Reframing 'Self-Care': A Mental Health Professional's Perspective
I was talking with my supervisor the other day about words or phrases that we need to ‘put on a shelf’ because people on social media are misusing them. Some of these included ‘gaslighting’, ‘boundaries’, and, fitting for this month, ‘self-care’. Self-care is one of those phrases that people throw around that I think can be misunderstood. There’s an idyllic vision of self-care being baking a loaf of bread with zero stress, or reading a book in a quiet spot. While these can - and are - effective ways of taking care of oneself, I’m not sure if it really exemplifies what self-care is to me, as a mental health professional.
Self-care, in my eyes, focuses on intentional relaxation and de-stressing. It involves setting time aside and asking yourself ‘what do I want to get out of this?’ Because I do enjoy baking and cooking and reading and going on walks, but those on their own are not sufficient to be self-care. It comes from relieving stress through those activities in conjunction with additional thoughts and actions. When I bake my great-grandmother’s mandelbrot recipe, as I knead the dough and count the cups of flour, I focus on my breathing. I work my stress out through my hands, and to me, that is self-care. Letting the day’s stress flow out through my actions.
This works for me, but it might not work for everyone. It might not work for you, reading this blog post right here. So what can you do to evolve your self-care routine? I’ve found it best to do something that moves your body or gets the blood flowing. In my screen-free week blog post a few months back I mentioned going outside and ‘touching grass’ - something that’s been drastically helping my own mental health by including it in my self-care routine. I focus on what I notice and sense as I walk; I notice how my muscles ache and stretch as I go to the gym.
Now this is not to diminish or devalue your self-care habits if you do find reading in a quiet corner to work as self-care - goodness knows, I spend a good deal of time in solitude reading. But in a way, humans are like plants. We need sunlight, either from the physical sun or from other people who brighten our lives. Therefore, I encourage you to find what gives you sunlight in your life. If you are part of a family or group of friends that enjoys interacting, come up with things that the family or group likes to do together - board games, a show, a sports game, anything, and make time to do it together. And when you’re in that moment, acknowledge your stress. You are trying your best, and I see that. Everyone can see that. So allow yourself the moment to breathe out your stress, and enjoy a state of being in the moment.
And then, when the next crisis occurs, take a breath, craft a genuine smile, and get to work on whatever will help. Then, when you next need a break to do some self-care, make it intentional. Give yourself the peace you need. You’ve got this.
Licensed Master Social Work