The Art of Self-care or How Full is Your Cookie Jar?

When meeting with new clients, one of the first things we talk about is support systems. Do they have one?  Does it include a self-care plan?  Do they feel that they deserve to take care of themselves?

When thinking about self-care, I’m thinking about the things that we do that help us to stay grounded, healthy and happy. These activities are as unique as there are individuals.  For some people it’s a daily yoga practice or monthly massage. For others, it’s spending time reading a book, strenuous exercise, going to bed early or walking their dog.  The specific actions aren’t important, it’s the fact that they ‘feed you’ in a positive way.

The Importance of Self-Care

Life is stressful. We’re often pulled in many directions at the same time.  For some of us, days are spent trying to balance our children, partner, career responsibilities, elderly parents, volunteer commitments, social calendars…the list goes on and on…and in many different configurations.  Add to that the little voice that tells us we should be taking care of ourselves as well, and we’re overloaded.  Self-care becomes the last thing on our ‘To Do’ list.

However, if you are in doubt of the benefits of allowing time for self-care, I suggest reading When the Body Says No:  Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Dr. Gabor Maté. Through research and case studies from his own clients, Dr. Maté examines the link between diseases such as ALS, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and others, and the lack of self-care.   The interesting thing is that Dr. Maté pushes the boundaries of self-care from the basics of yoga and adequate sleep to the emotional realm, by including the concept of Emotional Competence.

What is Emotional Competence?

Simply put, emotional competence is our ability to take care of ourselves by removing ourselves from stressful situations.  This is a skill that is ideally learned in childhood, when we are given the support and acceptance by our caregivers needed to develop our ability to self-regulate (i.e. deal appropriately with) our feelings and desires.

According to Dr. Maté, emotional competence involves:

  • the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware of when we are experiencing stress;
  • the ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries;
  • the facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past.  What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs, not to unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood.  If distinctions between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or the threat of loss where none exists; and
  • the awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others. (pg. 38).

In other words, we need to know what we feel, discern what we need, and then have the confidence to ask for, and accept, help.  This is the ultimate in self-care.  However, this is often very difficult to do.

The Enemy of Self Care–Is Selfishness a Bad Thing?

Despite the zeitgeist of individuality that defines our current North American culture, selfishness is seen as a bad thing.  Especially for women, there is an expectation that care-giving is the ultimate (and often thankless) role.  For many people, especially if care-giving is the way they learned to adapt to problems in their family of origin (i.e. original family), being considered selfish is a massive insult.  When chronic care-giving is the water we swim in–we would rather be thought of as anything but selfish.

Perhaps we need to look at selfishness from another angle?  Who is calling us selfish?  The people who directly benefit from our lack of willingness to say no?  If we decline to help out at the local garage sale, and instead choose to go for a walk in nature that day, what is the effect on the garage sale organizers?  Is that truly our problem? Do we feel guilty? Should we?

I’m suggesting that, in the grand picture of things, selfishness is actually a benefit for all concerned.  When we take care of ourselves, we are better able to help others.  Cookies anyone?

The Cookie Jar Analogy

Because of messages received in the past, we sometimes have a hard time justifying self-care.  I’ve found a useful way to describe this concept is the idea of a cookie jar.  If you imagine that each time you do something to take care of yourself, you get to put a cookie in the jar.  Go to the gym…put in a cookie.  Have a candle-lit bubble bath…there’s another cookie.  You get the idea.

Now, every time you do something for others, remove a cookie.  Take an elderly parent grocery shopping…there goes a cookie.  Help a child with homework…one less cookie. Particularly difficult tasks may cost multiple cookies. If you follow this game to its conclusion, it becomes obvious that if you don’t keep adding cookies to the jar, it will soon be empty.  An empty jar equals high stress and potentially burnout and/or illness.

It’s important for each of us to figure out what the minimum number of cookies that need to be in the jar in order for us to function for ourselves and others.  If the number goes below that amount, it’s time to start saying “no” and take action to add more cookies.

The Number 5 Rule

I once had a very wise clinical supervisor who at the beginning of each supervision session would ask me to state how I was feeling (emotionally, physically, spiritually) on the scale of 1-10.  She felt that if anyone was operating below a ‘5’ they shouldn’t be providing support to anyone else.  Years later, I still use this rule and check in before any type of care-giving activity.  Do I pick up the phone when I know it will be a difficult call?  What’s my number?  Do I agree to help with something outside of my comfort zone?  What’s my number?

I recognize that sometimes we have to ignore the ‘5’ rule–especially if it’s a matter of life and death or some other type of emergency.  Luckily, these are few and far between.

This is another form of self-care.

Self-Care and Therapy

For some people, seeing a therapist is a form of self-care.  A friend of mine once said, when describing her enjoyment of therapy:  “Where else do you get to talk about yourself for an hour and have someone listen with undivided attention?”.  Unfortunately, many people don’t come until they are in crisis.

Individuals, couples and families visit a therapist for many different reasons.  Self-care is a touchstone in each case.  I often complete a genogram (a specific type of family tree) with clients as a way to determine the main family players.  We look at relationships between members and their resulting roles.  Often we discover patterns that flow from one generation to the next, and chronic care-giving can be one of them.

The realization of chronic care-giving creates an opportunity to explore the feelings, history and beliefs that led to this behaviour as well as discussions about self-care. It’s amazing how many people don’t feel that they are worthy of care, yet feel that others are–even at a risk to themselves!

There seem to be days to celebrate everything–Canada’s Agriculture Day (February 16), Kool-Aid Day (August 12) and National Raisin Bread Month (November) to name a few. Self-care is no different.  In Britain, November 13-17, 2017 is National Self-care Week. This is an initiative by the National Health Service.  Why not create your own personal Self-care Week?  What would that look like?

Now, for a dollop of self-care, here’s some advice from the Sound of Music…enjoy!

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