Self-care: The longest relationship you'll ever have
Something I often hear from clients is a confusion between self-care and selfishness. There seems to be a lot of uncertainty about these two very different concepts. In order to understand the difference, the example I like to give to clients refers to the airplane safety instructions you hear before every take off. "In the case of reduced oxygen, masks will drop down from above". The instruction is then for you to put on your own mask before helping others, even your own children. There never seems to be an explanation why, but when we stop and think about this, it makes so much sense. We can help many more people if we take care of ourselves first. What good would it do for the child if they survived the emergency, but the adult/parent did not? Is constant self-sacrifice really what we want to be giving to ourselves and teaching other people? While you may be made of wires and tubes, you are not a machine. Plus, you need and deserve oxygen just as much as the next person.
Another way of thinking about this is the adage of "You can't pour from an empty cup". How are you going to take care of someone else’s needs, if/when you are neglecting your own? So let's think about what self-care means to you. This has to be built in and prioritised within our everyday routine and structure. Whether this is going for a walk, mindfulness, meditation, listening to music, gardening, pausing to listen to birdsong, sports, hobbies, baking etc; basically anything you love to do.
In my experience, self-care is as much about preventing stress and maintaining our mental health, as it is about restoring it after the event. Only caring for yourself in times of trouble would be like putting the oxygen mask on after the plane has crashed. Self-care is like taking your mental health to the gym and actually taking care of yourself. It is empowering, necessary, and with regular practice, self-care will last you a lifetime. Selfishness is deliberately depriving others of their oxygen. If you are concerned only for yourself and your own happiness, above anyone else’s, that may well be considered selfish. So next time you’re questioning whether you are being selfish or self-caring, try to think about whether you are giving yourself oxygen, or taking it away.
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About Simon Littlejohn
Simon Littlejohn MSc MBACP is a qualified Integrative Counsellor working in private practice, as well as for a Children's Charity and the NHS.