Modern understandings of self-care often focus on temporary fixes, not long-term wholeness, says a psychologist.
Most of us have probably heard that self-care is important for our mental health. And it’s true! Self-care is a critical part of our plan for working toward mental wellness.
Mental health has become an everyday, mainstream topic of conversation in recent years. And that’s a good thing. There are now many resources at our disposal to help us think about how to be as healthy and whole as possible.
But the challenge of this conversation becoming mainstream is that certain critically important pieces of our mental wellness can become so diluted as to be almost unrecognizable.
One area in which the wellness industry often misses the mark is self-care. Most of the imagery we see related to self-care essentially equates to pampering, luxury and disconnection: indulgent spa days, expensive trips with friends to Cabo, binge watching TV.
While these things may feel good — and we all deserve to feel good — self-care is much bigger and broader than simply self-soothing or enjoyment, especially for Christians.
Self-care is a multifaceted act of stewardship, which attends to multiple life demands. Self-care entails building a system of practices to support our living the rich and satisfying life that Jesus talks about in John 10:10. It is an evolving process, in conversation with the Holy Spirit, that honors the whole person.
Self-care is, first, recognizing that we are God’s creation, made in God’s image, and thus good and valuable and deserving of care. This means we have a responsibility to get curious about what we need to thrive, recognizing that that is different for each of us and that it changes over time as we grow and evolve.
We live in a world that does not often encourage us to care for ourselves in the ways that count. Our capitalist society can leave us feeling overworked, underpaid, sleep-deprived and going through the motions.
In the light of this reality, self-care might mean saying no to a paid opportunity in order to rest or spend time with your family. Self-care might mean prioritizing your exercise and sleep to support your overall physical health, even if you’re more interested in doing other things. Self-care might mean going to your therapy appointments, even when they are hard and uncomfortable.
Self-care might mean committing to a devotional practice, even when the timing feels inconvenient, because you know you feel and live better when you are spiritually grounded. Self-care might mean committing to a routine that helps you feel more balanced, even when your preference is to be totally spontaneous. Self-care might mean saying no when it’s easier and less scary to say yes.
To be invested in self-care is to wonder, “Is this action or routine getting me closer to where I want to be or further away from it?” Real self-care considers the bigger picture and has the end goal in mind.
The reason that self-soothing is so much more popular than actual self-care is that it addresses an immediate issue. Simply put, manicures and binge watching and emotional eating usually help us feel better in the moment. But it’s important to remember that they are temporary Band-Aids. While self-care can include some of these things, it prioritizes long-term healing.
Self-soothing does not do enough to care for ourselves in holistic ways. Emotions can be powerful motivators, and it’s our natural human tendency to avoid bad feelings and prioritize good ones.
As a mental health professional, I am a firm believer that our emotions are a key part of our experience in the world. It’s important that we attend to them, but we must not be ruled by them. Emotions can be intense, fleeting and ever-changing. They are not the whole story, so they can’t be all the information we use to navigate the world. They are a piece of the larger puzzle.
Other parts of that puzzle include our relationships with others, our physical health and wellness, our spiritual wholeness, our work and vocational responsibilities, and our communal commitments. A self-care plan (key word: plan!) considers the whole of who we are and attends to those internal and external demands.
I’m aware that by now self-care might sound a bit bigger than you bargained for. This is why the encouragement is to invite the Holy Spirit into the process. In Romans, Paul reminds us: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26 NIV).
The truth of the matter is that sometimes our lives get so complicated that it is hard to figure out what we need to do to care for ourselves. But what we do know is that God is invested in the totality of us — mind, body and spirit.
God equips all manner of professionals to help us identify healthy practices, and God sends the Holy Spirit to help us discern which ones we are called to. Take a moment and look at the big picture of your life, with its twists, turns and intricacies. What are the key issues you’re feeling called to attend to right now, and what commitments can you make in that regard? As you discern and then implement, remember that the Spirit is present to help you along the way.