Updated: Aug 10, 2022
Also, Why you need it and how to know the kind of care you need.
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I find it quite ironic that we look outside of ourselves as a way to #selfcare and wonder what's with the perennial restlessness. We already know that no amount of holidays, skin care rituals or massages can truly fulfill us and yet, that's the thing we go after when we feel tired, stressed or anxious. I view spas, massages, skin care treatments, holidays ,etc. as much-needed indulgences; a nice respite from the daily grind but these are not what I call Self-Care.
In a world where the concept of Self-Care is overused, misguided and commodified, it's easy to lose perspective of what it means to care for ourselves and better still, how to even identify what kind of care we need.
Just like the Self is complex, layered and spacious, so must be the care that we give ourselves.
Our modern lives demand a consistent self-care practice - not only as a way to survive the stressors of our daily life but also to thrive. I hope that by the end of reading this blog, you:
Expand your definition of Self-Care
Learn how to discern what kind of care you need and;
Learn about the role body literacy plays in intuitive Self-Care
An education about Self-Care is not nice-to-have but a must-have if we want to feel a deeper sense of fulfillment in our lives.
What is Self-Care?
Here's how I like to define it:
#1. Self-care is being able to meet your needs.
Sounds easy, right? Turns out that identifying one's' needs is one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Most of us, especially women, struggle at identifying our needs.Much of how we think and behave are influenced by deep rooted and misguided beliefs about what it means to be a woman in this world. Forget about questioning some of the values we've inherited from our families or society at large, many of us don't even realise that there is an unexamined, unserving belief guiding our life choices.
Say for instance, a woman with children who chooses to stay in an unhealthy marriage for the sake of her kids may consider her sacrifice to be a form of good parenting but I wonder if it really is. To me this is Self-Abandonment - opposite of Self-Care. If you won't wish a bad marriage upon your child then why would you model that behaviour and live an unbrave life? If you would advise your child stuck in a bad marriage to leave, then why wouldn't you do it for yourself?
The question really is - are you willing to abandon yourself for the sake of others or are you willing to abandon the expectations of the society for the sake of taking care of yourself?
Self-Care in its truest form is radical and disruptive. It involves knowing what's truly in our best interest and not what we've been socialized to believe is in our best interest.
One of my favourite self-care quote is by author Audre Lorde - a self-described black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Another concept that comes to my mind as I think of Self-Care is our understanding of Clean pain vs Dirty pain.
Clean pain is the pain you feel when you are doing the right thing that is hard vs Dirty pain that results from avoiding clean pain. It's a choice between putting your core values into action every single day, no matter how hard it gets VS quitting your values when things get hard.
For instance, if having a healthy lifestyle is one of your core values than clean pain will involve limiting junk food to occasional days; on the other hand, dirty pain would be the unhealthy relationship that you form with your body when you avoid the clean pain of working out and eating right.
So you see, Radical Self-Care is not always easy, nourishing or feel-good; Just like a warrior in the battlefield who resists the temptation of abandoning the war and fights the good fight (reference:Krishna in Bhagavad Gita - a sacred yoga text) , Self-Care demands that we listen to the call of rightful action - much of which is doing really hard things.
#2. Self Care Helps You Build a Life That You Don’t Want To Escape From
When we put our body through a period of hardship, knowing that it will make us stronger, we practice Self-Care.
When we stop taking permission to leave work on time and teach people how to treat us, we practice Self-Care.
When we don't go that extra mile at work by sacrificing our sleep just so we can feel responsible, we practice Self-Care.
It takes a good dose of Self-Awareness and questioning our belief systems to understand what our needs are on a moment-to-moment basis.
Self-care can most definitely be a yummy, nourishing treat - like taking a bubble bath, your favourite physical activity, meeting our best friend or reading a book in a quiet space - whatever is your jam, really - but it most definitely needs to stoke your inner fire to do life and not have you escape from it. In that sense, a weekly bubble bath may be escapist from some while for others a necessity to de-stress and feel alive again. Self-Care is a practice that makes you most alive, makes you feel your best self, your truest self - a way to reconnect with your soul.
#3. Self Care is the Best Form of Other Care
It's only through meeting our own needs on a daily basis that we can truly attend to those of who we love. On the contrary, when we keep giving into the demands of others at the cost of our well-being, we build resentment. If you feel resentful - let that be a signal that your self-care practice is suffering.
And each time we avoid communicating our boundaries, we negatively impact the quality of our relationships. It's usually a drip, drip, drip effect caused by our unserving habitual patterns. Often we don't even notice that our resources are depleting until we are stopped dead in our tracks caused by a health scare or burnout. The skilful way to do this is to initiate daily rest, even if our habit or mental wiring is to go that extra mile. Taking regular rest everyday is a tall order in a world where busyness and overwork is rewarded. But daily rest is the only way forward.
In yoga asana (a form of physical self-care), the entire endeavor is to find a balance between sthir (effort) and sukh (ease) so we can learn to find the same in all other aspects of our lives. Research shows that we are better performers and show up differently for our people when we take good care of ourselves - and yet knowing is not enough. Self-Care is a constant struggle.
#4. Self Care is About Community Care
A student of mine in Abu Dhabi (where I used to live earlier) struggled to attend my weekly yoga classes as she didn't have a friend or a relative to send her toddler for an hour. To practice Self-Care, we need a community that is supportive, uplifting and ready to roll up their sleeves when we look out for help. We simply cannot do this alone.
