back into my life. I was able to take care of my family again. I began to open to the possibility that I could increasingly do more with my life. One day I received a message from an acquaintance who mentioned that she appreciated that I framed my gym conversations on social media as “self-care.” I thought, she’s right, I do do that, because it is self-care for me. I picked an approach and modality that makes me feel good. Training has made me physically healthier and it has given me an amazing community. To bring it back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I found strength training has helped me fill my psychological needs by allowing me a continued sense of accomplishment and by introducing me to my community. Strength training even gave me a forum for self actualization — bringing me to the tippity top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I could not have found self actualization, a community, or even a sense of accomplishment before I spent some time meeting my basic needs by engaging in some “boring self-care.”
Everybody’s Self-Care Is Different and Varies Based on Need
Training, drinking water, going to the doctor, getting massages, gardening, doing facemasks, going for walks in the park, dressing up, dressing down, taking naps, shopping, traveling, introverting, extraverting, meditating, doing aerial yoga — whatever — these all can be self-care practices if you are doing them with the intention of meeting your own needs.
If you are engaging in boring self-care, I see you, and applaud your efforts to meet your basic needs. I get it — just showing up for yourself can be hard at times.
If you work with people, whether or not you specialize in working with people who have been through adversity, you are going to have clients who sometimes can just show up — that’s it. Please recognize that just showing up may be all they have the capacity for right now. Stressful circumstances or trauma taxes the central nervous system, impacting mental and physical performance. Everything can feel exhausting because inside a whole lot of energy is being spent reckoning with the physiological impact of the stressor or trauma. Take a page out of my own therapist’s book: remind your client that sometimes just showing up is enough. Or take a page out of my book and remind your client that progress is non-linear and it is ok to ease off the gas or even to take a break. Whatever you do, please be patient and trust in your client’s progress.