Rethinking self-care as thought-care

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

angle statue holding a heart and looking in mirror at herself Photo credit: © 2006 Viri G, Flickr used via CC-BY-ND licensing

Self-care is a big topic these days, and it's one that deserves attention. Learning to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness helps us to have more to give, so we are better able to treat others with the same compassion and kindness. Our world can surely use all of the kindness and compassion it can get!

All too often, though, I read articles that equate self-care to giving ourselves treats. In fact, a search on Flickr for self-care to find an image for this post produced mostly images of spas, salons, manicures, pedicures, and massages.

As much as I enjoy all of those things and even think they can be good self-care in the right situations, most of the time I find good self-care to be much more prosaic. In fact, sometimes good self-care looks a lot like work.

What matters more than the particular action we choose as self-care are the thoughts behind why and how we choose that particular action.

The challenge of good self-care

The conscious challenge most of us face when it comes to practicing good self-care is learning to look beyond the demands and expectations of others to make choices that truly honor our own needs, but there's a deeper level just below that one that often trips us up unawares.

As I carefully tune in to listen to my own needs in a given moment, I am often confronted with different parts of me that value different choices.

What looks like self-care in that moment to one part of me is anti-self-care to another part of me. Or what feels good in the moment might not serve me well longer term.

What does self-care mean in a moment like that? Which part of myself gets the care?

How do choose self-care that honors all parts of myself with kindness and compassion?

The french fry dilemma

Let me give you a recent example. I was driving home from work one day a bit later than usual, and I was hungry enough to eat anything in sight.

I drive by a Burger King on the way home, and one part of me was all for stopping to get french fries.

Another part of me was equally insistent that I needed to save my money and eat the healthier leftover vegetable, bean, and pasta salad I had at home that soon going to go to waste if I didn't finish it.

The inner conflict quickly escalated with the french-fry-advocating part of myself resembling a toddler in full tantrum mode and the french-fry-denying part of myself lecturing in a harsh, self-judgmental voice.

It would have been easy in that moment to use "self-care" as an excuse to buy the french fries that my hungry tummy so desperately wanted, but I chose a new approach.

I've learned that most of my cravings are not really for the thing which I think I crave in the moment, but rather for something beneath that. So I first addressed my "child" self in the midst of her tantrum with as much kindness as I could muster: "What is it you really want, Sweetie?"

Sure enough, what that part of me really wanted was warm food (which the pasta salad was not) and some salty food—and fast!

When I checked in with my "adult" self, I remembered how bad I often feel about myself after the fact when I mess up my carefully planned budget (which was very tight at that moment) and when I wind up throwing away food.

Self-care in this situation wound up meaning the addition of some hot toast with melted butter and some salty sunflower seeds to the pasta salad to get something warm and some salt in a quickly prepared meal at home. This negotiation left both parts of myself feeling heard and treated with compassion.

No lectures. No forcing. No judgment. No shoulds. Just kindness for myself in the moment and for my future self who would have to deal with the consequences. That's what made it good self-care.

The practical side of self-care

This small incident made quite an impression on me because it highlighted the difference self-kindness can make even when I'm choosing something that looks like discipline.

The fact is that good self-care isn't always a treat; sometimes it involves making responsible choices that are going to be the best care for me in the long run.

Sometimes this means pushing myself to do some work that I really don't feel like doing (like cleaning my house!) because I know that ultimately I will feel so much better for having the job done that it will be more than worth the effort it took to do it.

Despite the fact that letting myself prop my feet up and read a good book would feel SO much better in the moment, good self-care involves the ability to look at the look at the bigger picture to consider what is in my best self-interest in the long run.

The key is that I choose from a place of care and kindness for my future self such that my current self feels good about the choice, even if it's something I don't really feel like doing—whether that's resisting a temptation, getting an unpleasant chore done, or having a difficult (but necessary) conversation.

This is a very, very different thing than pushing myself out of a sense of "should" as a taskmaster. This is doing an unpleasant chore for someone I love because I know it will make her happy to have it done.

Only that someone I love in this case is me.

The importance of thought-care

And that points out what I think might be the most crucial part of my revised self-care program—something I have started calling thought-care.

The very same chore that is onerous when I'm doing it because I'm bullying myself into it can become self-care when I approach it from a place of self-love that is looking out for my highest good.

The only difference is in the way I think about it. My self-talk is radically different in the two situations, and that makes all the difference in the world.

I am much more productive and happy when I approach my work and my chores from a place self-talk that reflects self-love than when I do the exact same things with self-talk that is self-bullying.

There are absolutely times when my self-care still involves treating myself to a bit of pampering, a nap, a lazy few hours lost in a good book, or even some french fries, but my self-care is starting a little more often to take the form of chores accomplished, healthier food choices, more activity (aka exercise), and long-avoided items from my to-do list completed—not because I'm bullying myself into these choices, but because I love treating myself to the sense of accomplishment they bring!

And you know what? This new form of self-care feels like the most loving and compassionate kindness I've ever shown myself, despite the extra work involved ... and it all comes from changing how I think and the self-talk that produces.

What does self-care look like for you? Does your self-talk reflect more self-love or more self-abuse? What might you change in your thought-care to practice better self-care?

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