A few weeks ago, I was visiting some friends of mine and there was a bit of a crisis. Their 27-year-old son, who has temporarily moved back in with them, had decided to run a half-marathon in another city the day after a family event that had been scheduled for more than a year. He was still planning to attend the event but would need to leave early. Everyone knew that this was going to cause a major upset.
Later on, I talked with him about it. He explained that he had reached a time in his life when he had to begin to prioritise his own needs. He felt that for most of his life he had focused on wanting to please other people and now it was time see how he himself wanted to live. It was important to him to get back into running and this half-marathon was the best way to do that.
In many ways I felt a great deal of sympathy for him. Deciding to take one’s self-care seriously is an important milestone in one’s life. It marks another stage in growing up. However, there were aspects of his dogged determination to follow his own instincts and to turn aside from the feelings of those close to him that felt slightly evangelical to me. He was on a bit of a crusade of self-care and to stop and think of the impact of his actions on others was like going back on his new goal. It got me thinking about how subtle self-care can be and how easy it is to over-simplify it. I decided to explore it some more.
What is self-care?
In 2005 the UK Department of Health published a broad definition of self-care:
Self-care is a part of daily living. It is the care taken by individuals towards their own health and wellbeing, and includes the care extended to their children, family, friends and others in neighbourhoods and local communities.
This definition points out that self-care is a means of working with stressors in daily life, rather than a method of avoiding problems with momentary distractions and indulgences. It seems to imply that extending care to one’s children, family, friends and neighbours fits into the overall definition of self-care. This makes sense from a wholistic point of view as it is hard to see how you could be truly caring for yourself, if you neglect all the people connected to you in your life.
What strikes me most about these Seven Pillars is that they focus on the physical aspects of self-care, with an enormous topic like mental wellbeing and self-awareness being crammed into just one pillar.
For self-care to be effective, we need to come at it in as broad a way as we can. Taking good care of our physical health is important but the way we manage stress, and work with the challenges of life are deeply intertwined with how our bodies cope. We can be exercising regularly and eating healthily but pushing ourselves too hard at work. We might give up smoking and cut down on our alcohol intake but be struggling with a relationship breakdown.
Elements of self-care
In her a recent article, health coach Tara Sareen divides self-care into two categories: recreational self-care and transformative self-care.
This is the kind of self-care that offers a break in what you are dealing with—a special night out, a weekend away, a good massage. It’s refreshing and gives us a boost. For the most part it is easy to set up, and it’s highly enjoyable.
This kind of self-care might not necessarily be fun—it might even be quite demanding. It could involve finding time to learn something new, like meditation. We may decide to embark on a session of counselling. The important thing is that it takes our needs seriously and is a way of investing in sustainable wellbeing and personal growth. The effort is greater, but the rewards are more lasting.
This involves everything that has to do with the tangible, sensory body and the natural and material environment. Important values in this dimension are safety, comfort, pleasure, and health.
The social dimension
Here the focus is on your relationship with other people and everything that concerns your position in society. Important values are status, recognition and success but also includes caring for others, friendship and belonging.
The psychological or personal dimension
In this dimension, psychological characteristics are involved, personality traits, intellectual ability and opinions you hold about yourself. Here self-knowledge, autonomy and freedom are of great importance. Investing in this dimension can lead to a rich inner life. It involves a self-acceptance, coming to terms with yourself and processing and accepting your past and present life.
The spiritual dimension
This includes self-transcending ideals, a broader system of meaning, spiritual values, the confidence that there is a meaningful direction that develops in life. There is more emphasis on oneself as part of the whole. It is experienced less as a fourth dimension than as a deepening and foundation for the other three.
Personally, I find reflecting on these four dimensions to be very helpful in assessing where my ability to care for myself is quite robust and where it is weaker. The idea is that we find some sort of balance between these four dimensions and I can see clearly where some of my own imbalances lie. These dimensions take self-care to a different level and enable us to take a more integrated look at how and where we need to practice it.
Why is it an issue?
When you scan the internet, and various self-help publications and website it does not take long to see that self-care is a hot topic. It seems that we are not very good at it and many intelligent, resourceful and seemingly efficient adults are failing to give themselves the care that they need in order to avoid burn-out, compassion fatigue, and high stress. Let’s take a brief look at some of the reasons why that is.
