Stephanie Dowrick on caring for yourself

Is it surprising that many of the genuinely caring people among us are somewhat confused as to what it means to take at least reasonably good care of themselves? Maybe not.

In this age of self-obsession, cravings and rampant entitlement, anything that hints at too much self-concern may well seem repugnant. Yet intelligent self-care is what we owe ourselves. We also owe it to the people around us. We owe it to ourselves to express our appreciation for this immense gift of life (nothing less). We owe it to others because when we can’t or don’t care for ourselves we are very likely to create worry or pain for those who love us. We may even unconsciously “require” them to compensate for our lack of self-care. And that’s almost impossible to achieve.

Self-care reflects and supports self-respect. It “describes” how we think about and value ourselves. When that’s less loving or caring than it needs to be, other people can support you to see that – but they cannot create the changes for you. You have all the power. Claiming that power is an expression of your own will and freedom.

Sometimes people take brilliant care in one part of their lives, while neglecting others. “Fitness” would be a primary example. “Diet” would be another. It is absolutely vital to keep moving, to maintain flexibility and balance as well as lung and muscle strength. Regarding food as an essential determinant for well being is wise – but it is not the only one.

It’s also possible to spend an hour or two a day with your eyes closed in meditation – yet bring rather few insights into the way you live, work, contribute or respond to other people. (There’s no meaningful self-care if ‘self’ always comes ahead of others. That’s infantalising, not strengthening.)  It’s no less likely that you could spend 12 hours a day “saving the world” without pausing long enough to see what you need to live with greater harmony, trust and inner stability in your own immediate environment.

In other words…any formula you may have for self-care deserves fairly frequent auditing. “What’s actually working well – for the people around me as much as for me?” “What props or crutches am I relying on that I no longer need?” “What stories am I telling myself that bring me down rather than lifting me up?”

Three ways in which to lift your levels of self-care:

Check your self-talk      What does it add up to? What feelings accompany it? Where it is personally discouraging or disrespectful – take charge. Please, please consider the “best friend rule” that I have written and talked about so often. NEVER speak to yourself in a way that’s less respectful than your conversations with close and loved friends or family.  NEVER speak to yourself, or cultivate ruminations, that you would hate a loved one to overhear. When those self-denigrating thoughts arise, meet them with courage. Some people need to use affirmations: “My life has value.” “I am willing to be inspired” “I can discover and express courage and trust.” Others find it helpful to acknowledge those negative ruminations as thoughts, habits, not “truths” – and then to turn your mind to other healthier and more affirming scenarios or activities.

Sometimes people’s self-talk is seemingly positive but at closer look is laden with “excuses”, prevarications, thoughts and assumptions that actually weaken your sense of self – and of choice. It takes significant courage to see through that and to ask, “If this is keeping me stuck…what would inspire me to make and sustain positive change?” Seeing a situation more clearly is a vital start, but is only the start. Change comes to life when we act differently, bringing our best intentions to life through our behaviour. “Act as if…” has huge merits.

Look at yourself as a whole person    Use the gifts of your imagination and a little distance to look at your life from the outside in. See yourself through the eyes of a wise observer (your own soul). Check which areas of life you are giving lots of attention to…and what the effects are of that attention. Where is that working well? Where not?  Check also how you are affecting other people through your most consistent “self-care” choices…and also, and vitally, where and how any lack of care also affects them. For example, you may be sacrificing “everything” for a career. Who else is carrying the burden?  What choices do they have?  We can so easily become obsessive when our goals matter deeply to us. There may be merit in that, but not necessarily when it’s a way of life. Equally though, there may be blank spots or black spots where habit has you pinned. Can you see that?  Can you change it? (That might be in how you judge others’ choices, respond to their efforts…regardless of the log in your own eye!)

Value your existence    This is a daily spiritual or plain well being practice that needs no basis in formal belief, only in experiment and practice. I cannot recommend it too highly. This is what will get you through when life – inevitably – is not going well. I wrote about this extensively in Choosing Happiness in the section ‘The Ultimate Gift’ where I implore readers to shift from conditional to unconditional love – for life itself. Things will not always go your way. There will be pains, disappointments, griefs, sorrows and eventually death. But we do not protect ourselves by shrinking or putting ourselves down. We meet life best when we also value and actively appreciate it; when we notice and talk about what’s going well – more often than what’s going badly; when we meet our fears and sorrows with great tenderness and compassion – but refuse to be dominated by them; when we cultivate the company of trustworthy, kind and encouraging people; when we are trustworthy, kind and encouraging to others – and to ourselves.

Your gift of life is precious – not for what you can do with it (as much as that matters), but intrinsically. Notice what life has given you. Be thankful for that. Notice what life gives (as well as takes away) – and be part of that giving.

(You are welcome to follow Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick on her public Facebook page where you can also leave comments.)