Self-care has many faces. The definition really depends on who you ask. That’s because self-care is personal. But there is an overarching theme: Self-care is critical, for ourselves and others.
Ali Miller, MFT, a therapist in private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif., likened self-care to putting on your oxygen mask before helping others on a plane.
“I see self-care as a way of … refueling and tending to my own needs because my needs matter, in and of themselves; and because I like how I show up for others better when I am coming from a resourced place.”
Aaron Karmin, MA, LCPC, a psychotherapist at Urban Balance, described self-care as self-preservation, and also used the oxygen mask analogy.
“A selfless person puts others’ masks on, while they choke. A selfish person puts their mask on and leaves everyone else to choke. A person practicing self-preservation puts their mask on first and then helps those around them.”
Self-care is key for clinicians. Karmin believes burnout is the most challenging part of being a therapist. “We are the tools of our trade and if we don’t attend to ourselves, our professional and personal lives suffer.”
Marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Sullivan believes that she’s a great mom, partner and therapist when she practices self-care. “When I am misattuned to myself, I am less alive and conscious.”
Self-care also gives Sullivan self-knowledge. “When I take care of myself I learn things I didn’t know. For instance, I like to have a coffee in bed for a few minutes one weekend day…it’s [a] symbol to me of not always striving and running.”
For clinical psychologist and ADHD expert Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, self-care is essential for achieving his goals. These include being present for his family, engaging fully and empathically with his clients and staying healthy.
“Lack of self-care threatens the things that are most important to me. I want to live a long, fully lived life.”
He also stressed the importance of parents not thinking of self-care as selfish. “It feels as if we have to put ourselves after everyone else. [But]if you burn out, you will have nothing to give to anyone else.”
Definitions of Self-Care
Again, because self-care is individual, there are many ways to define it. Miller defined self-care as “caring for my body, mind, and spirit [and] taking actions to tend to my overall well-being.”
For Olivardia, self-care is anything “that affirms and strengthens my physical, psychological, relational, emotional, and spiritual well-being.”
“It is about being in alignment with something bigger than just doing well at work or in relationships, making money or friends,” said Jeffrey Sumber, LCPC, a clinical psychotherapist, EFT couples counselor, life coach and author in Chicago, Ill.
“It is about establishing a sense of wellness and balance from top to bottom, inside and out.”
Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a psychologist and relationship expert in Cary, N.C., defined self-care as nurturing herself in ways that feel good now and later. She distinguished self-care from self-harm, which “feels good now but causes damage down the road.”
She also makes sure she’s “responsible” about self-care. For instance, she wouldn’t plan a girls’ trip on her kids’ birthdays or take a spa day if her husband took the day off for “together time.”
Sullivan views self-care as being responsible to ourselves. “Our bodies and souls are our primary tool for being alive. I think of self-care as the responsible care and protection of our mechanism for life, giving us the capacity to work and to love … We were given this beautiful instrument, and we must care for it.”
She also believes there is a spiritual element to self-care: “devotion to our soul is holy attention to the unique gifts we bring to the world.” She believes in “attention, connection and ritual.”
Favorite Ways to Practice Self-Care
Olivardia’s favorite ways to practice self-care include playing with his kids, listening to music, attending concerts, praying, laughing and checking in with himself to see how he’s doing.
Karmin, who pens the Psych Central blog “Anger Management,” loves to play with his kids, practice yoga and walk his dog. He also loves to cook, listen to music, watch hockey, brew his own beer, journal and garden.
Orenstein loves attending group classes, such as Zumba, taking bubble baths and watching episodes of her favorite TV series, including “Sopranos,” “Enlightened” and “Transparent.”
For Sumber, travel tops the list. “I love to explore new places, eat new food and meet people. Getting completely out of my bubble at home is essential for this rejuvenation.”
His runner-up strategy is attending retreats. “I truly feel nurtured and stimulated when I go away to a beautiful, meditative, healing place and feed myself with the wisdom of other teachers, challenge my self on a deep level psychologically and spiritually, and meet other likeminded folks.”
Sullivan loves to write in her journal, get dressed up and go on dates with her partner and light candles and listen to music. She stressed the importance of listening to our inner voice to understand what renews each of us.
“That’s one of the things I pay attention to in therapy: what nourishes my client, what really gives them back to themselves.”
One of Miller’s favorite ways to practice self-care is self-empathy. She described this as “connecting with what I’m feeling and needing when I’m experiencing something challenging, and then making a request of myself or someone else to help me meet whatever needs I become aware of through that process.”
She also gets enough rest, takes baths, practices yoga, meditates, takes fun exercise classes, spends time in nature, attends spiritual services and talks, gets massages, connects with people she loves and laughs as much as possible.
However, she underscored that self-care goes beyond a set of strategies. At its core, self-care is “an attitude toward yourself that you matter, that your needs matter,” Miller said.
“When we really believe in our own mattering, we want to take care of ourselves.” But if you don’t believe this just yet, practicing self-care can help you develop a relationship with yourself that’s more loving, kind and caring, she said.
We forget this but our relationship with ourselves is the foundation for all relationships. Treating ourselves with compassion helps us treat others with compassion, too. Whether you’re feeling self-compassionate or not, taking good care of yourself is always a good place to start.
by MARGARITA TARTAKOVSKY, M.S.