We drive ourselves too hard
Many of us are juggling demanding jobs, tight budgets, the needs of our family and our own expectations of ourselves. Each day is a list of things to get done and we struggle to keep up. Perhaps we do aspire to take better care of ourselves but then we have a work deadline and need to stay late to accomplish it. There’s been no time to eat properly during the day and we have drunk too much coffee. We get home late and feel guilty that we have had so little time with the kids. Before we go to bed we need to take time to make sure everything is in place for the next day. We fall into bed late and wound up and can’t fall asleep.
Most of us have an active and harsh inner critic
Do you have a voice in your head that gives a running commentary on how you are going about things? Does it remind you of a teacher, or parent, or a former boss? Many of have such voice that speaks to us in a way we would never speak to another person and get we subject ourselves to its tyranny on a daily basis. We think the voice is helping to keep us in line, but it is stifling our creativity and sense of adventure.
Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal.
Moreover, we tend to seek perfection so that people will approve of us and want to be with us. We use it a means of ensuring that we are loved and loveable, when we have no chance of attaining it and even less of maintaining it.
Once we grow up and leave home, self-care becomes our own responsibility and not part of how we are parented. At the same time, it becomes subject to all the forces of our own worries and hang ups—sometimes making it very hard to care for ourselves as we need to. Yet we can see, that part of growing up and maturing—at whatever age—is to learn to be a good friend to ourselvesand to self-care as an essential part of the way we live. We owe to ourselves, to the people around us and the world at large.
A sure way to get self-care right – understand its scope
It can be hard work
It seems that in spite of all the hype, self-care is a basic human need for each one of us. Every time we get confused and go for the ‘treat’ response to our worries and stress, we are actually cheating ourselves of that self-care. Of course, it is fun to treat ourselves from time to time but when it becomes a coping strategy then we are in trouble. Sometimes caring for ourselves is hard work but that’s OK if it helps us transform and grow.
To care for ourselves we need to include other people
Likewise, if we think self-care is all about focusing on ourselves we are missing out on the vast dimension of our social world and inter-related acts of kindness. Self-focus as a means of caring for ourselves withdraws us from a powerful source of nurture, and healing which we can find in understanding the interconnected experience and understanding of human beings. Recognising that everyone struggles some of the time helps us to see our challenges in perspective.
We might need to try something new
It seems we need a certain courage, and a clear sense of balance to be able to coax ourselves into a pattern of productive self-care. It is good to see that so many of the experts recommend meditationas a basis for learning to befriend ourselves as we are and continue to strive for all facets of wellbeing. Meditation helps us to learn to be more present to our experience. We become less in thrall to mulling over things that have already happened or worrying about things that may never happen.
I hope that running his half-marathon brings my young friend the boost he needs but my biggest wish for him would be that he takes the time to reflect on all aspects of self-care. Perhaps his self-focus is a starting point and he’ll get into seeing the bigger picture as he goes along.
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Have you ever met anyone who did not want happiness? Certainly, I haven’t. I have met people who have funny ways of going about trying to be happy but never anyone who was just not interested in it.
The funny is though, that wanting happiness and having it are two different things. In the first place, we don’t always know what will make us happy. Even when we work it out, we can’t always make it happen—we might long for someone to love but are not able to find the right person. The irony is that even when we do get what we are looking for, it does not always make us feel as good as we expected.
Happiness is tricky—partly because we have some funny ideas about it. Let’s look at four of these.
We confuse happiness with pleasure
In evolutionary terms, pleasure acts as an incentive for keeping us alive. So, food, sex, caring for our children, and accomplishing our goals cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine that make us feel happy. This search for good feeling has helped to keep the human race going, but these feelings were designed to be temporary. Think about it—if we only mated once and never needed to again, we would see a startling fall in the birth rate. Pleasure is something that is so enjoyable that we want to experience it again and again. However, it is designed as a temporary state with a specific purpose, rather than something that will last forever.
