Three Myths of Self-Care

Photo provided by Isabel Thomas

I walk toward my office door wondering how I will finagle the key out from the load filling my arms and hijacking my hands. With only a few minutes to unload the materials from my last session and reload with what is needed for the next, I fight both hunger and the urge to find a bathroom, not so much for its intended use, but for the excuse to get away for a minute.

With some interesting acrobatics, I make my way into my office, noting the blinking red light on the phone, usually indicating an emergency of some kind. I sigh as I eye a stack of handouts I need to sort through and collate into usable curriculum. Somewhat frantically, I search for a prop I wanted to use for an anticipated teaching moment. Realizing how little time there is, I give up the idea and make a mental switch to something else easier and less time-consuming. Without taking time to turn off the light, I rush on to my next thing.

I feel rushed, disappointed, and inadequate to the task of life.

This goes on and on and on and on…

Our Common Plight

Over the last few decades, we have been lured into the idea that materialism and excessive productivity are signs of a life well-lived. The evidence for this is everywhere. Marketing tells us we need the latest (and most expensive) gadget. The boss breathes down our necks to produce more with less. At home, we endeavor to prove we have the biggest, cleanest, most fashionable house, wardrobe, and even kitchen pantry. The race is on. It has been on for some time, and it is never ending.

A million competing voices say you, just you, are not enough. Frenetic activity, over-the-top accumulation, and ticks on the endless “to-do list,” are touted as standard operating procedure. It is either that or we are meant to be so independently wealthy we don’t have to do anything at all.

I have news for you… We’ve been duped!

Research has shown over the years that more money and more doing do not, in fact, make us happier. However, as we swim in the waters of “more, more, more,”, most of us do not even notice it. We will absolutely succumb unless we develop the ability to pay attention and make different choices.

The Way Out

Every person is different. There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to choosing one’s life path. That said, there is one necessary ingredient for all of us to thrive and that is self-care. Self-care, for this discussion, refers to the ability and willingness to prioritize our own mental, physical, and emotional needs in a way that results in a balanced and healthy life.

I bet just reading that sentence made you cringe. Which word(s) got you? Was it prioritize? How about balanced or healthy? Or could it be the very concept itself?

If you are struggling with the whole notion of self-care, you are not alone. A common set of misperceptions make the idea feel wrong or out-of-reach. Three myths in particular trip us up and prevent us from fully enjoying its fruits. Let’s look at each of them.

Myth #1: Self-Care is Selfish

This self-care myth is a biggie! Who hasn’t, at one time or other, thought of self-care this way? I mean, the very term implies a focus on self. Again, research shows us that what is known as prosocial behavior — a focus on caring for others — correlates higher with happiness than does treating the self.

Yes, that is true. Incessant self-focus never results in the happiness we think it will.

“Okay. Now I’m confused! I thought you were just about to tell me that self-care isn’t selfish”

Yes, I am. The confusion lies with the how more than the what. To explain, let’s consider a couple of familiar words in a new way:

  • Selfish: Think of this as “Me First”
  • Self-centered: While this means “Me Only”

Bear with me while I am a tad philosophical here…

We are all “selves” and all “selves” are distinct from other “selves.” We only have “inside knowledge” about one of the “selves” — namely our own.

According to Merriam-Webster, the suffix -ish means, “of, relating to, or being…” Selfish, then, means, “Of, relating to, or being the self”. Since we can only be the self we are and we only have true inside knowledge of that self, then it only makes sense that our responsibility is to care first for ourselves — after all, who else can?

Think about it — how many of you reading this have ever been asked how you are only to respond, “Doing great!” while all along inside you feel quite the opposite? Who else is to know you are hungry or how you are feeling emotionally? Sure, we convey some of these states nonverbally, but many of us have long since learned how to stifle our outward expressions. No…no one else can fully “do us” — that is our job first and foremost. We may think we are being nice when we neglect ourselves to appease others but let me tell you — it is a blessing to the world when we care for ourselves since, as we now see — no one else fully can.

Pay attention to the phrase, “when we neglect ourselves.” I am not suggesting a life of naval gazing here. On your birthday, when you have a broken foot, or when you receive an award — these are all instances of when “me only” (or, self-centeredness) is appropriate. If we are to live in society, we will not do well to remember the needs of others.

What I am suggesting then, is balance. Balance does not mean equal. Balance means “all parts in right proportion to keep the system stable.”

In other words — do you first, not only.

Myth #2: Self-Care Is an Event

Another popular error related to self-care is the idea that it is an event.

