Self-Care Doesn't Mean Self-Centered

Taking care of yourself also means valuing the needs of others.

BY ALICIA COHN LIFE April 17, 2017

“This should be required, for life,” the woman next to me declared to the rest of the locker room.

I went to a hot springs for New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t easy to get there, and it wasn’t a cheap overnight trip, but I did it because the week around New Years has been difficult for me the last two years. I needed to be somewhere new doing something I enjoyed.

I needed to feel like the new year was starting in a good place.

The somewhat entitled declaration I heard in the locker room there bothered me. Hot springs are not necessary or required, they are just really, really nice. On the other hand, I understood her sentiment: Taking care of yourself is essential.

“Self-care” is a term thrown around a lot these days, and subtextually seems to encompass the full self of spirit, soul and body.

For example: It feels good to bathe in a hot springs, and it relaxes the body and enriches the skin. It also feels good mentally and emotionally to step away from a busy and difficult life to a mountain retreat where I did nothing but lay in hot water with a cold drink for three hours.

The Bible sets a good precedent for this type of retreat.

David, Moses, Elijah and Jesus often took time alone, stepping away from the demands of others and even from pressing responsibilities. “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed,” reads Luke 5:16. (Getting into camping made me realize Jesus might have actually enjoyed these desert retreats, rather than this being an exercise in self-flagellation.)

Unfortunately, but of course, our culture has co-opted the concept. “Pamper yourself” has become “you deserve it” has become “you have to get a massage, pedicure and fresh haircut or you might not make it through the week.”

An article from The New York Times recommends buying a $565 “cashmere emoji sweater” in order to make oneself “happy.”

“Even if you don’t buy into self-help mumbo-jumbo, it’s hard to deny the mood-altering benefits of dressing like a sunbeam personified,” the article insists.

Instagram is full of this type of messaging: “Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you or makes you happy,” reads a recent post with a thousand likes. I have heard this type of simplistic advice applied to nuanced situations and relationships ranging from family to supervisors. Someone I respect recently told me I didn’t need to talk to my own mother if it didn’t make me feel “comfortable.”

I’m new to the revelatory concept that taking care of myself is not inherently selfish, so it took me awhile to sort out why these messages struck me as wrong.

I’ve been in therapy for a few years now, learning to set healthy boundaries and how to create a safe environment for myself. I’ve learned sometimes self-care means a peaceful bath.But sometimes it means preparing carefully for difficult conversations in situations I cannot control. In other words, self-care pays off but it does not always feel good immediately.

This modern-cottage industry of therapists and products might sound like they’re promoting good mental health practices, but consumer-driven messages suggesting that “taking care” of yourself means always putting yourself first, never having to say “I’m sorry” or never compromising your own comfort are best kept in their context of selling shampoo or body wash.

Self-care has limits.

The Golden Rule invites us to love ourselves, but the other half of Jesus’ message from Matthew 7:12 is to love others in the same way.

“Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste,” wrote Charlotte Bronte. I think was pointing out that sharing life with other people is also a way of taking care of yourself. We’re still going to end up hating life if we don’t take care of our friends and other relationships. That means self-care has limits.

Do take care of yourself. Find the things that make you feel a little better in the life you’re living and the body you’re in—and insist on making the time or effort to do them on a regular basis. Insist upon retreating from life and the demands of others. Figure out the things that make you feel a little more alive, a little more settled into who you are, and do them whether or not other people consider them important. Do figure out the things that make you feel the opposite and re-evaluate keeping them in your life.

But do take care of others, too.

The consequence of not caring for ourselves can be the inability to care for others; the consequence of only caring for ourselves is treating other people’s needs like they’re not important. And this has consequences for the whole self, too. The value we place on other human beings impacts our sense of self-worth. Respecting our own needs and right to have them is a fundamental tenet of self-care but we cannot demand that respect if we are not willing to do the same for someone else.

“Connecting with your values and acting on them gives you a sense of contentment, fulfillment and abundance because living by your values gives you satisfaction right now,“ writes Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap (a book my therapist suggested I read). “Fulfillment is here, in this moment, any time you act in line with your values.”

Making value-based decisions, especially if we are going by a Biblical definition, is not the same as deciding based solely on how it makes us feel.

Pursuing my values can sometimes mean getting a massage. After all, I do value my physical condition and taking care of my body. Other times it means going to church because I value my spiritual condition. Or showing up for a friend when I want to stay home. Occasionally, it means not showing up for a friend and going through the process of explaining why because I value how that friend feels.

I believe a more balanced approach to self-care benefits mental health far more than the feel-good advice to “put yourself first.”

The Bible’s holistic view promotes both self-value and valuing your neighbor. By redefining self-care as part of a value system, taking care of yourself can also mean taking care of others.

ALICIA COHN

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