Sadly, we often seem to find this hard to accept. Our search for happiness can become narrowed down to the pursuit of pleasure. Once we have it, we to hold on to it– or at least try to repeat it as often as we can.
The trouble is that we so often mistake transient pleasurable experiences for lasting happiness. We have evolved to a place where our happiness is not based on survival alone. Yet so often we settle for the quick fix, pleasure-based route to happiness, without taking into account the full range of potential effects.
Perhaps we feel a bit low, so we surf the internet for a bit, then drink a coffee and checkout the news channels on TV. We could take some time to look into the low feeling in order to understand and resolve it. However, our impulse is to distract ourselves from it and not deal with it. It’s as if we are aiming to run our life as a series of good moments, with as few bad ones as possible to interfere with our final score.
We imagine it will last forever
So, we can see that from an evolutionary perspective, happiness is designed as a reward for keeping ourselves alive. It is not meant to last forever. In our modern western culture though, there is the idea that we should be happy all the time. We make choices based on the belief that they will make us happy now and into the future. The idea that our preferences or circumstances may change doesn’t seem to come up. We don’t consider that our future selves may see things differently from how we do now.
Anyone who has been divorced, or had a great new job turn out to be disappointing will have experienced this for themselves. When I was a young teacher in London, I decided to cash in my teacher’s pension so I could go traveling. It felt like a great decision at the time. Suddenly I had a good reserve of money to finance one of my dreams. Years later, when I left teaching, I deeply regretted not having a pension fund to carry forward.
On a lighter note, I have a Danish friend who became a Buddhist nun some years ago.Whenever it’s too hot to wear socks I have the treat of seeing a tall, slender woman in long,maroon robes with a tattoo of an iguana coiling up her left ankle. The frisky young womanwho, some years back, thought this tattoo would be an addition to her image, apparentlydid not envisage the possibility of herself as a nun in the future.
We think money will make us happy
2006 saw the publication of Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of the key findings that he highlightedis that over the last fifty years, the standard ofliving in the US and Western Europe has roughly doubled. No surprises there, you might think. The shock came with the second half of the finding—levels of happiness have stayed the same. Think of what it takes to double our standard of living – the compromises in work–life balance, the increase in the number of families where the only way to manage is for both parents to work, the stress of the increase in pace and variety of the modern workplace. It’s shocking to find that none of that has an impact on our basic level of well being.
The way we adapt to what we have and the extent to which we compare what we have with others comes into play here.
One of the most startling results to emerge from research into happiness is that big lottery winners, after experiencing an initial period of euphoria, tend to return to their normal levels of happiness within a year. The huge rise in their financial and then material resources is not enough to lift their happiness levels long term.
The trouble is that we adapt to what we have and so become used to it, and when the gloss of having it fades, we want something more.
The process of adaptation we experience with material possessions seems to work in the sameway for life experiences – so career moves, lifestyle changes or new relationships, ratherthan transporting us to new levels of happiness, eventually settle down until they become simply part of our normal pattern of happiness.
Along with adapting to what we have in life, we also suffer from comparing our lives with other people’s. So, your new car may be satisfying while no one else in the street has a better one, but as soon as someone turns up with a newer model then you become less satisfied. We’re pleased with our pay rise as long as we’re the only person to receive one, or if our rise is greater than anyone else’s.
We compare ourselves with our peers, people with roughly similar lifestyles. The lives of the super-rich are far beyond our reach, while many people feel comfortably far away from the very poor. Studies of Olympic medallists show that bronze medalists tend to be happier with their medals than silver medallists because they compare them- selves to people who did not get a medal at all, while silver medallists believe they just missed a gold.
We look for happiness outside of ourselves
We’ve seen that pleasure is based on external circumstances, such as our job, where we live, or what we like to eat. Although the benefits are short- term we can often mistake this for happiness, overlooking the possibility of something more reliable. A more helpful view is to say that there are two kinds of happiness: the short-term, pleasure-based experience and a more lasting happiness. The first kind is much easier to attain than the deeper happiness,which requires effort but once established serves as a reliable basis for wellbeing.
Giving ourselves the time and space to explore and develop this lasting happiness is oneof the deepest acts of self-compassion we can engage in.
