As a clinical psychologist, I believe that much of my work is actually helping people learn to take care of themselves. I’m also a person who manages her own chronic illnesses. If I crash and burn, so does my practice and other things I care about. Learning good self care has required that I change — a lot. I’m what I call a “recovering perfectionist.” My nature has been to drive myself hard and to put the end goal before my own well-being. (E.g., “I’ll rest later….”) I’m a master at pushing through and ignoring fatigue, pain, hunger. This is a common habit for many women, be they mothers, women pursuing education, entrepreneurs, career-focused, household managers.
Figuring out how to write about self care from the perspective of a doctor, a patient, and a (balance-seeking) driven professional has made starting this blog a challenge. The overachiever puts pressure on the blog to attain certain expectations. The patient is nervous about that pressure and how it might affect my energy levels. And the doctor — trained in a kind of psychotherapy that purposely keeps private one’s own personal experience — feels uncomfortable sharing too much. My real job is to integrate these parts of myself by providing useful clinical information on self care, sharing my own experiences to make everything relatable, and to harness enough energy to keep writing.
…self care is not an occasional act. It is also not an indulgence. It is a conscious and ongoing practice.
So, What is Self Care?
Several years ago, I was sharing an office suite with a number of other psychologists. I had just gotten up from a 30 minute nap in between patients and was heating up some lunch while talking to a colleague. I was trying out a pretty brutal low histamine diet and described the new approach to food, my weekend of rest, chatting with old friends, and my weekly day of silence. “You know,” my colleague said, “you’re really good at self care. You ought to write about it.”
To write about self care means defining what it actually is. I hear a lot of people say, “I did some self care this weekend and got a massage.” Or, “I decided to do self care and took a long, hot bath.” These acts of self care address ways of calming the nervous system and managing stress (which we will get to in later posts.) Dealing with stress is an important aspect of self care, but is not the only element.
Also, self care is not an occasional act. It is also not an indulgence. It is a conscious and ongoing practice. Getting a massage may be part of one’s self care routine. However, using massage (or any service) as an occasional (however delightful) fix can be an excuse by the stressed-out, driven parts of ourselves to purge just enough stress to keep riding the same hamster wheel.
Real care of the self can be hard work. It usually involves change, which we may or may not consciously welcome. The hard work and change derive from the most difficult piece of self care: actually knowing what we need.
Depression and anxiety, or using too much alcohol, food, TV, social media, or any other distraction to “relax” … can signal that the self — and, therefore, self care — has been lost.
My own self-care over the past several years has completely changed the nature and course of my life. I had completed a third-career doctoral degree in clinical psychology when I finally admitted to myself that the bone-deep fatigue, 16-hour sleep jags, memory problems, and joint pain I had experienced for years was not “just” being tired from years of school, clinical training, and a chronic pain condition.
I was getting ready for work one day, looked in the mirror, and a thought popped into my head: “You can’t heal if you don’t know you’re sick.” It was a life-changing epiphany. Positive thinking, a spiritual practice, and decades of a rigidly healthy lifestyle were just not resolving my symptoms. I made my first of many doctors appointments. My experience getting diagnosed and starting treatment was comparatively quick. A colleague recognized my symptoms from her own illness and put me in touch with her doctor.
The changes I had to make often contradicted my “healthy” lifestyle and were quite harsh. I fled a water-damaged, moldy apartment and had to get rid of most of my belongings, including nearly 500 books. I quit work that I truly loved at a skilled nursing facility because I needed a predictable schedule and a safe environment for my compromised immune system.
I began treatment for mold-related illness, mast cell dysfunction, autonomic nervous system issues, and an autoimmune disorder. Fragrances literally took me down. I joked that I had become a “bubble girl,” trapped by my own sensitivities. Living in a big city, I had to accept that there were only a handful of buildings that would not make me sick.
Self care meant calming my inner critic when I was too sick to clean my home or get together with friends. To help manage my increasing anaphylactic reactions, I re-homed a beloved cat to which I suddenly became sensitive. Self care also meant eventually giving up my office, moving to a more rural environment, and working from home.
Self-care is not about perfection or achieving a magic pinnacle of “work-life balance.”
Self Care and Women: Her Self Care
Self care, however, is not just for those suffering from illnesses. Too many women put themselves last, behind family and work obligations, juggling so much that they get lost in the mix. Illness can be a later-stage symptom of self care deprivation. Depression and anxiety, or using too much alcohol, food, TV, social media, or any other distraction to “relax” (often, actually, to numb) can signal that the self — and, therefore, self care — has been lost.
For me, self care has meant keeping close tabs on the pulse of my physical and emotional needs, staying flexible, learning to sit with a lot of imperfection, and being brave. It’s a messy business. It’s also brought me a lot closer to living from my core values, a topic to be explored in other posts.
Self-care is not about perfection or achieving a magic pinnacle of “work-life balance.“ There is no recipe: My self care may not look like your self care. I hope that this blog and website can help you find yours.