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“Don’t tell me to take a walk”: What Really is Self-Care?

Self-care needs to be intentional. It doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen. It is a major contributor to one’s quality and longevity of life.
Girl resting on couch.

“You cannot pour from an empty cup. You must fill your cup first.”

Dr. Karyn Purvis

Three years ago, I was preparing to speak to a roomful of social workers. The topic for the day was on self-care.   Ten minutes before we began, a woman walked up to me and said emphatically, “If you tell me to take a walk and to take a bath, I am leaving.”

I assured her we would be talking about much more. I looked over my notes and hoped that what we were planning to share would meet her needs.

For over two years, my husband, David, and I have been exploring the meaning of self-care. When people think about it, it is usually doing things like bubble baths and long walks in the woods. We discovered that it is much more. We discovered that first self-care needs to be intentional. It doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen. Second, we need to understand that self-care is a major contributor to one’s quality and longevity of life.1 Third, self-care needs to be holistic. That means I need to look at self-care as something that addresses my physical, emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual needs.

Confronting the Lie

Before we look at the holistic pieces of self-care, it is necessary to confront the lie: Self-care is selfish. I must take care of all the needs of my family, which are many before I can take care of myself. Don’t we all struggle with this lie.

When doing the work to unravel this lie, David came across a profound statement by Parker Palmer. It settles the debate. Here it is

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others.” 

Stewarding our lives well, through holistic self-care will enable us to enrich the lives of those we love and serve. What does holistic self-care look like if we are practicing it

What is physical self-care? Two Ways to Think about It

When I think of physical self-care, what comes to my mind is rest. Sleeping and napping are what we think of most often. This kind of self-care is called passive rest, according to Dr. Sandra Daulton Smith in her book, Sacred Rest. We generally think of that as a waste of time. However, as we rest, our brains move into more reflective moments, which helps us to develop a greater sense of self-awareness, recall personal memories, and give our life a meaningful context.2 Passive rest isn’t a waste of time.

There is another type of self-care, according to Dr. Smith. She describes it as active rest. It is a brand-new thought to me and means that we are involved in restorative activities. These could include anything from physical hobbies, like tennis, golf, bike riding, prayer walks, yoga, and other exercises. It is doing something you enjoy, something you may not have done for a very long time.

What is emotional self-care?

The urban legend of the frog and the kettle is familiar to us. If I drop a frog into boiling water, it will leap out immediately. If I drop a frog into a cold pot of water and gradually raise the temperature, it will succumb to the ever-rising temperature of the water. Emotional self-care means I pay attention to those things in my life that are heightening my emotional thermostat. It is those things that drain me and raise the temperature of my emotional capacity to cope. Sometimes when we ignore a rising thermostat, and it all boils over before we know it.

What is mental self-care?

Mental self-care means paying attention to how we are thinking. “Is my mind cluttered with stressful, anxious thoughts. Is my mind bombarded with negative self -talk? Am I carrying the heavy load of negative attitudes to myself and the others in my world?” Mental self-care is learning about mindfulness and how we are relating to ourselves and others. We know that as a man thinks, so is he. Our thoughts drive our emotions and often direct our actions.

What is spiritual self-care?

Spiritual self-care is learning the “art of Sabbath” rest. It is finding that place, even if it is only one hour a week, where we can retreat, become quiet. We all need a place we call our sanctuary, “a secure place where protection reigns….it is a place where we lay down our fight, we rest and find our way back.”

Key Take-Aways

  • Self- care is holistic
  • Self-care involves mindfulness
  • Self-care needs to be intentional

1Leaf, C. 2018, Switch on Your Brain Every Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), Pg. 26.

Copyright © 2020, Jayne Schooler


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