Blog Swap: Self-care – we have nothing to give when we are empty

Dr Carla Croft is clinical psychologist who practices in London. She specialises in seeing people who have psychology stress and physical illness, especially women during the milestones of life, tackling issues such as body awareness, fertility, pregnancy/post pregnancy and menopause. You can read more of her blogs on her website.

A client said recently an important thing she had discovered in our sessions was a new meaning for the concept of “self-care.” I agree with her – this is a person who has gone from putting others before herself (she was everyone’s rock!) to putting her own needs at centre stage.

But isn’t she just becoming selfish?

I know a lot of people will be asking this question. After all, isn’t it good to think of others and be as selfless as possible? Aren’t there enough self-centred people in the world?

Some very important self-care themes emerged from our self-care focused sessions and I have summarised them here:

Prioritising others by prioritising ourselves

One day years ago I was coming to the end of a ridiculously busy NHS clinic and had been working for hours without breaks. When I got to the final appointment I realised I was having a hard time concentrating. You can imagine there were lots of factors, but one concrete difficulty influencing my ability to focus was that I needed the loo! By the end of this type over-busy clinic, patients may meet a clinician who cannot even listen.

I think we can all look at this simple example and think about our own lives. Can a carer who has been looking after a loved one all day and night be a loving and strong presence for that ill person? Can a parent who has had no rest, no time to eat, no space, sustain a high level of quality parenting? Can a partner who has raced in from back-to-back work appointments, a busy tube journey, more evening work looming attend with patience to his/her loved one’s needs?

Perhaps it seems “selfish” to delay arriving home by stopping off at a yoga class. Perhaps it seems “selfish” to ask the children to stop speaking to you whilst you are in the loo. Maybe it seems selfish to go out shopping for a few hours and leave your ill loved one with an alternative carer.

I would like to suggest, however, that our very survival could depend on these acts of self-care. Ask yourself, whether or not you may be better at giving if you have taken the time to recharge your own battery? When we are empty, we in fact have absolutely nothing to share. I think airlines have it right when they say “Please apply your own oxygen mask first before trying to help others.” Perhaps caring for yourself is one of the least selfish things you could possibly do.

Self-care vs self-indulgence
When I start talking about self-care, my clients often become worried about another aspect. “It all just seems too self-indulgent,” they say. So then we have to get our dictionaries out. What is the definition of compassion? Being compassionate and loving towards ourselves does not mean giving in to our every whim. Self-love and care is about getting the balance right. It is not one thing or the other – it is both. Firstly, it is about having a system that includes space for regularly stopping to check in (saying hello to yourself) so you have an increased awareness of your own current needs; and, secondly, having a contract with yourself – giving yourself compassionate permission – to do everything you can to meet those needs.

What does this look like in practice?
I asked a few clients this month what self-care looks like in practice for them at the moment. They said caring for themselves means things like a warm bath, morning breathing exercises, time with family and friends, using support groups, regular exercise, keeping a thoughts journal and time with pets – all wonderfully healthy soothing and supportive activities. What I picked up on, though, as I asked more questions is that these people had put a few crucial ingredients in place before they arrived at these ideas:

– grounding practices to help “tune in” to decide what type of self-nourishment is needed in the moment
– the attitude that these things are an essential part of life (not luxuries!)
– the knowledge that these things are needed even more when we hit difficulty

So this month can you come up with a list of your favourite nourishing things that you have discovered over the years, but also give yourself permission and space to really put those things in place in your life?

I think the following poem perfectly illustrates what it feels like to really clear a space for self-care. We are only ready to give ourselves to the world when we have it.

by Martha Postlewaite

Do not try to serve
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is yours alone to sing
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to the world
so worthy of rescue.

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