I was lamenting to my husband that I’m having a hard time finding the space to practice the self-care I need in this season.
He had an honest question: “I see you relaxing – what do you mean no time for self-care? What’s the difference?”
It made me think.
What is the difference between relaxing and self-care?
I thought back to my pre-burnout days. I did do “self-care” (as I knew it) back then. I had long soaks in the bathtub with scented candles. I spent a couple hours a week reading my latest novel. I did morning devotional times. Why wasn’t that enough?
Maybe self-care changes on the season, but looking back, I can tell you why my so-called “self-care” wasn’t enough.
I was not only relaxing, I was escaping.
I read novels to escape the problems of my own world and live, for a while, in the made-up problems of a different world where everything is solved by the end and there’s a happy ending.
I had hot baths to escape the pressures of relational living; where I could be alone and not have to engage with anyone.
I did devotions because it was a habit I knew was important, not to have meaningful times with God.
My self-care was about relaxation and escape.
That’s not bad.
But it clearly was insufficient.
How would I look after you?
“Self care” is a bit ambiguous for me to really lean into. In fact, when you start paying attention to the world of self-care there’s undertones of hedonism and self-indulgence which sit poorly with me. We women can use “self-care” as an excuse for some pretty unhealthy habits. Maybe that’s why I’ve had an arms-length relationship with the whole idea.
I think what helped me the most mark the difference between relaxing, indulging and self-care was to ask the question: “if I was looking after someone else, how would I care for them?”
Would I tell them to read more novels? Maybe. I wouldn’t take away their novels. But I think I would try to put into their hands some books that would actually help them.
Would I send them to the nail salon for a mani/pedi? I probably wouldn’t stop them, but no, that wouldn’t really be on my essentials list.
Would I tell them to take more baths? Maybe. But I’d be more interested in helping them deal with relational tension so that when they get out of the bath they’re not faced with the same mess that lead them to need an escape in the first place. Rather than escape, invest in relationships. Listen actively. Say important things. Embrace forgiveness. Learn boundaries. I’d advocate counselling.
I’d tell them it’s time to find a way to make chores at home manageable, and not so overwhelming. There’s usually three choices: share the load with your family more, lower your standards, or spend money on housekeeping or meal solutions. Whatever it takes, I want them to be lowering themselves into the bathtub with the satisfaction of a good day, not to avoid problems that will still be there when they get out.
What self care is
Caring for someone means moving towards health and wholeness. You can’t do that without rest and relaxation, and since that’s often the missing ingredient in today’s culture, that’s where you find Pinterest-pretty self-care lists that are entirely ideas on how to relax. They’re not bad; in fact they’re pretty necessary in today’s hustle-oriented world. But they’re not the whole story.
Health and wholeness is more than rest and relaxation, though rest is an essential part of it.
Sometimes it’s hard work: my running routine is critical to my self-care. I don’t enjoy running (yet) but I know how important it is for my mental health so I run.
Self-care can be messy: seeing a therapist and working through personal issues is a key for me right now. It’s tough. There’s a lot of ugly-crying involved. I’d rather a mani/pedi, thank you very much. But it’s also important. It’s healing.
Self-care is deliberate, and includes time for self-reflection. To ask what I’m proud of, why I feel the need to push myself, what makes me avoid this situation so much? And then to take it a step further.
Self-care requires vulnerability. Avoidance and escape isn’t self-care. Attending is. Sometimes that takes time, wide-open, uninterrupted space.
I’ve become a big fan of self-care, but with a clearer purpose.
It’s not indulgence and it’s not selfish pursuits.
It is hard work, and often the last thing I want to do. But it moves me towards health, and that’s important.
Relaxation and self care
So when you see me this summer in our hammock with the latest blockbuster in my hand, I’m not practicing self-care. I’m just reading a good novel; not because I need to escape but because I just love to read.
But you’ll also see me going for a run, listening to a health-related podcast that spurs me on to keep up these healthy habits.
You’ll see us make a rhythm of daily “quiet times” where each family member finds their own space to pursue our own thing (quietly) for an hour every day. Turns out this is a highlight for the kids so far. Who knew?
You’ll find me making the most of early mornings and late nights when the kids are asleep; where the illusion of being alone will hopefully be enough to give me permission to go deep with myself and with God.
And you’ll find me praying that not only will this summer NOT get me off-track with self-care, but rather will find life-giving rhythms that our whole family will benefit from. Relaxing, yes, but also purposefully pursuing health.