“Those who have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness” said Edward Stanley, a British statesman.
But it’s not just exercise. It’s more. It’s what’s called self-care.
Now, let’s pause for a moment.
Who wants to get sick in the first place?
And even worse: who wants to get sick in another country dealing with doctors in another language far away from family and friends?
But we still manage to find “good” reasons to neglect ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong: lack of time, lack of knowledge around what self-care is, lack of support are all very real. I’m not denying them.
The point I want to make is this:
We have to decide that in spite of those adverse conditions, we’re going to take care of ourselves anyway because it’s the right thing to do.
Remember when you took the plane last time.
Before takeoff, the flight attendant always repeats the same sentence “In case of depressurization in the cabin, oxygen masks will automatically drop. Please ensure to adjust your own mask before assisting others.”
This is the first principle of any first-aid training: make sure you’re safe FIRST before helping anyone else.
But what’s self-care exactly?
I tried to look up for the French word but couldn’t find a direct equivalent. Puzzling.
Is it a sign of the importance of this behavior in different cultures?
Here is one of the numerous definitions of self-care provided by the World Health Organization:
‘Self-Care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc.), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.), socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.) and self-medication.’
Self-care is not just taking yourself to a restaurant or a movie once in a while, buying yourself a new dress, booking an appointment to the manicure, or even having a cup of tea with a friend.
This can be part of self-care but not necessarily. Moreover, as we’re going to see it later on, this is only part of self-care.
A much broader definition of self-care is provided by Alice D. Domar and Henry Dreher in their book called Self-nurture whose subtitle sums it all “Learning to care for yourself as effectively as you care for everyone else”.
Self-care encompasses 4 areas
1/ Taking care of your body
Eating healthy food, drinking 2 liter of water per day, getting enough sleep and doing some exercise are trivial advice to ensure proper physical fitness. But there’s more than that.
In order to manage chronic stress, Alice advices to use a variety of techniques ranging from relaxation, meditation, guided imagery to autogenic training.
2/ Paying attention to your inner talk
Alice suggests to employ a technique to challenge our negative thoughts called cognitive restructuring.
3/ Getting in touch with your emotions
Alice proposes to practice emotional awareness and develop our communication skills. One of her favorite techniques is journaling.
4/ Being kind to yourself
This refers to a state of compassion developed towards the self. A commitment to honour ourselves and treat ourselves with kindness.
In those circumstances, let’s debunk 3 myths around self-care:
Myth #1 “Self-care is selfish”
Self-care means paying attention to your needs. You can decide to ignore them or to suppress them because you lack time or you feel guilty. But your needs won’t disappear. They’re just placed on the back burner, waiting to find an outlet.
Independent of any culture or point in time, Manfred Max Neef, renown economist, lists 9 fundamental human needs:subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, creation, leisure, identity and freedom. In some cases, he even adds transcendence – doing something bigger than yourself- but states that this needs is not universal yet.
Except for subsistence, an absolute necessity for life, Neef maintains that there is no hierarchy in the satisfaction of our needs.
Unfulfilled needs can generate a whole range of emotions from bitterness to frustration, from anger to despair.
When our mind struggles, our body aches. Migraine, back pain, intestinal problems become the expression of our discomfort.
When we’re suffering, we can’t help others as best as we’d like to!
In another country far away from family and friends, alone or with a partner traveling for work, who will look after you?
From a supportive person, you’ve become a “burden”.
Moreover, if you’re a parent, your children are not only relying on you. They view you as a role model! They do what you do, not what you say.
Is it the kind of example you want to set for them?
Myth #2 “Self-care is time for me alone”
And your inner talk goes on like this: “Who is going to look after the kids? I can’t trust anyone in this foreign country. My partner is seldom home and I can’t rely on him/her to pick up the slack. I can’t practice any self-care.”
Let’s first focus on the situation with small children. The more they grow up, the more they become independent. But with toddlers in tow, it’s challenging to free up some time for yourself.
However looking at the 4 components of self-care mentioned above, you realize that you can still take care of yourself while your children are around and quiet, either sleeping peacefully or playing safely. You can perfectly allow yourself to practice some breathing exercises, mini relaxations, to pay attention to your thoughts, even journaling.
If you feel lonely, if you don’t have a baby-sitter or if you struggle with the local language, you can join meditation groups, yoga classes or any type of fitness activity online. Beware though on relying exclusively on the internet to avoid the outside world. On the contrary, use online communities to give you the support to connect with your reality.
Another variation is: Time for me? My partner is upset because it means less time with him/her. We don’t see each other much already.
It’s essential to be aware that self-care includes both time alone and time with your relationships. While there is a time in solitude, self-care also includes to spend quality time with your loved ones. And that’s often a huge misunderstanding about self-care.
In “Self-Nurture” Alice Domar devotes two long chapters on nurturing relationships with parents, partner and children.
Self-care is aimed at taking care of yourself as a whole and thus including all your different roles as mother/father, son/daughter, wife/husband.
Myth #3 “Self-care means spending money”
Self-talk keeps on like this: “I can’t afford a massage, a new dress or a restaurant. I need to save money for a trip to my parents.”
As you can see from the 4 areas mentioned above, there is no financial requirements to practice self-care. However some may argue that they get a boost to their morale by buying things. Here is what Benjamin Franklin said about the thirst for material possession.
“Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.”
Now tell me, how does this challenge your idea of self-care? Are you ready to start?