Have you ever wondered why we’re so bad at self-care? Why taking care of ourselves is so difficult for us, and not simply inborn? Every week, another book comes out on how to take better care of ourselves. So why are we not getting it?
For one thing, our self-care approach is made out of the wrong fabric or, if not the wrong fabric, one with the wrong texture. We’re taught that self-care is an external process: It means getting a massage, making time to eat lunch sitting down, taking a walk, and putting on our oxygen mask first. All are valid self-caring actions that serve our well-being. And yet a far deeper and richer level of self-care exists which is not about externally doing for ourselves, but rather about being with ourselves, internally, in a particular kind of way.
The most effective self-care is not about what we do for ourselves, but how we are being with ourselves — the kind of company we keep inside, the flavor of the conversation we conduct with ourselves inside our minds. The self-care that profoundly changes our life for the better involves creating a relationship with ourselves that’s infused with kindness, support, and curiosity. True self-care, as the word implies, is about genuinely caring about and for how we are.
This variety of self-care, relating with ourselves in a friendly and supportive manner, is not only not encouraged in our culture; it's quite often discouraged. We are afraid of what would happen to us, who we would become, and how we would be judged if we were to value ourselves and suspend the judgment and impatience with which we typically relate to ourselves. So what is it about developing a kind and compassionate relationship with ourselves that’s so threatening?
Isn't That Selfish?
While most of us would claim that we’re pretty good at caring for ourselves, when it comes to actually treating ourselves internally like someone we care about, that feels selfish: How selfish of me to spend time thinking about me, and what I need or want, when so many others don’t have that luxury. The fear of being judged as selfish (by oneself and others) is what keeps many people from treating themselves as they would a friend. It keeps them from asking for kindness from others, even when they desperately need it. As one woman responded when I simply asked her how she was feeling, “It’s always about me me me! Too many people have no one to ask them how they are!”
We’re afraid that if we care about ourselves, there won’t be any caring left for others, as if caring were a finite commodity. That is, if we take the time to pay attention to our own experience, we will become so self-involved that we will end up only interested in ourselves, so egotistical that we stop wanting ever to be kind to anyone else.
In this belief system, our compassion for others is just a façade of sorts, something we do to seem like a good person. We’re desperately afraid of who we would become if we were to relate to ourselves with friendliness as if just a taste of our sweetness would unleash a narcissistic monster within. The truth is that it is only when we feel well taken care of when our feelings have been properly heard and cared for, that we have adequate caring resources to offer others. When our well is full, we are our most selfless and can fully experience our goodness and our inherent desire to be of service.
The ability and willingness to empathize with our own experience are precisely what allows us to empathize with the experience of others. Paradoxically, taking care of ourselves is what makes us unselfish. On the other hand, when we reject or ignore ourselves, we cannot be truly compassionate with others, certainly not to our full capacity, as a large part of our hearts is closed off and inaccessible. This is not to say that we cannot be kind human beings without being kind to ourselves, but without the ability to relate lovingly with our own experience, we’re severed from the real depth of our loving potential. It’s as if we are living in a puddle when we could have access to the ocean.
As you take care of others and invite company to visit with you, make the effort to relate to yourself and keep yourself company with an attitude of kindness and warmth. Remember to offer yourself a curious and compassionate ear — to talk to yourself as someone who matters, to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, to take a break from self-judgment, and even to consider what’s good about yourself. Decide to be a supportive and loving presence inside your being. This season, and all seasons, remember that it’s okay to be on your side.