I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, “self-care” wasn’t even a thing – nobody ever talked about it. In fact I would be very surprised if the term had even been invented back then. I grew up in a culture of “always think of others before yourself”, of self-sacrifice and duty and the British stiff upper lip. All reinforced by the serious Christian values my parents worked assiduously to instil in their children. So ideas of caring for myself never even entered my consciousness as I grew up. Taking a short nap, putting your feet up for a cup of tea after a couple of hours of housework, or going off on holiday were socially acceptable forms of self-care – as long as the time spent doing those things was not excessive, and as long as they were immediately abandoned if someone else’s needs arose – whether that someone else was a spouse, parent, child, or even an employer.
By the time I was in my late thirties, I was harbouring a significant level of suppressed resentment and rage at this – as I perceived it – imposed set of rules to which I must always conform, and the inherent unfairness of it. I can recall articulating it in this way: “I’m expected to care for everyone else – but who’s caring for me?” And that is indeed the crucial question. I look back and now see that I wasted years expecting and hoping for other people to care for me in the way that I thought I should care for others. The gradual realisation that this was a waste of emotional energy, and that the person I should expect to care for me was – actually – me, was difficult and painful but ultimately liberating.
As an introvert I have a need for space and time to myself, but I also need the company of other people from time to time, and generally I regard the human race as a vast collection of interdependent beings – we all need each other. Nevertheless, I believe that I am responsible for my own actions, words, decisions and choices. As an adult I am also responsible for meeting my own needs as far as I am able to.
I am well aware that these thoughts appear to contradict certain ideas within the Christian faith as handed down over the generations, about loving others and not being selfish, the classic “proof text” being Jesus’s summary of the Ten Commandments: “Love the Lord your God….and love your neighbour as yourself”. But as many modern commentators have pointed out, it is clearly implied within that verse, that you will “love yourself” and Jesus is commanding you to love your neighbour in that way – in the way that you love yourself. So – far from being a counter-argument, I think this verse is the original source of the idea of self-care.
As long as I am an able adult, it is up to me to realise that I am hungry and need to eat, or thirsty and need to drink, or exhausted and need to sleep, or lonely so I need to reach out to a friend for a chat, rather than expecting others to do this for me. This principle extends not just to physical needs but to emotional, psychological and spiritual needs as well.
It is for this reason that I am taking an extended break from counselling throughout August. Counselling is a demanding profession. It is an ethical principle that counsellors should be reflective, and monitor their own fitness to practice and take steps to ensure that depleted energy levels are given sufficient time and space to be replenished, as needed.
It’s not easy for a counsellor to do this when she is working with people who currently need what she has to offer. It’s interesting to me that it raises all sorts of inner anxieties, fears and doubts: “How can I do this when people need me? Am I being selfish? How will they manage without me?” Ah the myth of the indispensable therapist! And the seductive power of imagining oneself to be the only source of help or support that is available.
We all have inner resources and skills and the ability to practise self-care if we wish to. We can all choose to engage in activities that we know are encouraging and sustaining, that enhance our health and support our well-being. So what are you doing to care for yourself this summer?