When I was a kid, no one that I knew ran for health, no parent went to the gym, and there were certainly no yoga classes. Add to that, people were allowed to smoke inside! Teachers smoked in the staff room at school and at university, students smoked during class. There were ashtrays built right into the fold-down desks in the lecture halls! I like to see the look of surprise on my daughter’s face when I tell her these things.
Times certainly have changed. Now the streets are filled with runners and this seems normal. Smokers are relegated to smoking outdoors and that seems only right. People are living longer and, in general, are physically healthier. These societal mindset shifts were important and necessary.
I am hopeful that we are on the cusp of another huge wave of change. And it has to do with a broader definition of self-care.
If you happen to pay attention to mainstream women’s magazines, they will tell you that self-care is about bubble baths and pedicures. If you look at mental health websites, self-care is defined as eating healthy foods and practising good hygiene. And if you follow pop culture, you will hear about scheduling date nights with your spouse and making time to see your friends. But the kind of self-care I want to talk about is not about following the trends. It’s not about generalized broad strokes that look good from the outside.
It’s about listening within and finding out what kind of care you need. And not just your body. I’m talking about internal wellness here – the listening and responding needed to fully live the lives we are called to live.
I’m talking about your soul.
This kind of listening is not something we’re taught. We are not instructed to listen within for important messages. We are not taught to trust ourselves. As I’ve written about before, we are definitely not taught to put ourselves first. This makes it easy to discard internal messages, like “I need a nap,” or “This job is killing me,” or “I just need a few days away.” The louder societal messages to “suck it up” and the very critical voice in our heads (“When did you get so lazy?” or “You’re losing your edge”) often win out.
This alternative definition of self-care requires bravery. It is not for the faint of heart. It means you need to learn how to not give a crap what anyone else thinks. A good friend of mine described it this way: “Over the years, I’ve figured out the things I need to do for my own wellness – how to stay sane and balanced. There are times when my partner isn’t onboard and my co-workers can’t relate and I get razzed. I’ve had to learn to not care and do what I need to anyway, in the face of very little support.”
Even though words like mindfulness and inner peace have found a place in our cultural vocabulary, we still have strong societal norms that do nothing to support listening within and connecting to our inner essence or soul. There is still an emphasis on logic over intuition. Most people overthink or worry a problem to death, rather than following their gut. Many of us so fear disappointing others that we continue to say yes to things, even though we know full well we will feel depleted and drained.
Does this sound familiar? Are there things that keep you from doing what you know you need? Is it fear of what others will think or say? Fear of not getting everything done? Fear of everything falling apart if you slow down?
If there is one thing I’ve learned over these last few years, it is that not taking care of yourself when you know what you need spells trouble. Putting other’s needs ahead of your own is simply not sustainable. If listening within and taking care of yourself is a challenge, I would like to offer a “prescription” of sorts. Think of it as an experiment that you are going to try. Just for a week!
- Listen to yourself. Take five minutes every day to connect with yourself. You likely know what this looks like. Writing in a journal, taking yourself for a walk, or maybe just sitting still. Whatever it takes to silence the outer world and allow you to tune in to yourself.
- Trust what you hear. You are the only one who knows you need to get more sleep or you need to move your body or you need to drink less wine and eat less chips.
- Respond to what you hear. Remember, this is an experiment. Our families and our lives are not going to fall apart because we do things a little differently for a week. Act on what you are hearing from within.
- Soothe the critical voice in your head. Be as playful as you can with the critic when it starts to call you lazy (because it likely will!). Laughingly tell it you are just doing an experiment.
- Find the other voice. There are other choices for the voices in your head. Find the kind, loving voice inside. It’s in there – I promise!
Regarding ourselves highly enough to believe we are worthy of the kind of self-care that our partners, friends, and families may not understand is challenging. Taking the time to connect to our essential selves can seem like a luxury. And in the face of that, I am going to slightly amend what I said earlier. We need to be more than brave. I think we need to be warriors – fierce protectors of the needs of our souls.
I hope one day in the not-too-distant future, we will all realize that this work is as essential as eating vegetables and brushing our teeth every day. I hope some day we look back on these times in the same way we marvel that smoking used to be allowed in schools. But for now, in the absence of external cues and society’s approval, we need to remind ourselves that this work is important.
And, perhaps, remind each other too.