The Self-Care Myth

I am very excited today to share a guest post by Stephanie Small, a Licensed Social Worker and holistic nutritionist who is one of my favorite and most inspiring local helpers in the field of healing from disordered eating!  I met Stephanie several months ago for coffee and we had an invigorating chat about what causes binge eating, what does the process of recovery really look like, and so much more.  Stephanie and I have both recovered from eating disorders and share a similar philosophy in helping our clients find their own path to healing and we decided to “guest write” on each other’s blogs (check out my post on her blog “The Surprising Reason You Don’t Feel Confident in Your Body“)  Please read on to explore her musings on “The Self-Care Myth”:

 

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Hands up if you’ve heard repeatedly about the importance of self-care for healing!

Hands up if the thought of fitting in “bubble bath”, “journaling” and “calling a friend” x number of times per week totally stresses you out, and feels like just one more thing to add into an already overwhelmingly busy life!

You’re not alone. And by the way, that’s not what self-care is about. Let me explain:

Last spring, I raised the topic of self-care to a Women’s Emotional Eating group. Instantly, I felt resistance. Members started to shift around in their seats and make reluctant faces.

“What’s the deal?” I asked.

“I think we all know about self-care already,” offered one of the group members.

“….And it feels like just one more thing to do?” I asked.

“YES!” said several of the members. Others nodded vigorously.

“Let me bust a GIANT myth for you,” I said. “Self-care is NOT about taking a bubble bath, getting a massage, indulging in a pedicure, breathing deeply, practicing your piano, or anything else off some list. Well, let me re-phrase that. It CAN be any of those things. Here’s what self-care actually IS, though – It’s giving yourself whatever you need IN THAT MOMENT.”

Some women looked quizzical. Others looked relieved.

“So in other words, it’s not doing thirty minutes of some activity that sounds nice. It doesn’t really have anything to do with that. It has to do with tuning in, sensing what you need, and giving that to yourself. Do you see what I mean?”

Some women started to nod.

“Here’s the thing with this – and this is really important – self-care IS self-care BECAUSE it’s about giving yourself what you need,” I explained. “Say you’re upset. And what you really, really need to do is cry. Or scream! But you’re not used to tuning in to your body and sensing your needs that way. Or maybe you know that you need to cry or scream, but you don’t give yourself permission to do it. So instead, you take a bubble bath. Well, how effective do you think that bubble bath is going to be in helping you to feel better?”

“Not very,” said one woman.

“Right,” I said. “That is why it’s crucial to learn how to listen to your internal experience. If you’re journaling when you really need to be kickboxing and imagining your boss’s face, or if you’re getting a pedicure when your body is just crying out for the relaxation of a bath, it’s not really self-care.”

“That feels so much more manageable, rather than just ticking off items from a list,” another woman said.

“Yeah,” I said, “and the other piece about that is time. If you’re really tuning in and giving yourself what you need, yes, you may need to spend a half an hour or more, or you may find that a few moments of compassionate attention to your insides can be enough to feel relief.”

That particular Women’s Emotional Eating Group lasted for eight weeks. During the last session, each participant spent time talking about what they would take away from the group. And most mentioned this exchange.

Learning to identify your needs, by the way, is not an intellectual process. It comes from developing a relationship with your body’s signals and cues, and then honoring what it has to say.

Here’s a very simple way to start to explore this process:

The next time you’re feeling off – agitated, sad, worried, angry – find somewhere quiet to sit, close your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Then pose the question “what do I need right now?” Imagine saying it to yourself, rather than thinking about it. If you give it some time (or it may occur very quickly!) an image may arise, or you may feel suddenly drawn to a particular activity. In this case, you’ll know you’re on the right track as long as it’s not a compulsive activity that medicates feelings. If nothing in particular arises, try offering yourself some options, and sense into how your body feels when you imagine each one. If, upon imagining one or more, you get a sense of relaxation or “rightness” or satisfaction, you’ve got a good place to start.

 

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Stephanie Small is a psychotherapist and holistic nutritionist (and recovering sugar addict) who helps her clients boost their mood and transform their relationship with food. She also offers online programs, writes, blogs and speaks at live events. She received her BA from Yale University, her MSW from Smith College for Social Work, and her Holistic Nutrition Educator Certificate from Bauman College. She is a licensed clinical social worker in the state of Colorado, and has a private practice in Boulder, CO and via Skype. Her website is www.stephaniesmallhealth.com.

3 Responses to “The Self-Care Myth”

  1. Amen, Stephanie Small! I get annoyed as a therapist when I hear people talk about “self-care” — and agree with you 100%…self-care is really tending to the moment in real time. Today, when I felt panicked after an unnerving call with my attorney (I swear, they are TRAINED to breed fear!), I laid under a tree and breathed…just breathed in the air, watched the leaves…it felt like “Stop, Drop, and Roll” self-care. Thanks for the post!

  2. Hi Jenny! Thanks for stopping by. I totally agree with you and with Stephanie — self care can’t be “proscribed” in a generic manner…it really has to come from what you need at that exact moment, or else it can just add more stress! I like how Stephanie tied in the connection to the body and listening to its responses/needs as well. Cool stuff!