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Self-care is still hard. Now what?

Santa Rosa therapist and life coach Patty Bechtold explores the question of why self care is hard at wiselifetherapy.com

Not long ago I read a social media post from a woman who’s an expert on self-care. She wrote about how self-care is hard, even for her, and she explained how she’d been through a rough time with it lately.

My heart went out to her and I could relate, because I’ve been there too, far too many times. And while I certainly don’t mean this as a rebuke of any kind, there’s definitely an irony here: we who know a lot about it, who encourage our clients to engage in self-care, continue to struggle with it ourselves.

And I wonder: if self-care is hard for helping professionals, what does that mean for everyone else?

On the one hand, you could say that therapists, counselors, coaches, teachers and other helpers/healers give a lot to other people, and as a result often put themselves last on the list to receive care and support.

On the other hand, you could also say that self-care is an ethical imperative for us, not just because we need it in order to do our jobs well, but because modeling good self-care may be an important part of the relationships we build with clients and students.

This is the paradox that pulled me into my own exploration of self-care about a year ago.

I wanted to move beyond the face of self-care I’d been seeing forever: the struggles, the lists and recommendations.

It seemed like there was something else for me to discover about why self-care is hard. Not just for myself but for the women I serve as well.

Of course, I do understand objectively the reasons why self-care is hard. In fact, it’s easy to unearth some quite logical explanations:

  • Overwhelm, fatigue and the belief there’s not enough time
  • Guilt and shame at the prospect of taking time for ourselves
  • The negativity bias of our brains
  • The commitment it takes to create habits
  • Anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges
  • Confusion about our self-care needs

All of these reasons make sense. But still, something was missing for me.

I wanted to know more about this mountain of self-care that’s so hard to climb.

So I began exploring it in my journal, and in other creative ways, like poetry and collage. I put together a women’s writing circle: Wise Women Writing to Replenish and Renew.

I also started a podcast of sorts: part writing process and part meandering conversations with other women. We talked about topics that seemed related to the question of why self-care is hard.

In doing these things I realized that I don’t much like the term self-care. While it’s useful shorthand that most of us understand, I much prefer the words replenishing and renewing. Or the idea of nurturing and nourishing ourselves.

And while none of these actions brought me any immediate insights about self-care, they did help me slow down.

I slowed down to look, within myself and other women, for what’s underneath the self-care conundrum.

As I began listening down into this deeper layer, I heard about “if only’s” and late night longings.

I heard feelings of being smothered by the weight of doing.

A sense of being separated from something more, something essential that we can’t quite name or put our fingers on.

And an almost unfathomable desire to collect our missing pieces and become whole.

Now, I suspect there’s another layer of self-care, rarely acknowledged or given voice to.

This deeper layer of self-care probably can’t be satisfied with a hot bath or a manicure or massage. In fact, I’ve come to categorize those things as the Pampering/Indulging kinds of self-care. All well and good, but not nearly enough.

And then, there’s the Doing/Wellness kinds of self-care that you hear about a lot. You know, eating nutritious food. Getting some exercise. Making it to bed at a reasonable hour. Going to the doctor and the dentist. Asking for help. Maybe even seeing a therapist or a coach. Also tremendously important.

But out beyond the self-care we know is another place: a Self-Care of Being With.

I hear it in the depths of women’s yearnings. I see it in my journal.

Perhaps you know what I’m talking about, and you’ve felt the ache too. You know what it means to hunger to be with…

  • stopping, resting, detaching from the pace
  • stillness, quiet, peace
  • letting your senses lead
  • daydreaming, imagining, reflecting
  • feeling deeply moved and touched
  • belonging, connection, interdependence
  • nurturing a spiritual or contemplative practice
  • nature, beauty, place, landscape
  • just simply being

This isn’t the self-care of a perfectly balanced life.

It’s more about uncovering new ways to give space to all the parts of ourselves, especially those we unconsciously push down.

It’s also about experimenting with the imaginal realm of symbol and metaphor, because we have so many more parts and potentials and stories to be with than we could ever live in day-to-day life, in the real world.

So no wonder self-care is hard.

This Self-Care of Being With asks us to round ourselves out by reuniting the separate parts of our humanity.

It asks us to be with all parts of ourselves.

This isn’t an easy task, to be sure. It’s pretty obvious we’re not very good at it.

Not only are we taught to strive, do, accomplish, go forward, take action, produce, make manifest, make money and externalize, but most of us live within a structure that validates and celebrates those things too.

To be sure, they are not bad things. But they do tend to leave little room for their opposites.

As challenging as it may be to make space for this deeper kind of self-care, I have a hunch that it’s essential, not just for bringing all parts of ourselves to the table of life. In fact, I actually suspect the Self-Care of Being With has the potential to make other kinds of self-care easier.

At least, that’s my new theory. For now. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it next time.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
-Rumi