Are you putting in as much as life is taking out this week?

What do we mean when we talk about resilience and self-care?


The term "self-care" has probably never been more popular or widely used, but I’m always curious as to how people understand it. Talking to some of my clients it often seems to conjure images of celebrity Instagram accounts or beauty industry influencers.

And while those sorts of activities are absolutely valid and valuable forms of physical self-care for lots of people, from the point of view of health and well-being (both physical and mental) it encompasses a lot more than that.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as "the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote their own health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker."

Dry and technical as it might be, I think it’s a really valuable and interesting framing and should get us thinking about how we look after ourselves in a couple of ways that often get missed or neglected.

The first is that it’s talking about our capacity not just to cope with or prevent ill health or disease, but to actively promote and maintain health and well-being. So the sky’s the limit – we can look at self-care less as 'break glass in case of emergency' routines for fire-fighting problems or to turn to when we’re already exhausted, and more in terms of being as well as we can be as much of the time as we can.

The second is that the people doing the caring can be individuals - which is how I think we tend to imagine it - but also communities or families. That applies to any kind of group or team, whether that’s in a therapeutic setting, a professional one, a recreational one; I don’t think it matters. They all can be (but aren’t necessarily) hugely important and supportive. So we’re not in this by ourselves, and it can be useful to look at how the groups and communities in our lives are nourishing or draining us, and if we need to make any changes.

We all need to become experts in our own care and well-being.

My clients often come to realise that some of their behaviours might have started as efforts towards to self-care (self-soothing is another helpful term) which might have worked to start with but which have come to backfire. That kind of ‘problematic coping’ is probably something most of us can relate to, whether or not we have difficulties with addictive behaviours.

They also become experts in how to look after themselves as they move forwards in recovery, a process that is a complete joy to witness.

Which is how we end up at resilience and the link between the two. There are lots of definitions, but it basically describes our ability to respond positively and adapt to challenges, risks or threats.

Too often we think of resilience – in ourselves or others – as a fixed quantity or characteristic: "he or she is just so resilient", we say. But it doesn’t really work like that. It’s more like a learning process or a competency that can (and does) fluctuate over time for all of us.

Crudely, think about our ability to respond to challenges as a bank balance, or the level of liquid in a container. Difficult stuff (work, relationships, physical health etc.) makes demands on us and reduces our resources. Self-care, framed broadly, tops them back up.

If we are consistently losing more than we’re replacing, levels run low and we end up at a much higher risk of ill health of all kinds. We burn out. We’ll also likely be having a miserable time of it along the way.

The point here is that no one can do that indefinitely, whatever level of resilience they start with. A consistent deficit will catch up with us eventually. So we need to be asking ourselves: "Am I putting in as much as life is taking out this week or this month?"

Avoiding that process of burnout depends on being able to reflect on learning from our experience, to identify what our current levels are like and what to do about it, and what works for us. 

Simple, but not easy. It’s often not as intuitive as it sounds, which is where support from a professional can help, whether that’s for a specific difficulty or in a less intensive setting at work. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE5 & EC1R
Written by Dom Merchant, MBACP, AP ADAP
London SE5 & EC1R

Dom Merchant is a cognitive therapist based in London and online. He specialising in helping people with addictive behaviours of all kinds. He can also help with anxiety, depression and stress-related concerns and runs workplace workshops on resilience, self-care and wellbeing.

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