I Drove to the Store with My Heart Breaking…
because I didn’t know what else to do. I’d learned in my support group for spouses of addicts that when my man relapsed, I was supposed to engage in something called “self-care.” It seemed like “self-care” could be anything:
Treating myself to a movie, a mani, or a massage.
Eating a special dessert, going for a hike, or taking a bubble bath.
Splurging on a balayage, soaking my feet, or sitting in the sun.
Or – in this case – buying myself a new dress.
As I pulled into the store parking lot, I felt hollow. How was a flap of fabric supposed to make me feel better? Actually insulted, I wondered if my crushed spirit was really so trivial as to be cured by playing dress-up. Lonely, I flipped through the racks, picked something out, and returned to my car. I felt defeated. My heart still hurt, and now I felt even more discouraged because I’d failed at having fun. Self-care sucks.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE…
If you struggle to learn the steps of walking yourself out of the emotional junkyard. In the years following this depressing shopping experience, I learned a few practical tips. I’d love to save you some of the fumbling in the dark that I did.
Let me clarify – YES, I do still practice self-care. The difference is that I’ve learned how to use self-care for what it actually can do, instead of trying to use it to fix what it can’t (pssst… this is secret #1). I’ve also gotten to know my unique self so that I can choose self-care that fits my personhood and my present need, leaving me feeling enlivened instead of sluggish (still whispering… this is secret #2).
Please join me in learning self-care that satisfies. We can stop hurling a bunch of darts at the “encouragement bullseye,” just hoping that one of them will hit the mark.
SELF-CARE IS NOT…
Self-care is not selfishness. There’s a difference between self-care and egocentric self-focus. One way to discern the difference is to ask, “Will investing my energy in this activity enable me to give more/better or less/worse energy to the people and causes I care about?” True self-care results in an increase of goodness that overflows from our newly nurtured core toward those around us. This is because we can only give to others what we ourselves possess.
Neither is self-care a form of self-indulgence. It is not a fancy excuse for consuming junk, shirking responsibility, or acting immaturely. Nothing will make us feel lower faster than behaving like a pig. Let’s not even give brain space to the idea of spending an outrageous amount of money, overeating ice cream and potato chips, venting anger on loved ones, or binging Netflix. It may go without saying, but resorting to unhealthy choices (no matter how satisfying they may seem in the moment) will only leave a larger void in the end.
Self-care cannot cause us to change our grungy beliefs about our identity. Deep down, if we feel that we are unloved or ugly, no new makeover is going to fix that. This is probably the most prevalent misconception regarding self-care. We tend (and are often advised by well-meaning coaches) to invest a lot of time and energy into using self-care to convince ourselves that we are worthy of love and deserving of honor. It just doesn’t work like that.
While this could be the subject of an entire blog (or a hundred), I’ll summarize by saying that our beliefs about ourselves have to be changed by relational connection. For me, that comes initially and primarily from God. Secondarily, healthy relationships with the people around me reinforce what I’ve heard from God about my identity. Let’s not waste our time trying to use self-care to change our insecurities and fears. It cannot heal our inner wounds.
So Where Does Self-Care Come In?
After God and people who love us plant within us the seeds of belief in our true identity, self-care waters those seeds. The more skillfully and consistently we water those seeds, the stronger those sprouts of belief become. Secret number one: Self-care strengthens what we have already begun to believe. Taking self-nurturing action strengthens the new neural pathways that are beginning to connect our sense of self with our sense of value.
However, just as with gardening, if we over-water we’ll drown our sprouts. Different types of plants need different amounts of moisture at different frequencies during different seasons. Yep, I’ve killed quite a few cacti. There’s a lot of nuance to gardening! It’s the same way with self-care.
We’ve probably all experienced reaching the end of a draining day and feeling that nagging need for something. Disappearing into the endless vacuum of YouTube is the simplest go-to for me when I’m in that position. Yuck. I’ve realized that when I finally emerge from drifting through videos, I actually feel worse than before. I feel frustrated that I’ve wasted time, my brain feels like pudding, my eyes feel gritty, and my stomach feels heavy (because usually I’ve also eaten junk at the same time). Isn’t watching TV supposed to be a relaxing self-care option?
