As I walked out of the memorial service for my brother, Kacey, my grandmother grabbed my hand and stopped me. She stared at me intently and said, “Do something for you every day, you understand? Promise me.” She was clearly shaken, I could hear the concern in her voice. So, I promised. I knew that losing two grandsons – my brothers – to suicide just six months apart left her completely devastated and a little worried for the rest of our family. I’ve thought about this promise many times and wondered if I’ve upheld my end of the bargain.
For years now, I’ve been hearing others talk about self-care. “Don’t forget to take care of you!” or “It’s important to practice self-care right now…” people would say. But what does that really mean? Somewhere along the way, I came to understand self-care as treating myself. I would work hard or become stressed and overwhelmed and there it was, time for self-care! So, I’d eat a sweet treat or have a glass of wine. I would stay in bed when responsibility was calling, or watch shows and stay up too late. Ultimately, this made me feel worse than I did before. It’s not that treating yourself is a bad thing (sleeping in can be glorious!), but when we are “treating” more often than not, it becomes our way of life, not a special exception.
If treating yourself isn’t self-care, what is? Well, treating yourself can be self-care, if done in a way that betters you. But sometimes self-care is hard. Sometimes it is boring. Getting an annual doctor’s exam is self-care. Taking your prescriptions is self-care. Eating well, reducing your sugar, alcohol, nicotine or caffeine intake, going to bed early – all self-care. Seeing a therapist, spending time alone or with friends and family can all be self-care. As I learned from a wise professor recently, self-care can also mean taking care of yourself in the moment. It can mean reacting differently when something someone says offends or angers you. If you typically let it slide and stew about it all day, speaking up can allow you to move on after the interaction instead of it ruining your day. If you would typically explode and yell, self-care might mean that you learn to take a break and breathe before speaking so you can respond instead of reacting.
When it comes to self-care, there are many options and ways to practice. Whether you opt for a bubble bath, a game of basketball, or hitting the sack at 8:30, ask yourself, “Is this really going to help me feel better in the long run? Will it recharge me, or does it just feel better right now?” Indulging in a desire can feel good for the moment, but it often leaves us worse-off. Hold true to what you value, what will sustain you and what will energize you, not just what you feel like doing in the moment. Treating yourself is not as important or helpful as treating yourself well.