So, how do we access this deeper kind of happiness? Firstly, we need to recognize that it isnot about looking outwards but depends on having an inner peace of mind and heart. Thisis the basis for self-awareness and the awareness of others – the foundation of compassion– that enables us to view our actions and those of other people with greater clarity. It canbe developed by working with both our basic attitude and with the actions we take whiletrying to be happy.
Meditation is the best way to get a handle on how our minds work. It helps us to work with our basic attitude and the habits we have. Bringing awareness into our actions means that we are more able to make the right decisions.
A deeper meaning to happiness
Sometimes, it’s worth asking ourselves how we value the happiness of other people. Is their happiness important to us? Would our happiness be important to them? Do we consider out happiness to be the most important? On what basis?
There is a simple question we can use here as a measure of whether or not our actions will be a source of lasting happiness:
Do they bring real benefit to oneself and others,or not?
Actions that bring benefit automatically result in happiness and help us to develop our compassion. We need to develop a clear sense of discernment to enable us to analyse our actions clearly in the light of this question, and to identify the habits that lead us away from lasting happiness even if they initially seem to bring pleasure.
It might seem a lot to take in but reflecting in this way will help us to navigate the tricky path of happiness. It could help to put things into a different perspective.
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It was in Barcelona a few weeks ago, that I got a direct lesson on the importance of mindfulness in supporting being self-compassionate.I was there to give a workshop on transforming stress and it was on the second day, after lunch, that I got a choking fit. I had hurried back from lunch and was slightly hyper because I was trying to lift the everyone-wants-a-siesta energy. I took a sip of water and it just went completely wrong. It is easy for me to choke and I am only too aware that if it goes really badly, then it’s possible that I will vomit. Not something any workshop facilitator is looking to do!
At first I tried to fight it and just carry on. Then it occurred to me to excuse myself to the bathroom but then people would have come after me and the workshop could unravel. There were a few moments where I just pretended that I wasn’t there but of course that didn’t work either. So, I gave up and just spluttered on until I could find a place to settle my breathing and take a cough sweet. Things slowly settled.
The three elements of self-compassion
Looking at the group I saw a sea of worried, slightly anxious faces. Something needed to be done. As it happens I had been starting to explain the three elements of self-compassion—self-kindness, as an antidote to self-criticism stemming from the fight response; common humanity, as an antidote to self-isolation stemming from the flight response, and mindfulness, as an antidote to self-absorption stemming from the freeze response. I realized that I had already run through the whole fight-flight-freeze stress response in myself, so I decided to try and use what had happened to explain the antidotes and how they work.
Self-kindness came in as allowing myself to acknowledge something unpleasant was happening but not beating myself up about it. It wasn’t my fault. Seeing the concern on the faces of the group reminded me that they knew exactly what I was going through and wanted me to be OK. There was common humanity. However, the basis of the whole thing was that because I could apply mindfulness I was able to keep the whole thing in proportion and not over-react to my predicament. There was no panic—it could all be managed.
Let’s look more closely at how mindfulness supports self-compassion.
5 reasons we need mindfulness for practicing self-compassion
To enable us to notice our moments of suffering
From an evolutionary point of view, we are programmed to turn away from anything that threatens us, and to keep focused on staying alive. This is so we can pass on our genes. On an everyday level, this means we put our energy into carrying on with whatever we think needs to be done—which does not give much time for self-care.
Our stress response is built to fight, run away or freeze and wait till the threat passes. So, our tendency is to rage against our suffering, or distract ourselves from it, or hide away and lick our wounds. It is hard for us to simply notice pain. This means that we are not always very skilful in knowing how to care for ourselves, especially regarding emotional, pain.
Furthermore, when we are suffering, our tendency is to focus on the failure rather than the pain. If you make a mistake at work, don’t you quickly find yourself feeling stupid, rather than taking a moment to acknowledge how wretched you feel for the mistake in the first place? When you have an argument, aren’t you more likely to spend the moments after it re-running the scenario and trying to see what you could have done differently? How often do you give yourself a moment just to feel the pain of the disagreement?
