I frequently hear people describing “luxury” activities, such as getting a manicure or buying things for themselves, as “self-care.” Often it’s said jokingly, but I get the sense that many people do not really know what self-care is. Sure, self-care may usefully incorporate some luxurious activities. But that’s really not what it’s about. Self-care is simply doing for yourself what a very good parent would do for you, to the best of your ability. And a good parent would make sure your needs were met. Every day.
We learn what we live. If you grew up in a chaotic, dysfunctional, or abusive household, you may not have received a complete template for what a good parent does. If that is the case, then you have had a long time to practice not treating yourself very well. The only way to retrain yourself in that skill is the way you develop any other skill–by practicing. So here are some things a good parent would do for their child that you can practice doing for yourself:
A good parent would make sure you had a regular bedtime and enough sleep, maybe even a nap when you’re feeling cranky or sick. They would make sure you were getting enough nutritious and enjoyable foods. They would make sure you bathed, brushed your teeth, and had clean clothes. They would make sure you had some time to run around outdoors. They would make sure you got medical care.
Do you do those things for yourself? Or do you make yourself operate on too little sleep and put off eating until you’re drooping? Do you treat meals like sins or punishments instead of necessary and pleasant events? Do you treat exercise like a penance for eating? Do you ignore illnesses and injuries until they are simply unbearable?
A good parent would arrange for playtime with nice friends, and would limit time spent with those who were mean to you. A good parent would comfort you when you were sad or afraid, listen when you were angry, and share your happiness. A good parent would maintain healthy boundaries: they would allow you to have your own feelings and not make you responsible for theirs.
Do you do those things for yourself? Or do you spend more time with unpleasant people out of obligation, and less time with people who are good to be around? Do you dismiss your feelings, swallow your sadness, minimize your anger, ignore the importance of your joy? Do you call yourself stupid for having a feeling? Do you take responsibility for making sure things are okay for everyone around you, even if it means you are unhappy?
A good parent would encourage your interests, your curiosity, and your work habits, and would help you develop your talents. A good parent would also give you adequate unstructured time to relax between all that working and practicing.
Do you do those things for yourself? Or do you dismiss your interests as silly or insignificant? Do you put off necessary tasks repeatedly? Do you tell yourself that your talent for sewing, mechanics, dancing, writing, music, art, is unimportant and not worth practicing? Do you always forgo pleasurable, enriching, or relaxing activities in favor of your to-do list or more work hours, even when you have some free time?
One of the tasks of adulthood is to re-parent ourselves, which really means developing the habit of self-care. If you want to feel better and function better, start the practice of becoming your own very good parent.