Since entering the twin realms of anxiety and depression I have heard A LOT of talk about self-care. Not to be confused with instructions pressed upon us, along with a piece of Granny’s best cake, to “take care” and “look after ourselves” (which seems to amount to wearing clean underwear and looking both ways before we cross the road), the modern term ‘self care’ bandied about by therapists is about looking after ourselves in a more considered and thorough way; doing what’s good for us, both physically and psychologically.
I have also read a third take on the subject, where it was posed that self care needs to be about doing the bigger, harder stuff, like getting our annual medical health checks and making the tougher, long term decisions, like whether to stay in our jobs — otherwise, it is thought, our attempts at self care are little more than prolonging our final orbit of the drain before we get sucked down for good.
Personally, I always thought of self care as looking after my inner self, in terms of doing things to make myself feel better, both as a band aid application for bad days and as a perpetual healthy habit. Or doing things that may immediately feel uncomfortable (i.e therapy) but will ultimately make me feel better (if the therapist is good enough, which, sadly, most of the time they aren’t). I’m afraid I am one of those guilty of not partaking in physical self care when very ill (I’m talking pap smears, not showering).
Let’s examine it:
Self care: bubble bath, coffee in the sunshine, eating a mountain of chocolate in front of your favourite movie(s).
Self care: paying electricity bill, then getting a smear test, followed by a root canal.
When I’m at my worst (which is when the term ‘self care’ is most often applied), I am way too fragile to even contemplate someone poking around in my mouth while I lie prone and muted on the dental torture chair (it doesn’t matter how much Jackson 5 they play on the laptop or how many pictures of kittens they attach to the ceiling, it’s still a torture chair).
While there are things I do every day so that I can retain my humanity membership card, don’t have my kids taken off me and don’t die from self neglect, i.e. shower and eat veges (like Granny told me to), I’m not equipped, in my worst moments, to adopt some sort of long term strategy towards future wellness, like getting a warrant of fitness for a car. As far as I am concerned, the torture-your-present-self-for-your-future-self category can bugger off for another day. That category is much more in line with: hey, I’ve been feeling better/stronger/more confident lately, I think I can withstand having my breasts slammed in a vice down at the mammogram centre. Those sorts of self care activities are definitely best left for a day when there’s a bit more inner-strength and self worth in reserve, in my book.
Now let’s look at adulting self care (as I’m going to call it from now on) in practise: You feel like shit. You’re not entirely sure why you’re walking around on the planet. Then you go and get three fillings and a bit of tissue removed, sans anaesthetic, from your cervix.
In your present state of mind,
a. How are you to be motivated to believe that these things are really that important?
b. How are you supposed to find the strength to voluntarily sign up for more suffering?
c. How is this supposed to make you feel better about being alive?
The answer is: it won’t (although you should still get the biopsy done so that you can get to make decisions about your life further down the track — which, ironically, falls under the category of physical self care). As far as emotional self care goes, it doesn’t make sense in the least. Semantics applied, adulting self care is actually self torture.
Let’s now examine the emotional baggage being handed over in the act of being told to “look after yourself” in the adulting way — it seems to be yet another example of ill advised, societal pressure to add to ones already overburdened load, along with “toughen up” and “have you tried not being depressed?”
But, wait. There’s another option.
Yes, we have to look after ourselves in the now: applying the band aid is very important. And, yes, we need to tackle those big life choices and responsibilities, also.
So, why not level up in self care gradually?
In education, they call it scaffolding — where one piece of learning creates a step, or scaffold, to the next.
When applied to self care, this means that we have one lot of self care that we use as first aid (which is what most people seem to be talking about), another lot of self care which aims at preventing the need for the first lot (exercise, diet, spending time with friends and pacing would fall into this category), another step forward where we start to take on some more responsible tasks (like having that god awful prostate exam) and another level beyond that still, where we tackle the bigger questions (possibly with the help of the best therapist in the world), like whether it’s time to move on from our full time, high pressured job.
Maybe someone has already come up with this idea, I don’t know. I am not a psychologist, merely the product of one. Since I “graduated” from therapy and was thrown back into the ocean with the rest of the returned fish, I have been trying my damndest not to eat a hook again. It seems to me levelling up my self care (slowly) might just do the trick.
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