“Through selfless action, fulfillment is attained.” Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching
I teach at a university in a counseling program. In this program, we teach the students that in order to be good counselors and therapists, you have to engage in appropriate self-care. The idea is that you have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. My students have inquired lately into the specifics of self-care. They wanted to know what, exactly, self-care means to me.
This has sparked a lot of thought on my part. My original response to that question was “It’s different for everybody,” and that’s true. We all have to find our way in this world, and what works for me might not work for someone else. I also am very careful with the term “self-care”. I listen to Marianne Williamson weekly, and I agree with her that self-care in our society can turn into self-indulgence.
Most people will tell you self-care is saying, “No” sometimes. It is taking care of yourself first. It might be getting a manicure, a massage, or going on vacation. I tend to have a different view of self-care that, to me, is more sustainable. Relax, open your mind, and float with me down the stream of self-care that will leave you with the fulfillment of a lifetime (not a direct quote, but a reference to the song Tomorrow Never Knows, by The Beatles ;)).
What is my definition of self-care? This calls for a clarification of terms. I believe my definition is different from how many others would describe it. First I will clarify what I think self-care is NOT.
Self-care is NOT always taking care of yourself first. Anyone who has had a baby knows this. There are certain things you give up when you have a baby, because that baby depends on you. You may give up sleep, nights out, showers, etc. But you are now a mother (or father), and you would not change it for the world. This is one of the most fulfilling jobs The Universe could give you. Taking care of this little person is the same as caring for yourself (just not as you would typically think of caring for yourself). You both will grow and change from the process.
Most people who know me know that my sister-in-law took her own life ten years ago leaving my nieces, her daughters, ages seven and ten behind. During that time in my life, I spend a lot of time taking care of my nieces and being present for my brother. These times were very therapeutic for me.
This time of my life was a form of self-care, but not in the traditional way. Self-care at these times was skipping my aerobics classes. It was sometimes driving through McDonalds. It was late nights and long talks. I was tagged by The Universe with a special purpose, and not fulfilling that purpose would have been the opposite of self-care. This was a time in my life when I was very fulfilled and actually very happy. I was reminded of what was important in life and no amount of self-care, in the traditional sense, would have given me that.
Self-care IS loving and taking care of others. This is NOT always convenient. It was not convenient for me when my sister-in-law took her own life. It was not convenient for me to drive to my niece’s house every day and be there for them. I would drive across the country for either of my nieces if they needed. This would not be convenient. That is love. And loving others IS appropriate self-care.
I agree with Marianne Williamson that we overuse the terms “codependency, enmeshment, and boundaries” in therapy. Where is the research on this? While, yes, these issues do exist, most spiritual paths teach that we are all one. When we really get this to our core, these terms mean nothing. Deep love for all is what the world needs now.
This does not mean we exhaust ourselves for the needs of others. This does not mean we can’t say, “No” when appropriate. When we love ourselves as much as we love others, there is no place where we end and they begin. When we can identify with that love in everyone, we call that, “enlightenment”. To be enlightened means to identify with the spirit instead of the body. You are tapped into the limitless love and abundance of The Universe. You no longer need self-care at this state.
All that being said, no, most of us are not enlightenment masters, and yes, I also do believe in traditional self-care. When I first began as a therapist, I asked my mom, “How I am going to do it without getting burned out?” My mom asked her friend who was a therapist. She told my mom, “She just will need to take a lot of vacations.” Really? That advice did NOT help. I wanted a life from which I did not need a vacation. While I loved vacations, I did not want to be miserable unless I was on one.
So what did I do? Actually I have created the life of my dreams. How is that for self-care? I worked on my own mental health and got deep into spirituality. I meditate, pray, and do yoga. I identify with something greater than myself. I have learned about what Wayne Dyer talks about in his book, “Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao”. I have learned how to change my thoughts and change my life. This goes deeper than the science of cognitive behavioral therapy (which is very helpful as a start). It goes into the magic of aligning with the flow of The Universe. When you are in that flow, nothing can exhaust you. Life is easy, and life is fun.
My self-care is being in a relationship with a man who loves me deeply and whom I love deeply. It is painting my living room walls deep purple and not caring what anyone thinks. It is freedom to be creative and write in a blog. It is my beautiful garden in the summer. It is traveling the country to see Paul McCartney with my husband. It is my little chihuahua. I love my job, but I don’t kill myself seeing a million clients a week. I stay balanced. I know I deserve the best as does anyone else.
One of the things that I sometimes tell my class about (and they sometimes look at me like I’m crazy) is a meditation I do daily that I got from Marianne Williamson. This is a meditation sending love. I sit in silence letting the love in my heart radiate throughout my entire body util I really feel it, and then I send the love out to everyone in my life. I send it out to everyone I will meet that day. I send it to my clients, my students, my friends, my family, strangers, everyone. If there is someone I am having a particular issue with, I send that person even more love. This is my kind of self-care. I am protecting myself and blessing my day, so I always come from a place of love. This creates miracles.
The world is stressed. Counselors sometimes are even more stressed, because they feel it all lands on their shoulders. Sometimes they might over schedule themselves and find themselves in a victim role complaining that they are overworked. My advice to new counselors is take charge of this right away. Don’t complain. Do something about it if you are not happy.
Self-care is more of a frame of mind to me. That is why I find my form of self-care more sustainable. It is living each day as if it were a gift. It is living in constant gratitude. It is knowing that stress is a choice. It is being in a sort of romance with The Universe looking each day for the miracles it beholds.
And when things happen in your life that are crazy like the tragedy of my sister-in-law’s death, or my mom’s recent back surgery, I am in it fully, because there are things to learn there. I would not take back those times for anything. When you are in your peace, you know when someone really needs you or when they are taking advantage. When someone really needs you, and you are there for them from a place of love and not obligation, you will be lifted up instead of dragged down.
In this sense, you can own your “No” just as much as you can own your “Yes”. And you will never feel guilty. You will find self-compassion. Because self-care is taking care of yourself AND others. It is the same thing. It is living to your potential, so you can sleep soundly every night knowing you are living life right.
My advice to new counselors (and everyone) is to figure out how to be happy. The world does not need one more unhappy person. The world needs happy people. In my opinion, this means identifying with something bigger than yourself. It means finding a deeper meaning in life. It means being okay with how things are while seeing limitless possibilities in everyday.
Life does not have to be hard. It does not have to be stressful. Be the alternative. Live the life of your dreams.
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