Does the term self-care feel a bit icky to you? It’s used so broadly it had no meaning to me and conjured up images of Instagram ads for skin products. The idea behind it makes perfect sense: I care for my children, pets, friends, home … and for myself. But are skin products or having wine and popcorn for dinner while watching Netflix really caring for myself? Sort of. Sort of not. I was stuck on that ambivalence for a long time.
Along came this brilliant piece by Deanna Zandt (https://blog.usejournal.com/the-unspoken-complexity-of-self-care-8c9f30233467), shared by a friend who wanted to talk about the importance it puts on community and structural care as parts of the puzzle. [Zandt’s ideas about that are spot on – have a read, and we can chat about it if you like; it influenced my work in a non-profit and made me realize the limits of my own self-care.] AND, the article solved my sort of / sort of not dilemma, with the simple distinction between self-soothing and self-care.
These are both vital parts of staying healthy and happy, but the main difference (to me) is that it’s only self-care that leads to growth. It’s self-care that moves me forward to a place where I don’t need as much self-soothing.
What’s the difference?
Some definitions, though there are soft, permeable gray lines around all of this, no need to overthink the details:
Self-soothing describes activities that distract me or make me feel better in the moment. Examples (for me, this is one big ‘you do you’ exercise) are: scrolling down random internet rabbit holes, washing dishes in a big sink full of warm sudsy water, drinking, spending the day in pyjamas, crossword puzzles, writing with a juicy fountain pen. I could go on and on.
In fact, that’s what I learned from reading and reflecting on Zandt’s article. I do a LOT of self-soothing. Sometimes, I’m flustered or overwhelmed or hurt or irritated. I need to soothe myself. Often those situations are temporary or unsolvable, so my actions aren’t about the issue at hand, they’re simply about noticing my own state and working more gently through the feelings I’m having.
Other times, it’s a first step towards productive action – my vision of the way forward is cloudy and soothing my nerves will bring me to calm clarity, and I will see where I want to go.
And sometimes the soothing is saying f*ck it and doing something I know is ‘bad’ for me. I used to do a lot more of this: I think it came out of insecurity, not knowing who I was and rebelling against who my family and society was telling I was supposed to be. I wanted to be the kind of person who doesn’t take herself too seriously – drinks too much, eats crap, parties hard. Except I do rather like going to bed early, so the partying stopped a long time ago. And the drinking messed with my sleep, not to mention my wallet. So now I’m a person who gets great sleep and still eats crap more than I’d like. I’m bingeing less on food (shout out to Julie deRohan) and I still don’t take myself seriously.
Anyway, whether it’s curling up under a purring cat and re-watching Legally Blonde, staring out a window at work (my god I wish I had a window at work), or drinking, there’s a place for self-soothing. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that.
Self-care moves me forward. It underlies everything else. It’s not just something to do in response to a passing mood – it’s the habits, routines, and activities I build into my everyday life to feed the inner glow of my body and soul. It’s yoga each morning, eating food to energize me, sleeping lots, chatting with my kids, walking alone in the woods, saying no to things I don’t want to do, appreciating the sky each morning. It’s writing.
All of these things, and many more, help me feel solid and help me grow from that base, blossoming into the most delicious version of myself.
I come out of self-care activities not only feeling better, but also feeling better about myself. I’ve taken a step in an intentional direction, living the life I want to lead. It contrasts with when I’m acting out of rebellion, firing off in all directions, scattered and not getting anywhere. There’s a sense of future to self-care. What can I do now, today, to help me be where I want to be tomorrow?
The point of Zandt’s article was that self-soothing and self-care aren’t enough on their own, we need to take care of each other, too.
I’ve had times where I thought I was taking good care of myself, but I also felt stuck – maybe it was self-indulgence, or constant self-soothing I was doing, and nothing deeper was changing.
A year or two ago, I developed a taste for non-alcohol beer and thought it was perfect. I’d get home from work, *need* a beer and be satisfied by cracking open a cold one. I’d enjoy it, then get on with my evening with a clear head, so clever. Except it didn’t feel all that much different than coming home and having a real beer – it didn’t affect my sleep the way real booze does, but otherwise, there was still a sense of dissatisfaction. I didn’t know why.
When I read the article, it became obvious. I was soothing myself, every single day, with my clever fake beer. Maybe … I could care for myself differently so that I didn’t need soothing every time I walked in the door from work. Needing a beer, fake or not, was a sign to attend to, to notice. Now when I leave work, I eat an apple on my walk home and my body feels less needy when I walk in the door, nice bit of self-care.
But I’m still usually in a crummy frame of mind after work, and an apple a day isn’t going to keep that away. So, I also made plans to move on from my demanding job in the years ahead, with supports from the world around me. The part about my job (ironically) that I enjoy the most is that I can help put supports in place to help others as well.
Noticing and addressing the underlying issues is the best care of all. (Though staying in pyjamas all day is a close second.)