There is a lot of talk about self-care these days. I for one am a lover and advocate of self-care, and I practice it in my daily life. I find it is an absolute necessity to keep myself healthy, balanced, and operating at my best so I can live at my full potential.

But what exactly is self-care?

A lot of the self-care talk out there implies that caring for yourself is doing healthy, positive things for yourself, like going to yoga, sipping a tea slowly with a good book, taking long walks in nature, or going to a float chamber for a sensory deprivation experience.

All of these things can be self-care, but in and of themselves, they are not.

To me, self-care is the idea of treating yourself as if you are in some ways your own child. It is hearing and listening to your needs with an empathetic ear, without judgment and without imposing ideas of right and wrong.

In my eyes, the whole purpose of self-care is to let go of the constant on-ness that we experience in the modern world. Part of that on-ness is our attachment to ideas about what is good, what is bad, what is self-care, and what is not.

Real self-care is an act of allowing. It is saying yes to that little vulnerable voice inside that is need of some nurturing.

Sometimes that voice needs a long walk in the woods. Sometimes that voice needs a spa day. Other times that voice needs a vodka tonic and a Netflix binge. The beauty of it is that only YOU can know what it is that will nourish you from moment to moment.

Killing the Critic

I’ve heard stories about well-meaning individuals planning out their self-care days; yoga class, detox diet, media fast, what have you. Then when that day comes around, they have a ton of anxiety about doing everything they promised themselves they would.

The problem with this approach is that it is imposing an idea of what self-care should be and not actually listening to the real needs of the individual. Instead of nurturing that metaphorical child we talked about earlier, it is forcing them to do what we, as the rational adult, think they need.

If your self-care is stressing you out, stop doing it. That very act is self-care.

There have been many days when I’ve had major plans for my Sundays when my kiddo is at dad’s. It often goes something like, “I’m going to clean the whole house, do my laundry, organize my closet, run some errands, and then I’m going to wrap it up with several hours of art, a bubble bath, and writing in my journal.”

Then what actually happens is I clean the whole house, do my laundry, take a nap, and order takeout.

Then I feel like a failure for not sticking to my self-care.

Over time, I’ve come to realize several things about this approach that are just out of whack with what self-care actually is.

Self care shouldn’t feel like running a marathon.

We Have Finite Energy

We have a finite amount of energy to utilize every day. We can hack this a bit with naps or caffeine or what have you, but more or less we’ve got what we’ve got. In times of stress, change, uncertainty, or instability, this finite amount of energy greatly lessens.

I’m also not saying you can’t increase this energy over time with diet, exercise, rest, and other positive habits. But the person you are right now, in this moment, is dealing with however much energy you have. In order to be compassionate with yourself and be effective at self-care, we first have to understand and accept this.

It Takes Energy to Relax

Relaxation is not a given. Just because someone on a meditation app tells you to relax doesn’t mean you can do it. I’ve even had full body massages where I was unable to relax on the table and instead was caught up in worry the entire time, barely feeling the touch of the massage therapist.

When it comes to self-care, we need to meet ourselves where we’re at. Even if a spa day sounds like a great thing to do for self-care day, if you’re stressing the whole time about how messy your house is or that thing you forgot to do, that’s not doing you much good.

As long as you aren’t going in the opposite direction in your self-care activity, as in you are further depleting your system rather than building it up, you can’t really go wrong.

If you need to play your favorite video game from childhood for several hours and pretend the world doesn’t exist, do it. If you need to secretly drive through McDonald’s and eat two Big Macs, do it. If you need to do it several times throughout a particularly difficult period in your life, do that too. As long as these kinds of activities don’t become a pattern of escape in your life, they can be deeply nourishing and compassionate acts.

Our Nervous System Dictates What Feels Relaxing to Us

If you’re the person trying to get a massage and can’t relax, or trying to meditate and can’t focus, or trying to enjoy a bubble bath when you’re really just hot and want to get out, your nervous system is talking to you.

Forcing the nervous system to try to relax is like forcing a kid to say sorry. It does nothing for anybody. In fact, force is the opposite of what an overstimulated (read: stressed) nervous system needs. If your nervous system is too hyped up to enjoy some silence, or some nature, or a book, don’t force it.

The same applies to meditation. The kind of aggressive, forceful approach is a conceptual one that doesn’t actually lead to any kind of insight or benefit. The act of meditating, like the act of self-care, is more of an un-doing than a doing.

Your nervous system will tell you when it needs to do or undo. If it is overstimulated to an extreme, such as a panic attack, you will definitely get no benefit from sitting in silent meditation. You would probably get much more benefit from doing something physical but ultimately calming like swimming, biking, cleaning the house slowly and not frantically, or going on a walk and having a chat with a friend.

Giving Ourselves Permission to Be Human

Health, self-care, and compassion don’t have to look any one way. When we get attached to a concept of what self-care should be rather than listening to our inner compass, we are doing ourselves a disservice. The whole point of self-care is to acknowledge that we are a human being with real needs, and that those needs are valid, whatever they may be.

Real self-care is the ultimate act of self-compassion. I encourage you to allow yourself to find one food, activity, TV show, or other guilty pleasure and let yourself go for it with reckless abandon. The whole point is letting go of the guilt and welcoming in the pleasure.

This is self-acceptance, and that’s what self-care really looks like to me.

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