If you think that self-care is the latest ‘fad’, ‘trend’ or ‘buzzword’, you’re not alone. In recent years, the use of the term ‘self-care’ has been bandied about left, right and centre. It’s very much ‘on-trend’ – there are over 44,600,000 results for the search term on Google. Everyone and their dog seem to be talking about it. We’re being encouraged to take much better care of ourselves, by everyone and anyone.
But very much like mindfulness and gratitude, the teachings of self-care can be traced back in history. They’re not new terms, teachings or concepts; they make complete and utter sense. More so now than ever: our lives are busy, and we’re sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.
In fact, self-care has mindfulness as its foundation; you can’t care for yourself in the truest sense if you don’t understand what it is that you need, what it is that comforts you and nourishes you. Self-care requires you to become hyper-aware of how you feel all day, every day. Being hyper-aware of how you feel then helps you to make choices based on those feelings. The right choices for you; what it is that you need to do to help you to feel good, both in the long term and the short term. We’ve all been there – we’ve agreed to do something for someone and instantly regretted it, leading to us feeling resentful and fraught. Instead of that simple ‘no, sorry, I can’t’, we expend a tremendous amount of energy and headspace then trying to get out of it. In doing all of that, we’ve put that person’s expectations/needs/wants/dreams/approval above our very own. We’ve prioritised that person and slowly slipped down the pecking order of what/who is important, often without even realising it.
Despite what those pesky thoughts inside our heads tell us, self-care isn’t selfish.
In fact, when we become self-care ninjas, we have so much more to give others. When we put our needs first, it often has a positive effect on the things that really matter to us – our health, our relationships, our resilience, our work. The people who have a problem with you taking care of yourself are the problem.
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates understood the restorative power of self-care. He understood, too, the difference between self-care and self-interest. Two principles that are often confused.
There’s a misconception in our modern times that putting ourselves first is an act of selfishness and that we should aim to be as selfless as possible – undermining the restorative power of self-care. Just as a motor vehicle can travel further when fuelled by a full tank of fuel – the correct fuel – we can give more, be more and help more when our tanks are full. Self-care allows us to be the very best version of ourselves, which in turn allows us to properly care for those around us. It facilitates our contribution to society in a way that aligns with our values (not because we feel we ought to, but because we have identified the things that matter to us, and want to help make a difference).
When we act from a place of self-interest, we’re often focused on what we can ‘have’ rather than what we can ‘be’. More often than not, we find ourselves in sticky situations which test our values to the max; motivated to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, placing more kudos on the letters after a person’s name than who they are as a person, and focusing on short-term fulfilment at the expense of our long-term happiness.
Actions do speak louder than words, and when our actions are those of care, we show others how we would like to be treated but also teach them how to care for themselves.
This is what Socrates would refer to as the ‘chain of care’ – in practising self-care you teach others around you to do the same.
‘Care of the soul’ and ‘know thyself’ are believed to be the very first teachings about the concept of self-care as we know it today, and are woven throughout the ‘Socratic way of life’.
It is through the works of Plato that we are given an understanding of Socratic ethics and an insight into how to apply them in our modern-day lives.
In Plato’s Alcibiades I, we first hear about ‘care of self’ (epimeleia heautou) in some detail. The term comes about when exploring the question, ‘What is the self that the self must care for?’ The answer: ‘Taking care of oneself will be to take care of the self insofar as it is the “subject of” a certain number of things: the subject of instrumental action, of relationships with other people, of behaviour and attitudes in general, and the subject also of relationship to oneself.’
What this means is that when we take care of ourselves, we are embodying decisive and conscious action. Self-care also includes the relationships we have with other people (and our boundaries within those relationships), behaving in a way that aligns with who we truly are and treating ourselves with the attention, kindness and respect we deserve.
It is also in Plato’s Alcibiades I that Socrates builds the case for the importance of self-knowledge. There is a famous inscription on the wall of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which says ‘gnōthi seautón’ – know thyself.
It is only in knowing ourselves that we can care for ourselves effectively. We need to know who we are – our principles, values, ethics and morals – establish our boundaries and explore how certain decisions and activities make us feel, and then be disciplined to discover why we may feel or react in that way.
According to Socrates, ‘care of self’ and to ‘know thyself’ are fundamental principles regarding the healthy relationship we have with ourselves, and others. In taking care of ourselves and knowing ourselves, we reduce the risk of harming others because we become more aware of our boundaries, means and potential. He believed that knowing ourselves allows us to save ourselves and to explore new approaches to living.
It’s not an angle that we often consider, but by not partaking in self-care, we are partaking in self-neglect, as passive as that may be. The scary thing is that we don’t mean to neglect our needs, but we do so all the same. We’re not committing to ourselves in the short term and long term, which can only lead to one thing – we’re cruising down the highway to catastrophe for our health: mental and physical.
Extract from The Self-Care Project: How To Let Go Of Frazzle And Make Time For You by Jayne Hardy, published by Orion Spring.