During the height of the pandemic, the concept of “self-care” became one of the most frequently searched terms on Google. Unsurprisingly, given the stress, desperation, and fear that many of us experienced, it makes sense that people needed answers about how best to manage the complex storm of emotions stemming from COVID.
The perceived need for self-care has only grown over the last several months. We continue to mentally adjust to the ongoing pandemic, watching variant after variant wreak havoc across the globe. We see unrest all the way from the U.S. Capitol to the bombed-out cities in Ukraine. All of this contributes to an overwhelming feeling of a lack of safety and security in the world.
Simultaneously, we are witnessing senseless attacks on LGBTQ folks in classrooms and courtrooms throughout the country. With political tensions looming large over the upcoming elections, continued progress in the LGBTQ social-justice movement feels tenuous.
In this climate, self-care remains an important concept adjacent to mental health and wellness. Self-care has come to represent an array of thoughts, beliefs, and practices aimed at reducing stress, promoting connection with self and others, and encouraging healthy behaviors.
Basic Self-Care 101
While the worldwide forces of discrimination, injustice, and oppression feel ubiquitous in the background, interpersonal relationships and challenges are a more immediate source of emotional unease. These feelings create the impetus for the practice of self-care.
For busy people who struggle to take regular breaks from work or social activities, thinking about self-care can serve as a helpful reminder to simply stop and rest. For others who have a tendency to prioritize others’ needs over their own, remembering to practice self-care could mean that instead of doing for others, one should first do for one’s self. When we are feeling overwhelmed by a task, taking a break to catch up on laundry or Netflix provides an opportunity to reset and recharge.
Self-care isn’t just about cutting off the people who upset you. It takes practice to learn how to ask for what you want in relationships and establish boundaries with others so that you can show up authentically and genuinely. Self-care is the deeper work of catching yourself in the moment and choosing to behave in a way that supports your own values and core beliefs. But first, you have to know what those beliefs are. Perhaps your journey to a truer form of self-care can begin there.
“I’m good enough…”
While there is nothing wrong with the concept of self-care, it’s important to distinguish between effective self-care and the shallow platitudes and affirmations that bombard us daily. “Prioritize your peace,” “Choose what chooses you,” or “The best revenge is to heal” are typical of the platitudes that clog our social-media feeds and get repeated in pep talks from friends or colleagues. Frankly, if all it took to heal was the repetition of a simple phrase or idea, then everyone would be cured by now.
While repeating positive self-talk can be an important part of breaking old thought patterns and rewiring brain pathways, the endless repetition of certain phrases is not a substitute for the development of coping skills or actual mental-health treatment. Many self-care phrases and sayings provide a destination without clear directions for getting there. Expecting someone with a pattern of complicated or traumatic relationships to simply “set boundaries” or “be happy” is both unrealistic and unfair. Providing guidance on how to practice setting boundaries is more effective than simply encouraging people to seek an unattainable perpetual state of happiness.
Treatment beyond Self-Care
Self-care needs to be seen as just one of many pathways by which we can address life’s challenges. A comprehensive approach to self-care might also involve engaging in psychotherapy or adhering to a psychiatric medication regimen.
Ultimately, it’s important to use language and self-talk that is kind and extends grace and self-compassion. However, if self-care routines are not working (or their positive effects are not as sustained as they once were), it may be time to consider referral to a mental-health treatment provider.
From Words to Deeds
If we aren’t careful, self-care strategies can oversimplify the needed response to emotional, occupational, or social challenges that oftentimes have complex causes and solutions. When one feels stressed out from work, for example, a common way to respond is to take time off with a “mental-health day.” While this can be helpful in reducing immediate stress, over the long term the answer may require more than simply taking time off—particularly since much of the stress will still be waiting for you as soon as you get back to work. Even though it may feel good in the moment, simply taking a day off here or there may not be sufficient to deal with a workplace challenge or an overly busy schedule.
Self-care should involve using appropriate support systems. Perhaps asking for assistance from team members or supervisors, speaking with the human-resources staff about assigned job duties, or considering ways of working more efficiently can help reduce work-related stress. Next time you are feeling overly stressed from work, try looking at your list of responsibilities. Where can you make changes to your assigned workflow?
Another tactic may be to foster feelings of deeper commitment and satisfaction with work. Is there any way to increase the amount of time you spend doing things that give you joy? While no job can promise satisfaction 100 percent of the time, perhaps there is a way to reconfigure your duties to maximize those activities that fuel you.
The same energy and strategies you use to solve workplace challenges can also be used to improve social relationships. Using self-care techniques to spur action—and seeking professional help when needed—are both critical steps in promoting mental well-being.
This article appears in the May 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.