We talk a lot about self-care in this culture, but what does self-care really mean? For most people, self-care translates to getting a massage, taking a walk, eating lunch away from our desks, putting on our oxygen mask first. These are all valid self-caring activities, but a deeper level of self-care exists that is not about externally doing for ourselves, but rather, internally being with ourselves in a manner that is non-judgmental and loving. It is one thing to take ourselves out for lunch, but something else entirely and far more radical to honor and comfort our own feelings. This being variety of self-care is not only not encouraged in this culture, but often radically feared. We are afraid of what will happen to us, who we will become, if we start caring for and about our own feelings -- being kind to ourselves. So what are we afraid of? What is so threatening about developing a friendly relationship with ourselves?
When it comes to treating ourselves kindly, the first criticism we usually fear is that of being selfish. How selfish of me to consider my own feelings when so many people are suffering! I don't have it nearly as bad as them! The fear of being judged as selfish (by oneself and others) is what keeps many people off their own priority list. We believe that if we self-care, there won't be any caring left over for others, as if caring were a finite commodity. If we take the time to pay attention to our own experience, we will become so self-involved as to only think about ourselves, so egotistical as to stop feeling kindness toward anyone else. In this belief system, our caring for others is a façade of sorts, something we do to appear as if we are good and kind, while underneath the pretending, we are really only interested in ourselves. Self-care then is seen as something that will only encourage our basic selfishness.
And yet, ironically, the truth is just the opposite. When we feel well taken care of, when our own feelings are properly heard and addressed, it is then that we have the resources to be able to take care of others. When we are well, and our own well is full, we can experience our organic desire to be helpful, our basic caring nature. Relating to ourselves with kindness actually increases our compassion for others and makes us less selfish!
Furthermore, when we are able to empathize with our own suffering, we can genuinely empathize with the pain of others. But when we reject our own feelings and omit ourselves from the list of those who matter, we cannot be truly compassionate with others, certainly not to our fullest capacity, as a large part of our heart is closed off and inaccessible. This is not to say that we cannot be kind without being kind to ourselves, and yet, without the ability to relate lovingly with our own experience, we are severed from the real depth of our loving potential. It is as if we are living in a puddle when we have full access to the ocean.
When it comes to self-care, a close second to the judgment of "selfish" is that of being "lazy." We believe that, if we love ourselves, we will end up laying on the couch and eating bon bons all day. Self-kindness will only lead to sloth. In this system, self-love is synonymous with immediate gratification and translates to giving ourselves whatever we desire, regardless of whether it is good for us or not. As a result, we believe that the only way to make ourselves do anything productive is to use force -- to become our own dictators and remove kindness entirely from the picture. In this system, our basic nature is understood to be lazy and uninspired. Since productivity is seen as contrary to our basic nature, it must be imposed against our will and with aggression. The danger in honoring our own feelings is that nothing will ever get done (and we will get very very fat).
The link between self-care and sloth is also false. When we have a friendly relationship with ourselves, when we can listen kindly to our own experience and take our own side, we are far more likely to take action and risk the unknown. If we know that when we fall, a friend will be there to catch us, we are more willing to get off the couch and take the leap. On the other hand, if our relationship with ourselves is aggressive and critical, we remain afraid to take chances because of how we will be treated (by ourselves) if we fall short of expectations. The fear of our own aggression is what paralyzes our natural ability to act.
Compassion for others begins for and with ourselves, and is, at its most profound level, the act of tuning into our own experience and listening with kindness and curiosity. Am I okay? Am I well? These are the kinds of questions that replenish our spirit, and make us feel truly cared for. As a result, when we feel cared for -- loved -- the very best in us emerges, and our capacity to take care of others, and the world, blooms.
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