Self-Care and Selfishness

Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA

If you have spent much time in the field of healing or therapy, you have heard these words:

"Taking the time to do this stuff just seems so self-indulgent!" 

When I experienced yoga for the first time, I was 17 years old. I was working on a farm, I was a dedicated activist, and I believed in the therapeutic value of hard work and Just Getting Over It Already. I secretly rolled my eyes when my friends took "a self-care day" or shared about what they'd learned in a counseling session. I thought that asking for help was a demonstration of weakness.

And there I was, at 17, on the floor of a barn, sitting in pigeon pose, tear after tear rolling down my face. For no reason at all.

I was embarrassed. I felt weird and emotionally weak. I had no idea why I was crying. The yoga teacher was very wise; he did not push me, simply held space for me to cry and let me come to him in my own time to ask him about my experience.

That was the beginning of a shift in me, a shift toward the understanding that, to be an effective activist, I need to embody the changes I wish to create. I can't undo pain by overworking myself to the point of pain. I can't fix injustice by hurling my own anger and imbalance into the mix. And I certainly should not go anywhere NEAR trying to help someone else heal if I have not engaged in my own healing.

Here's what I have learned about the way that true self-care works:

When someone laughs at your idea and tells you it's unrealistic; when someone asks you who do you think you are to do that?; when someone criticizes your work, your appearance, your efforts; tells you that you aren’t talented enough, or young enough, or old enough, or strong enough, or smart enough; when someone hits you, or pushes you, or locks the door between you and what you want: that HURTS.

When this happens, a part of you takes note.  And that brave, protective part decides NEVER to let you get hurt again. So this part of you notices every time you make yourself vulnerable—every time you stick your neck out, venture a new opinion, decide to play larger—and it shuts you down.  Because if YOU demean, belittle, and constrain yourself, no one else will have the chance to do it for you. And you will be safe.  Miserable and muzzled, yes, but safe.

What you need to understand is that this part of you, the part that undermines your efforts to soar, is doing it OUT OF LOVE.  This is a sweet, fierce part of you that doesn’t want you to hurt.  You can’t make it stop by hating yourself, getting frustrated with yourself, questioning yourself, or criticizing yourself, because these are the very actions that kick it into protective gear.

But imagine this.  Imagine if, every time you ran into a roadblock or a criticism, you thought it over while taking a slow walk on your most beloved mountain trail? What if, when you didn’t have the answer somebody wanted, you lit candles and treated yourself to a gentle meditation session? What if the next time someone was mean to you, you took yourself off for a weekend of art-making with friends?

When you choose self-care instead of self-criticism, when you start filling your life with the things that make you feel incredible, when you make your decisions from joy instead of guilt or fear, that part of you that has always tried to keep you from hurting is OUT OF A JOB. 

It takes time, and repetition, and commitment, but eventually even the most anxious, guarded part of you will see that you are serious about self-care instead of self-sabotage.  And then that part will relax.  And the creative energy released by that final, tiny surrender is torrential.

Are you wondering how anything ever gets done in a world of leisurely hikes and meditation sessions? Are you thinking that there are problems far too serious to confront with art-making and writing exercises? I mean, how are we going to solve global warming and famine and racism with this kind of self-indulgence?

Well, I have noticed this: hatred is pretty rare among joyful people.  Most joyful people I know would rather take a walk with a friend than engage in internet trolling or bullying behaviors. When I’ve taken the time to meditate after a difficult day, I am far less likely to yell at my kids. And I know that the things I use to comfort myself when I am stressed tend to be consumer items that perpetuate the problems we face.  When I am relaxed and joyful, I comfort myself with long talks with friends, home-cooked meals, time in the garden.  The problems we face require a lot of focus, commitment, creativity, and flexibility–all qualities that overflow in me when I am relaxed and happy, but shrink to nothing when I am stressed and anxious.

And most importantly, when my life is full of pleasure and joy, I do not bitterly deride another person’s dreams.  I do not become the voice that stunts another person’s growth out of my own personal pain.  I have the energy to walk the streets for my beliefs, to reach out to others who need help, to fight for what I know is right. The energy I invest in my own well-being comes back tenfold in my ability to defend the things that I hold dear.  

So: is self-care self-indulgent?

I'd love to hear what you think!