It seems like every time I see a post about self-care, it’s telling me that I’ve misunderstood it or I’m doing it wrong. My favorite is when they say “self-care isn’t about bubble baths!” What do people have against bubble baths? (Misogyny, probably.)
But if you look closely, people are mainly alternating between saying that self-care is about self-indulgence, and saying that self-care is about being healthy and responsible.
So, which is it?
Two kinds of self-care
Well, it’s both.
The “self-indulgent” kind of self-care is reactive. When you’re stressed, tired, or upset, reactive parts of you, well, react to that state and help bring you back to baseline.
This kind of self-care includes things like:
- resting, sleeping, or taking a break
- watching entertainment
- relaxing with friends
- eating and drinking
- caring for your body with a massage or, yes, a bubble bath
- exercising out your stress and letting the endorphins flow
The “responsible” kind of self-care is proactive. Proactive parts of you help you avoid getting stressed out or upset in the first place.
This kind of self-care includes things like:
- sticking to your bedtime and sleep hygiene
- doing enough work now so that it won’t pile up and stress you out later
- eating healthy, meal planning
- caring for your body in ways that aren’t immediately rewarding, like flossing and going to doctor’s appointments
- exercising because you know it’ll make you feel better later
It’s not true that one of these is the “right” kind of self-care and the other is the “wrong” kind. We need both! And we need them in balance.
With too much reactive self-care, you can end up in a vicious cycle, where your methods of soothing yourself create more havoc later than then need more soothing. My friend Sophie wrote about how reactive self-care can be harmful instead of caring, by allowing you to avoid issues that you actually need to face.
In Western culture, we tend to think that proactive self-care is the solution to this problem. We get the idea that proactive methods are healthier, maybe even more moral, than reactive methods. But proactive self-care can become harmful, too. No amount of planning will keep your body in perfect homeostasis all of the time, so reacting to stress levels is necessary.
But the problem isn’t just about maintaining perfect homeostasis, is it? It’s about being human. Being spontaneous, doing things just for fun, relaxing. Too much proactive self-care can burn you out.
Even when we acknowledge that we need some of each kind of self-care, we tend to seek that balance with our proactive parts.
This is when self-care becomes a stressful topic you need to “get right” instead of a relaxing, nourishing practice. With a proactive part in charge, you try to figure out the right self-care routine analytically instead of by listening to your body and your needs. But your body isn’t a spreadsheet or a tax return; it’s not the kind of thing you can care for effectively by thinking really hard.
You don’t need to painstakingly calculate this balance, and you certainly don’t need to learn it from social media influencers.
Instead of letting your gears grind on the decision of how to do self-care, you can help all of your parts relax enough that you can feel what your body really needs.
This is like doing non-violent communication (NVC) inside of you. In NVC, we learn that creative problem-solving is easiest when we let go of our favorite strategies for meeting our needs and attend to the needs directly.
So instead of trying to find balance between the reactive part of you that says “after a day like this, I need a pint of ice cream” and the proactive part of you that says “no, eat something healthy,” you can sink into the needs that those parts are trying to meet. The reactive part might be trying to soothe your pain after an argument, and the proactive part might be trying to help you avoid a sugar crash.
When you can non-judgmentally appreciate both parts for their attempts to help, and just feel your needs in your body, you often get intuition about what the best way forward is for you in that specific situation. It may come in the form of ice cream! Or you might realize that what you really need is to confide in a friend about that argument.
Try it yourself
When I work with clients’ parts, they often end up asking for something incredibly healthy, even if at first they seemed like bad influences. I love seeing the wisdom that comes out when people really listen to their bodies.
So I wanted to give you a way to try it on your own. Try this exercise for helping your parts relax enough to let you focus on your needs, and let me know how it goes!
Photo by Sebastian Voortman