What is Self-Care as a coping strategy?
Self-care is intentionally doing and thinking things that:
- Help you feel better about yourself and your life
- Bring you joy, pleasure, comfort and / or humor
- Promote healthy mind, body, and spirit
- Reduce stress; calm anxiety; bring one back from flashbacks and panic attacks, etc.
Eventually, the doing and thinking also become believing. The more I practice self-care (and I am not that great at it), the more I believe I deserve the good things happening in my life. Self-care allows me to move forward with my plans and goals. It gives me time to decompress and relax so that I can rest and be ready for the next round of challenges. Self-care helps me maintain my energy and build reserves in case I need them.
Most important, practicing self-care improves my self-worth by showing me I can successfully take care of myself in spite of all of the internal and external challenges beyond my control.
How is the coping strategy different from regular, daily activities?
This is a question I and my parts constantly struggle with. Is sleeping at regular intervals self-care? Is doing laundry self-care? Is reading a book or watching a movie self-care? Is buying new clothes that fit properly, look nice, and keep me warm when I already have a bunch in my closet self-care? Is treating myself to an ice cream sundae self-care?
How and why? Aren’t these activities all daily, weekly, monthly or routine chores that need to be done in order to maintain a “normal” life?
The answer to this question came from a conversation with a hotline counselor last Friday. She told me that self-care as a coping strategy is more about intention than action. Then she gave me the following example: doing laundry is a regular chore everyone has to do at some point. But if I tell myself that I am doing laundry to take care of myself and make sure I have clean sheets to sleep on, I am practicing self-care. The difference is the intention behind the thought and action.
How do I practice self care?
Here is an example from my life: buying shoes is a scary, triggering chore. Almost every female in my blood family has some kind of shoe obsession or trigger. Some have hundreds of pairs they collect and never wear; only wearing the same shoes until they fall apart, but never getting rid of any. Others have only 3 or 4 pairs and look down on those who have more. Some have hundreds of pairs of shoes and wear them once or twice before “saving” them for a special occasion. The egg donor is part of the first group. And she never let me have many pairs of shoes, let alone comfortable ones, because that was competition against her.
Growing up, I avoided buying shoes as much as I could. Then I only bought ugly shoes she wouldn’t want so that she stopped stealing them from me. Also to avoid being made fun of by the sperm donor, blood sibling, and various other relatives. Drawing attention to myself was bad. The one time I did buy shoes I loved (2 pairs of knee-high, leather, winter boots) I absolutely loved, they were somehow destroyed in one season. And by destroyed, I mean unusable and had to be thrown out. It was around the time I still made regular trips to visit family and spend holidays with them. Hindsight tells me that during one or more of my “blackouts”, someone did something to them the same way the egg donor tormented my fish when I wasn’t around.
Fast forward to the present. I’ve been struggling with having to buy new shoes. it had been more than 2 years since I bought new shoes, and those had been orthotic-friendly, kind of ugly shoes I needed so that I wouldn’t hurt my feet worse during my commutes. The first two pairs I got were out of necessity because the previous shoes did not go with dresses or my current outfits. I did not consider them self-care and got really bad backlash from wearing them instead of returning them. The most recent 3 pairs I considered self-care and necessity. Self-care because I recently read a book that talked about how shoes need a rest between wears to dry out, relax, and re-shape themselves for the next wear. Having multiple pairs of shoes and rotating them during the week helps them last longer too.
As I write this post, I ask myself, does buying 2 pairs of shoes and 1 pair of boots meet my self-care criteria above? The shoes bring me pleasure and help improve my life because they are stylish and comfortable and not so expensive I broke my budget buying them. Answer: YES
And what about the intention behind this action? The intention was to take care of myself by buying comfortable shoes that looked good (to me), went with my personality, felt comfortable, and brought me pleasure whenever I happened to look down and see my feet Answer: YES
Challenges to practicing self-care
The voices in my head telling me I don’t deserve good things in life or that I am going to be punished for being happy among other things are some of the worst challenges. The parts of me that still live mostly in the past and are afraid to relax challenge self-care because they are suspicious of it. Certain thoughts and activities bring back floods of scary memories, so I and my parts avoid them until we are in a better place to cope with the aftermath of participating in those activities. Fear, uncertainty, lack of confidence, and shame also interfere with self-care. I am better at self-care than I used to be. And when I fail, I try to remember to have compassion for myself. After all, this is new to me and will take practice to get it right.
3 Ways to Start Practicing in spite of triggers and backlash
- Start small with something already part of the daily routine; make the intention behind the thought or action one of self-care – kind of like CBT where changing the feeling changes the thoughts and behaviors
- Be mindful when practicing. The goal is to experience positive feelings not negative ones. If at any time the action stops feeling good or like self-care, you can stop and try something else without feeling guilt or shame.
- Be prepared to experience triggers and backlash; they are part of the recovery process and (for trauma survivors in particular) re-learning self-care. I will tell you from personal experience that the triggers and backlash will lessen the more you practice. How much and when depends on you. Same goes for the intensity of triggers and backlash when you start this. Feeling safe and practicing in a safe environment reduces triggers and backlash significantly.