If you read the work done by scientists and researchers who've investigated the prerequisites for a good quality of life, it's almost always the quality of one's' relationships that comes up as the # 1 factor. The primary measure is not the success or the lack of in one's career or social status but a sense of belonging or un-beloginging we feel in our communities. And it's not just about having friends and family - it's about feeling part of something that is bigger than ourselves, beyond our ego-driven dreams and desires. Belongingness is a fundamental human need, hardwired into our DNA - we need community care as a way to take care of ourselves.
As shame research professor, author and podcaster Brene Brown puts it: " Belonging is being part of something bigger but also having the courage to stand alone, and to belong to yourself above all else.”
This concept even extends to our workplace. When we narrow the meaning of Self-Care to exclude community care, we overemphasize the responsibility of the individual to take care of herself. It is not an either/or situation - yes, an individual can affect her own well-bring even in a toxic environment AND organisations must cultivate healthy work cultures.
#5. Self Care is a Moving Target
There is a difference in being consistent with our healthy habits and also recognizing that Self-Care is a moving target that needs to be adapted to our ever-changing needs.
No prize for guessing that yoga is my go-to Self Care practice of all times. But the kind of yoga I do depends on how I feel each morning. If I've slept way past my usual time and woken up groggy and tired (which happens more often than I'd like to admit), then I practice a gentle flow. If I feel scattered or overwhelmed, then my yoga sequence has more of pranayama (breathwork) than usual. Most days I prefer to sweat it out and do a strong, power session.
Having a consistent Self-Care activity is necessary to survive and thrive but the type of activity you do doesn't have to be consistent - it just has to meet your needs at that phase or point in life.
There are phases in my life where journaling feels liberating (writing always does) and other times when my need to belong and engage with my people takes precedence above all else. Nature walks are always nourishing and I am still learning how to communicate my boundaries without being apologetic about it.
When we accept that our Self-Care doesn't need to look the same every season or everyday, as long as we take time out to meet our needs - a huge amount of edge is lifted from our lives.
#6. Self Care Cannot Be Another Way For Us to Measure Up
In many of my yoga (asana) classes I teach the concept of abhyasa (effort) and vairagya (letting go) and that's how I also see Self-Care. Self-Care is paradoxical - you arrive on your mat with a certain expectation but once you start engaging in your practice, you've got to simply let go of any expectation of how it will turn out or what effects it will have on you. This is the hardest thing to do but the only way to find true freedom.
Ultimately, your Self-Care needs to be guided by your inner wisdom rather than being another goal to measure your success. It's a relationship that you have with yourself and no relationship is rigid or static - it ebbs and flows, forever adapting and evolving.
#7. Self Care Is About Regulating Our Nervous System
During my time at a PR agency when I was perpetually glued to my computer, chained to my desk and stressed 70% of the time thanks to the continuous, unrelenting deadlines, I simply had no time for Self-Care. I thought Self-Care is indulgent, an extra, which I'd do when......Ofcourse, I fell flat on my face after neglecting the agitation in my body for a prolonged period of time that eventually led to my burnout.
To avoid unnecessary anxiety or burnout, we need a practice that brings our body back to "calm and alter" state, where we feel safe and grounded.
Self-care is about calming our nervous system and processing the emotions in our body -
which is why I am a big advocate of yoga as an emotional Self-Care practice. Any practice that engages our body back into the present moment and makes us feel safe and secure is HUGE . We learn to regulate our emotions and deepen the connection between our body, thoughts and feelings. A few deep breaths can work wonders to help calm us down.
Yoga doesn't have to be your go-to practice. What fills my cup may not necessarily fill yours. However, a practice that is centered around regulating the nervous system is crucial.
How Do You Decide The Type of Care You Need?
The best way to discern the type of care we need is to have a deep and ongoing relationship with our bodies. Mindfulness practices promotes interoceptive awareness which includes (but is not restricted to) learning how to interpret the sensory signals of the body.
All physical symptoms have an emotional element and all physiological and emotional stress appears in a form of a physical symptom. Sometimes the bodily symptoms of an emotional stress are more commonplace such as shallow breathing, dry mouth, chest tightness and sometimes it leads to high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and what have you.
The benefits of learning how to identify the sensory signals of the body and what it means is one of the best way to learn how to identify your needs. And here's why:
With practices referred to as interoceptive, contemplative, or mindful, we can learn how to be more aware of all of our physiological processes. Listening to one's' body is a complex process: We don't only experience the raw data from the sensory signals of the body, we also rely on the learned associations, memories and emotions and integrate all these components to define the total experience of being in our bodies. While listening to one's' body is complex, the good news is that we can get really good at it. Learning how to be a detached witness to the state of our bodies, thoughts and emotions sharpens how we view our physiological state and this is the reason why interoceptive/mindful practices are not only a great form of Self-Care in and of itself but also a means to help identify our needs and how to meet them.
Ultimately, Self-Care is a highly individualised lifestyle that is defined by the ongoing actions, attitudes and core values that each of us hold to lead our best life. I hope that you give yourself permission to find a deep, enriching and nurturing practice that doesn't come with a set of expectation or has you measure up your sense of enoughness. And I hope you get into it every single day.