Frequently derided as "Today I did 'self-care' and lit a bunch of candles while I drank wine in the bubble bath!" it's more properly understood to include things like "I made a doctor's appointment for my ongoing health concern," or "I cleaned my bathroom!"
It's important to ask yourself, though: Is my approach towards self-care about building a long-term healthy and sustainable lifestyle or is it a coping mechanism I use to put off making real change?
I used to take a LOT of 'mental health days'. I'd wake up just too demoralized and stressed to go to work, and call in sick. I wasn't lying; I was legitimately dealing with exhaustion and depression that meant I was not fit to do my job that day.
The mental health days themselves were a way of staving off burnout. After crashing and burning at a couple of truly terrible jobs, I'd given myself permission to just...not go sometimes. It was a huge step for me. After a couple of years of this, I learned that taking regular scheduled breaks, in the form of vacations or even just the occasional day off, decreased the number of unscheduled mental health days I was taking, and I thought for a long time that meant I had a handle on the problem of having a frustrating and unfulfilling job.
Eventually, though, a friend asked, "What if you didn't spend roughly a third of your life on something that it exhausts you emotionally to do, to the point that you have to build in escapes from it to keep it from destroying you?"
That question jump-started something in my head, and not just related to employment. What if, I asked myself, I started trying to build a life where self-care wasn't about staving off crises, it was about getting better all the time?
Fundamentally, when most people talk about it, they frame their self-care as *reactive*: "I finally tackled the dishes that have been building up because I was too exhausted to wash them for two weeks." "I canceled all my plans and stayed in tonight because I've been overscheduled for a year now." "I wrote a budget because I keep running out of money for bills." Something has happened, something is wrong, and even if you're acting before the complete crisis happens, maybe you're acting because you know that if you don't take action on a rising problem the crisis will trigger. We do self-care because we are treating some element of ourselves as inherently broken and in need of deliberate remedy.
We run a script in our heads where our natural inclinations are at odds with the lives we are living, and harmful to the lives we want to have, and build in self-care to cover the differences between who we are and the space we're trying to hold in the world. It becomes an act of self-preservation, what we do to realign our lives with where they 'should be' when the gears start to slip.
What if, instead, we looked for places for *proactive* self-care? What if we looked for ways to try and bring our lives into alignment with our natural inclinations? What if we looked for ways to make our self-care acts of self-evolution or self-healing instead?
Now, when I find myself triggered to create reactive space for self-care, some part of that process includes questions:
- Why was this necessary?
- Is there a pattern I can change to make this unnecessary in the future?
- Is there something about my LIFE I can change to make this unnecessary in the future?
- How can I honor who I really am and what I really want here?
I will always give myself permission to do what I need to do for my own mental and physical health, but I also hold myself accountable for what creates that need. I'm a complex person with a lot of flaws and assets, and I need to be real with myself about it. I'm never going to get rid of Traitor Brain, because that bitch is part of how my psyche is wired, but I can own up to that by building a life where she has less power.
Immediate change isn't accessible to everyone, and I would never suggest that it is. Even accessible change can take months or years and require support from friends and family. I myself often struggle with some changes I should make. But if you keep finding yourself needing to react to forestall crisis by actively shifting your focus to yourself, don't you owe it to yourself to find out why you don't build enough proactive focus on your own needs *into your existing life* in the first place?
The easiest way to find out if your self-care is reactive or proactive is to look for the 'because'. Is your 'because' about catching up to some part of your life that's not well-structured for you, or is your 'because' about habits and patterns that will make your life as a whole better?
Here's the hard truth a lot of people don't want to face: reactive self-care will always eventually fail you: it never solves the problem. You will just keep putting band-aid after band-aid on to mitigate the bleeding, but not heal the wound. Someday you won't get the fix in time, and you'll spin out into crisis and then probably beat yourself up for a failure you set up in the first place.
Reactive self- care feels great and healthy in the short term, and it can REALLY help you feel like you've got your shit together if your traditional MO has been more 'go until you crash and burn', but if you want to keep your shit together for the long term you've eventually got to face up to essential truths about who you are, what you want, what you need, and your responsibility to yourself.
You can even light some candles, pour some wine, and think about it in the bubble bath if you want.