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Do you have a self-care practice? Does it work?
The answer to at least one of those is probably a no.
If you think self-care must be earned, is a one-off treat now and then, or, worst of all, is selfish, I can guarantee that your answer is no and it probably isn’t working.
Poet and activist Audre Lorde not only refused the notion that her self-care regime was “self-indulgence” but hailed it as “self-preservation” and even “an act of political warfare.” If you, like me when I first read these words, had no idea your bubble bath and face mask could wield such power, read on. Self-care goes far beyond what we think it is, and when we learn to tap into its power, we can become truly unstoppable.
Writing about self-care in her book of collected essays, A Burst of Light—as a black, queer writer in Civil Rights era America who was battling cancer—Lorde wasn’t interested in the fluff, and you don’t have to be either. Even if you consider yourself to be more privileged and therefore more automatically “cared for” by society, you need to adopt a self-care regime that adds long-term value to your life, rather than costing you unnecessary time and money—because it’s that which will make you more useful to your community and society at large in times of prolonged uncertainty.
There are many blocks to sustainable self-care, and I am going to cover three key ones that I see in my clients and students.
Number one is “I haven’t earned it.”
Do you feel like you can only tend to your well-being when you’ve done a certain number of hours of work, or completed a project, or hit a target?
You have it the wrong way round.
What if I told you that the very foundation of your productivity, earning potential, and innovation were the self-care practices you keep, week in, week out? And I say week in, week out, because it must be consistent. Self-care isn’t a one-off event like a massage or a holiday; of course those things can be a part of your wider well-being schedule, but instead, self-care must be a weekly, daily, and even moment-to-moment practice. This could look like making gratitude lists morning and night; setting aside any increment of time, even two minutes, for a silent meditation; waking up 15 minutes earlier to have time to yourself at the start of your day (one of the most powerful things you can do); choosing tea instead of booze at the end of a stressful day; and checking in with someone you can practically help rather than freezing at the thought of all the people you can’t.
Notice also how none of those things cost you a penny?
Self-care as advertised today is capitalistically driven. It is about acquiring things to make you feel better about yourself, but the real self-care comes from recognising your inherent wholeness exactly as you are, right here, right now. To this point, not only do we not need to wait to be worthy of our self-care, but we also don’t need to be improved or fixed by it.
It might seem counterintuitive for me to tell you that you don’t need self-care to be good and enough, because it is clearly there to add benefit to our lives, but I urge you to also reframe your attitude to self-care and its function in your life. In the Western world, our approach to healthcare is largely curative, i.e., we seek the support of doctors and medicine only when we fall ill or become injured. As a yoga teacher and a follower of Ayurveda (the sister science of yoga), I have long been exposed to the world of preventative care—a concept espoused by Eastern traditions and slowly and surely being incorporated in Western medicine.
Preventative care makes a case for bolstering one’s health year-round, using seasonal rituals, herbal remedies, and more subtle movement practices to prevent the need for drastic medical measures. I believe it is important to appreciate both the Eastern and Western approach to well-being, as they complement one another. I remember as a child being given homeopathic remedies, but also Calpol and even antibiotics if those were necessary. There is space for both, but the curative element is much better supported if we have a preventative health programme firmly in place.
For this reason, it is important to treat self-care as a constant and preventative measure. Over time, I have come to learn of my own inherent work through advanced meditation and lots of shadow work, but I can appreciate this might not be for everyone. If you consider yourself a results-driven, evidence-based individual who doesn’t have time for the woo, then incorporating consistent and, if you like, preventative self-care into your life is going to get you there the fastest. This takes work and planning for it to become second nature. The best way is to keep a diary that you can reflect on, which should detail your daily and weekly practices and the effect they are having on your life. Taking this approach will not only show you that you don’t need to wait for self-care to be “earned,” but in fact that it is an essential part of who you are; it is your birthright.
Another block to self-care is the idea that it is selfish.
There are some things people do under the guise of self-care that do end up being selfish, in that they pose harm to others, but I am going to share the ways in which proper self-care is never selfish.
The idea that you don’t deserve to feel good, especially when the world is in a particularly bad state is particularly prevalent right now. I have heard countless people who “actually didn’t mind lockdown” instantly qualify that sentiment with self-censorship and guilt around enjoying something that was so hard on others. Whilst no one would wish to deny the hardship felt by so many these past few years, if you are in a position to care well for yourself in unusual times, you are far more useful to those who need you if you keep your self-care up, rather than falling into guilt-induced anxiety and subsequent shutdown.
Practically, this looks like honouring your self-care routine so that you can be resourced enough to help others. When the first lockdown began, I was inundated with people wanting to take up yoga and mindfulness virtually, and I was happy to offer it on a pay-what-you-can basis, given that so many people had lost whole jobs and income streams virtually overnight; I trusted that in being generous with my support for others, that support would come back to me, and it did. Plus, those who remained in a financially secure place paid more than I would have personally expected for the session, which meant that those who couldn’t afford to pay were supported; we seemed to hold each other, and there was never any judgement, guilt, or comparison…it just worked. I appreciate that this might seem risky to some, but I firmly believe that a key element of self-care is the ability to give care for others, being safe in the knowledge (but not on the condition) that it will come back to you. Possibly multiplied.
I had a handful of fellow teachers send me messages about this pricing/service model, who were mostly curious to know how I made it work, but who also expressed a scarcity attitude, deeming my generosity as something that would upset the balance of how people paid for yoga classes. At that time, in 2020, any balance had already been long disrupted by forces far greater than a sliding-scale priced yoga class on zoom.
Before you can open your arms to others, be that physically or virtually, you must tend to yourself first.
An analogy that is often used is that of the oxygen mask procedure on an airplane. It’s an overused analogy for sure, but it is a great example of how caring for another simply won’t work if you haven’t cared for yourself first. These acts of care mainly look like small but powerful personal boundaries, such as being okay with saying no to an event you don’t really want to go to. Even if that makes you feel uneasy at first, because you don’t want to let the other person down, the reality is that the version of you that shows up to that event will be marred by low-level resentment, which will either be apparent to others when you’re there, or it will carry over to another social interaction, possibly one you actually want to be in.
So, there you have it. If you think self-care is out of your reach because it’s too expensive and indulgent, because you’re not deserving of it, or because it’s selfish, you’re doing it wrong. Reframe your view of your self-care and then build your own personal practices from there. Self-care is the gateway to self-revolution.