How Do We Tell the Difference Between a Recreational Activity That Will Leave Us Rejuvenated and One That Will Only Weigh Us Down?
Some activities are always life-sucking (think overeating, oversleeping, extravagant spending). However, there are also activities that are sometimes enlivening (like watching a movie, taking a nap, drinking wine). How can we tell the difference? Excess is one big huge clue – too much of a good thing can make it a bad thing. The essential nature of an activity is another factor – there is no way to engage in a fundamentally unhealthy practice in a way that will boost our spirits.
Still, there are two more subtle aspects so be considered: personal fit and timing. This topic will be our focus for today, our second secret.
GET TO KNOW YOU
The goal of self-care is to promote flourishing (remember our seedlings). Some of us have very little experience with nourishing ourselves, or even knowing ourselves! In fact, getting to know ourselves is the starting point for determining self-care that satisfies. If we don’t know who we are, we can’t know what we need. We’ve got to discover our personal green thumb guidelines for watering our own seedlings!
Confession time: Sometimes I don’t want to get acquainted with myself. I’m afraid that I’ll be too needy, that I won’t be able to satisfy what I hunger for, that I’ll only be left more aware of my emptiness. I’m afraid that what I desire is bad. I wonder if I just won’t like myself once I get to know me.
If you feel similarly, you’re in good company. Joining a community of people who are committed to knowing themselves as they really are and loving each other honestly will boost your courage. The truth is, you are utterly delightful! Or, as the elephant herd welcomes Suki in the charming children’s book The Saggy Baggy Elephant, “You are a perfectly dandy little elephant!”
*(Here’s a self-care idea: listen to The Saggy Baggy Elephant read aloud and embrace the heartwarming message of belonging in community. Children’s books are so wise!)*
If we dare to discover who we are, we’re on our way to deciphering self-care that satisfies every time. Here are a few ideas to help us start our adventure.
Ingrid Fetell Lee captures my curiosity with her website The Aesthetics of Joy. As a prompt to aid readers in discovering what brings us joy, she asks us to remember what brought us joy as a child. I took some time to list a few of my happiest moments, dearest memories, and inspiring hobbies. My list included:
- making paper animals
- selling necklaces I’d made
- singing at the living room piano
- climbing trees
- petting animals
- singing at church
- creating imaginary games with my brother
Notice themes that repeat. I observe that I derive a lot of joy from making crafts, being outside, creating music, and dreaming big about new ideas. Will you try compiling your own list? What you discover just might be unexpected.
In Molly Bingaman’s TedTalk “The Link Between Personal Style and Identity” she invites listeners to take a challenge: For thirty days, take time in the evening to list the most joyful moment from the day before. Even though I was not actually consistent at doing this daily nor for the full thirty days, I discovered some interesting aspects of myself. My list included some items that surprised me:
- seeing my kids’ plastic plates lined up like a rainbow in the dishwasher
- eating something new for lunch
- sharing popcorn with my friends
- finding the perfect word
- simplifying my closet
- listening well and asking good questions as a friend shared her heart
It turns out, I am energized by satisfying visual aesthetics, heart-level connection and communication with people, and the tranquil knowledge that even things in the background of my life are in order.
HELLO! MY NAME IS…
After these two exercises, we might feel that we know ourselves better than we ever have. We might consider writing a spiffy introduction for our new understanding of ourself. “Hello! My name is Bethany, and I’m a vision-minded creator who appreciates fresh air, connecting through music and conversation, and keeping her stuff simple yet elegant.” This could even serve as a fresh bio for a social media page.
BACK TO SELF-CARE…
What does all this have to do with self-care? These are our sprout-watering guidelines! When you are well-acquainted with yourself, you can design your self-care experiences to nourish the collection of lovely quirks that makes up YOU.