Mindfulness means being in the present moment and experiencing it fully, as it is. If the present moment is one of suffering, then we taste it fully. By not turning away, we give ourselves a moment to acknowledge what is going on for us and to see what it is we need to do about it.
To encourage being non-judgemental
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as being a moment-to–moment, non-judgemental awareness. Let’s look at that idea of being non-judgemental. For much of time we are looking at what goes on around us and dividing it up into stuff we like, and want more of; stuff we don’t like, and wish would go away, and stuff we don’t really care about. When we practice mindfulness, and become present to our experience, there’s an opportunity to be curious and to just notice what is going on. We don’t need to overload our experience with judgments, that tend to narrow things down.
In terms of self-compassion it can mean that we do not go straight into the monologue of our critical voice, telling us how we are not getting it right and falling behind. We can pay attention, rather than berate ourselves. This gives us a chance to get a more balanced view of what is going on and how we want to deal with it.
To take the simmer out of our reactions
Our stress response is basically the same as that for any other mammals but we differ in one important way. When an animal has escaped from a threat it faces—say the zebra has escaped from the lion—it quickly settles and returns to quietly grazing. We don’t do this. Our minds keep the threat alive long after it has passed. Think of the last time you had an argument with your boss—didn’t you spend hours afterwards thinking about how it went and what you could have done differently? Perhaps you discussed it with friends?
Our tendency to ruminate and worry and to go over and over things that have upset us, keep us in a constant state of low-grade stress—a kind of simmering stress. In this state it is harder to practice self-kindness, or to remember common humanity. If we are being present to what is happening to us now, not what has already happened, not what might happen shortly, then there is nothing to ruminate about.
Like the zebra—who is focused on grazing on the grass in front of it—we can engage with our present activity wholeheartedly. We don’t need to follow our wandering mind.
To have a choice in how we react
When we see how fast our moods and feelings change it’s maybe hard to believe that there is a tiny gap between something happening—an action, and our reaction to it. When we are feeling quite mellow and relaxed we can sometimes sense this gap but when we are worried, or stressed it seems to disappear. For me, self-compassion means using all our resources to work with ourselves in a healthy and constructive way. When we over-react to a situation and have to deal with all that entails, we are setting ourselves up for self-criticism and feeling bad.
With mindfulness, we are engaging with the present moment with our full attention and without judgment. Going from moment to moment with curiosity enables us to have a more balanced view of things as they occur. This makes it possible to put space around events and gives us the chance to notice the gap. Then we can have some choice in how we react, rather than simply being dragged along by our emotions and moods.
Often when we calm down after something has upset us, and look back at what has taken place, we can see that our reactions have encouraged us to exaggerate. Think of how mad you can get at another driver who seems to be cutting across you! Or how frustrated you feel when your internet connection falls away! When we are mindful, we are more able to see things as they are, without exaggeration. We are not trying to prove anything. We are just being with what comes along. So, even if you do over-react to a situation, with mindfulness you can more quickly bring your attention back and settle.
To avoid over-identification
Remember, from a self-compassion viewpoint that mindfulness is the antidote to freezing up, which leads to self-absorption. When we are not able to step back as we were discussing in point 4, then our sense of self becomes completely wrapped up in our reaction to what we are dealing with. It can be so easy to be caught up in our own personal soap opera.
Remember a time when you were faced with a big disappointment—someone else got the job you applied for, your relationship broke up or perhaps the holiday you really longed for turned out to be too expensive. A disappointment is a moment of suffering and we need to notice it and take care of ourselves as we work through it. When we over-identify with our reaction, then we deny ourselves the chance to work through it in a way that will enable us to heal. Our reaction becomes the main story, rather than our return to wellbeing.
Mindfulness of the present moment balances out our attention and prevents us from falling into a repeating loop of reaction and disappointment. Then we can apply self-kindness and see our problems in relation to those of other people. Mindfulness fuels self-compassion.
If you found this post helpful you might like to check out my online course, How to be a Good Friend to Yourself
How to Make Job Loss Your Opportunity for Growth Have you lost your job recently? Was it a shock? How are you doing? For most of us, our job is how we keep things togetherso we can pay the rent and put food on the table. If we lose it, we’re plunged into a time of...