Self-care sounds like a bit of a fluffy-sounding buzzword sometimes doesn’t it? Does it remind you of pink bath bombs and manicures and other weirdly ‘feminised’, consumer activities? If giving to others and being of service to the world are important values to you, does it waft a bit of selfishness or indulgence? I have nothing whatsoever against a good bath bomb and absolutely believe in the need to do relaxing things without guilt to decompress from the pressures of life (my hammock is one of my favourite possessions!), but let’s look a bit closer at the origins and power of ‘self-care’ because it is a crucial component of wellbeing. Perhaps understanding it is especially needed by many of us at the moment as we try and process both the ramifications of pandemic lockdown and the recent unmasking of systemic racial injustice -both on a horrifying, global scale. It seems like a good time to re-visit the concept.
Origins of the term:
The term, ‘self-care’, originated in the mid 20th century, first defined by Audre Lorde, an African American woman and writer/social activist who spoke with urgency about care of the self as survival in white supremacist patriarchy and systematized oppression. For her, it was about finding ways to live and even thrive within social structures which were set to crush personal and collective freedom and wellbeing. She said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation”. It was the opposite of a fluffy, self-indulgent notion.
Fast forward to 2020, the concept has been both trivialized and monetized, so it is now more about buying things and experiences that take the edge off our desperation. As a Grazia article a few years ago expressed well, “What’s the use in going to £15-a-pop Bikram yoga classes if you’re still carrying ridiculous workloads, enduring toxic relationships and trying to be everything and please everyone all of the time?” The reality is that activities like exercise classes do help very many people in tangible ways but self-care may also sometimes look like doing the hard, interior work of addressing our own exhaustion, unhealthy relationships or confused boundaries. Self-care is still often a radical act that requires courage and determination. The article finishes with a really startling point: “Ultimately, what we need instead of self-care is self-compassion. Compassion for yourself is the foundation for healthy boundaries, and it’s a far more radical, sustainable and cheaper method of self-care than anyone can ever sell you”.
So, let’s take a look at compassion as the basis for self-care. We sense the need to extend compassion to others, yes? If you are a person of faith you might feel deeply the compassion of God for you and the world. But how, honestly, do we feel about extending it inwards to our own selves as the foundation of self-care? Do we recognise our own precious identity as ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ with infinite care and love by God? When we read Psalm 139, there is an implicit call for us to treat our whole personhood with honour and kindness since God has created us with such love and with a kaleidoscope of possibility and potential. This feels like a biblical mandate for self-respect and care as well as similar value and compassion for all other human beings:
‘You formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvellously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord!
You even formed every bone in my body, when you created me in the secret place, carefully, skillfully shaping me from nothing to something. You saw who you created me to be before I became me!’
Self-care, rooted in compassion, acknowledges both our God-given potential and our human limitations. This feels important and solid and real. Compassionate self-care helps us live more sustainably within our physical and emotional means so we are more likely to experience greater wellbeing and be able to step forward into our potential. It directly aids flourishing. It doesn’t, of course, avoid tragedy or trauma but it helps us to navigate the difficult times with deeper kindness and self-awareness. It may be one tool that helps us in avoiding burnout.
A quick look at burn-out and self-care. It may be counter-cultural to say so, but there is nothing inherently heroic about burnout, it is not a badge of honour and it dramatically curtails our ability to be of service to others. But it can feel very difficult to dodge in the demands and pressures of 21st-century life. Poor sleep in the last three months has without doubt edged me a few notches closer to it. Maybe you feel you are being pulled towards burnout by the circumstances you find yourself in right now? You are not alone.
Could the eyes of compassion help us see our natural limitations as gifts not restrictions to fear; could compassion help us to accept our human vulnerability and nudge us towards practices and habits that would support our wellbeing better? Self-compassion might help us to proudly ‘go it alone’ less and instead ask for help when we need it, support one another and trust that collective effort is a powerful resource for humanity not an affront to our individualism? Understanding our own frailties without being shamed by them, being compassionate to ourselves and creating healthy boundaries create some robust internal scaffolding that supports our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing in powerful, tangible ways. In these ways self-care, fuelled by compassion, reaches right the way along the spectrum from bath bombs to freedom protests; it spans our interior life and our relationships with others – it reaches far and wide with wellbeing in its wake, helping us grow into our God-given potential. And avoid burnout.
There is an important side note to this, regarding self-sacrifice. Compassionate self-care doesn’t mean that we are scared to pour ourselves out in service, give to the world with our talents, time and other resources. It doesn’t make us strangers to self-sacrifice. Self-care just provides the necessary and rather beautiful balance that marries an instinct to give and serve with a deep honouring of the Divine image that we also carry. As it says in I Corinthians 3:16 in the New Testament: ‘Do you know you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’
It means we give generously, often sacrificially, from a place of rest and indentity as a precious, beloved child of God and His image-bearer, not an unthinking machine to be worked to an early grave, a device to be used and thrown away, a worker bee, a person with no agency or free will. If we see others used like that it should stir us to pray and act for justice and change. Self-care and the agency to make changes to protect it is a privilege not open to all – so when we understand that self-care can be near impossible for some because of rank injustice, that should be a catalyst to social action and prayer?
As Greg Mckeown says in his excellent book, Essentialism: “Choice and free will are at the centre of what it is to be human and we need to be clear and protective of that sense of agency.” Our self-giving and sacrifice should be a conscious, chosen offering of our resources to another, not crushed out of us by coercion, oppression or opportunism.
Philosophers (Tove Pettersen, Kalynne Pudner and others) have shed light on the dangers of unthinking, unrestrained self-sacrifice that actually often leads to the disempowerment of those helped, the opportunistic and exploitative over-taking of help offered, the diminishment of individual agency and free will, and the possibility of great loss and damage. Again, Greg Mckeown: “When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices – or even a function of our own past choices.” Pudner concludes, however, that there is a form of self-sacrifice that honours free will and agency. This is this idea of self-donation – gifting one’s efforts and resources to another person or cause freely and willingly in ways that our ‘purposive and self-affirming.
The way of Christ?
This seems to me to follow the way of Christ: costly, frequently sacrificial love offered not via coercion or manipulation but by the conscious, loving act of free will purposed towards the greatest good. The choices can be incredibly difficult and pressing but self-care asks us to temper the instinct to sacrifice with a deep awareness and honouring of both the Divine image and the human frailties God has woven together with exquisite creativity within each of us. I believe you were made in the creative sparks of Divine Love gifted with the dignity of free will. You matter profoundly to God and your choices to care compassionately for yourself as well as others also matter. Self-care and sacrifice – we live in the tension of both/and not either/or.