This understanding also helps narrow down our self-care menu. If I thrive on expansive views in nature, I won’t try to recharge by holing up in a movie theater. If I appreciate quiet, contemplative spaces, I won’t go to the county fair to boost my energy.
But what if we sometimes enjoy all of those activity options I just mentioned?
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
We each may require different types of self-care at different moments in time. When we’re feeling down and ragged, we can be still for a moment. Ask ourselves what it is we need. We’ll know what we need when we acknowledge what we feel. If we need some help to slow our inner hamster wheel, Dawn Miller’s We Spot mini blog on grounding is a fantastic resource. Another tool I’ve recently discovered is a free download produced by Fort Collins counselor Adam Young, in which he walks listeners through a mindfulness practice using the Wheel of Awareness.
Each emotion we discern is like the void left in a nearly complete puzzle when one piece is missing. The empty shape indicates what form is needed to fill that space. My negative emotion is a clue to which variety of healthy nourishment is called for.
Once I get in touch with what I feel, I can identify the mirror-image missing piece. If I feel sleepy, eating a muffin isn’t going to help. If I feel anxious, painting my nails might not do the trick. On the flip side, a nap in the sun might be just the thing for physical weariness, and some stretching might ease the anxiety. If I feel lonely, a phone call to a friend might hit the spot.
We might not ordinarily think of it, but receiving comfort can be a form of self-care. Maybe I don’t need a new object, a fresh experience, or physical sustenance. Maybe I just need to feel that someone who cares about me is near and understands. A loving presence can make all the difference!
In fact, looking back at my disheartening attempt at shopping self-care, I can see now that what I really needed was comfort. If I were given a redo, here’s how I would walk out that opening scenario:
- Sit quietly for a few moments to get in touch with what I’m feeling. Identify heartbreak, grief, and loneliness as the names that describe the pit in my stomach.
- Listen for the truth God might want to tell me about who I am in this moment. Receive that truth.
- Consider what I’ve learned about what rejuvenates me as a unique individual.
- Identify the puzzle piece that fills each emotional void. In this case, my heartbreak needs understanding, grief needs comfort, and loneliness needs friendship.
- Choose an act of self-care that matches my personhood and my current emotional need.
- Enact my satisfying self-care selection: Call one close girlfriend to join me for a spunky movie with wine, chocolate, and comfy pj’s in my living room. Cha-ching!
GIVE YOURSELF TIME…
Self-care is a skill to be developed. The art of self-care requires self-awareness, creativity, and courage. Self-care is not a “fix;” it is an act of nurturing our identity.
Self-care that satisfies is treating myself according to the glorious being I am beginning to believe myself to be. Self-care does not erase my dark, but it does blow on my embers of belief. It is a declaration of victory in the middle of opposition, a fist raised against the lies that attempt to trick me into believing an un-reality. Self-care is radiant defiance. Self-care is well-founded hope before the actual reconciliation of all things. I believe I am precious and loved, so I treat myself with honor.
I will celebrate because I believe that the triumph of good is reality. I will dance because I believe love wins. Soak in that bubble bath because protection is in charge. Party with the girlfriends because community endures. Breathe deeply because the universe spins according to plan. Drive in the country because wild beauty is still out there. Get a manicure because tiny beauties lift the chin, inspiring the confidence that is appropriate for us valiant women. Become thrillingly engrossed in a movie because a noble storyline is where our lives are headed. And chocolate – savor that midnight flavor because sensory delight is an hors d’oeuvre of heaven!
I will dress up because my heart is gorgeous, and I’m beginning to believe it. I may even buy a new dress to celebrate that reality.
What about you? What is your most satisfying form of self-care? Join your gorgeous and courageous herd by sharing in the comments.
For further reading on the topic of self-care, check out these blogs from The We Spot.
Disclaimer: I am not receiving compensation for any of the links I’ve included… they’re just resources that caught my fancy.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of The We Spot, its employees, sponsors, or affiliates.