If we try to define self-care by how we do things nowadays, we might think of it as living an overwhelming, out-of-control life that you pull out of for a few minutes here and there to douse the fire of burnout with a mani-pedi or a round of golf — only to plug yourself right back into the overwhelming, out-of-control life.

Umm…no. That is not self-care.

Self-care is a way of thinking, a perspective, and a set of practices. It is how you do life. True self-care says, “I am responsible for the vessel in which I live. It is my job to keep it in proper working order.” If life is overwhelming, self-care encourages us to take the step back we need to re-evaluate and adjust accordingly.

No, the kids do not have to be in every single sporting event. No, you do not have to climb the ladder all the way to the top to be happy. Yes, you can ask for help. No, you cannot wait for others to figure out what you need or put the responsibility for caring for yourself on anyone else.

Your job, then, is to seek to discover your likes, dislikes, and honest limitations and build a life within those parameters while considering the intersection of your life with other’s.

There it is again — balance.

Myth #3: Self-Care Is All about Rejuvenation

The final myth we will touch on is the idea that self-care is just about “feeling better.” If there is one major problem in our world today it is the way we go about defining success, the most common measuring sticks of which tend to be comfort and happiness.

Of course, we want to be comfortable and experience pleasure — however, growth requires some amount of pain and perseverance. Success will never fully be characterized by happiness.

You may be thinking, “Oh no — now she’s going to tell me that self-care has to hurt.” Well, it may sometimes, but what I really mean to say here is, “every act of self-care need not be done for the sensation of glee.” In other words, if self-care is not always instantly gratifying that does not mean we are doing it wrong.

Some of our self-care activities, therefore, need to fall in the category of disciplines rather than rejuvenations.

Whenever we hear the “D” word — discipline — many of us in the modern day equate it to drudgery or punishment. I used to think that way, too — and would put boundless energy toward avoiding it. Energy that would have been much better spent partaking in a set of disciplines because only when those are in place can rest be truly enjoyed.

Just as I redefined the words “selfish” and “self-centered” above, I would also like to give you another way of thinking about discipline:

Disciplines are those activities we do on a regular basis that keep our lives running smoothly

From a brain science point-of-view, a discipline is the underlying hard-wiring — the things we do so often for our own health that we no longer have to put conscious energy into them. They simply run in the background, so-to-speak, allowing us to focus more of our awareness on the joys of the moment.

Examples of disciplines are: Exercise, Hygiene, Solitude, Stillness, Silence, Learning, Budgeting, Meditation, Keeping up with family and other social contacts on a regular basis, and connecting to beauty.

I don’t know about you, but drudgery is not the word that comes to mind when I think of these activities. The problem comes from the idea that self-care just happens. The truth is, we really do have to do some work to keep ourselves running smoothly. Disciplines require a period of concerted effort to begin. Not everything ends in instant gratification. Starting a new routine is hard work — but it is worthy work and we need to make the decision that we will do what is best for us, even if it is counter to the voices of the culture around us.

A Life on Self-Care

A table is set in my breakfast nook. Not with plates of food or cups of tea, but with a High Performance Planner, a scripture reading, and a bunch of 3×5 food planning cards held together by a paper clip. My morning walk now ends with time at this table, where I periodically peek out the window and admire the beauty that surrounds me. I set my pace. Whatever I give and do, it is wholehearted and healthy now. I take the responsibility of saying yes to the activities that feed me and no to those that don’t. The outcome is a less harried life, one in which what is truly important no longer sings to deaf ears.

Ultimately, it is up to each one of us to care for ourselves. No one else can do it for us. It is not something done “now and then.” It requires ongoing, supportive practices in order to see true transformation.

I won’t sugar coat it…the path between a life of self-neglect and one of self-care is not straight, easy, or even obvious at times. Self-care requires exploration, advocacy, and downright tenacity. Having made this journey myself, I can tell you the work is worth it. When I stay aware of my unique needs and create ways to meet them that simply fit into my life as a whole, then I stop being the center and am truly free to enjoy everything and everyone around me.

To help you begin your path toward self-care, consider my “Four-Dimensional Self-Care” handout.

Written by book author, blogger, & educational/motivational speaker, Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP. Founder and owner of Potential Finders Network, Hannah provides consultation, training, and personal development services. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. If you have topics you want to suggest, please don’t hesitate to contact her at Hannah@PotentialFinders.com and check out www.PotentialFinders.com or Facebook to learn more.

Art provided by Isabel Thomas; For Inquiries, write to Info@PotentialFinders.com with subject heading “Art Inquiry”

Psychoeducator, trainer/speaker, author, and Survivor turned Thriver. My passion is to help others reach their greatest potentials!

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