May is mental health awareness month, so I thought I would take the opportunity to focus today’s post on mental health. As a mental health counselor, I often talk to my clients about the importance of self care. And when I say often, I talk about it so much to the point that they are ready for their reply of how they will take care of themselves until our next meeting. Often self care is the first thing to go out the window when we experience a disruption in our emotional balance, but that is when we need it the most.
Self care looks different for every body. For me, it’s practicing yoga, writing in my journal, and prepping my meals for the week. It may look like taking a nap on Sunday afternoon (like I just did!), or spending Friday night inside on the couch instead of out with friends. It’s taking my dog on a long walk in the morning or meeting up with a loved one for dinner. It’s hiking on a gloriously sunny day, or not checking my work emails when I’m not actually working (still working on this one!). It’s reading a book with a cup of hot tea. It’s baking cookies just for the heck of it.
The point is, there are a myriad of ways to practice self care. But there are some ingredients that are essential for this self care to stick. These are empathy and self compassion.
These come up a lot in the work I do with my clients. What do they mean? And why are they important?
“But I’m convinced that empathy is more powerful than hate and that our lives should be dedicated to making it go viral” (Ebrahim, 2014).
According to Webster’s dictionary, “empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). I have always said that empathy makes the world go round. It’s so important. It allows us to connect to others as if we were experiencing what they are, too. It helps us understand motives, ideas, and feelings. So how do we practice empathy? I always suggest listening to listen, not to reply. Often we will listen to others with the thoughts in our head of what am I going to say when they stop talking. We put a lot of stress on the importance of saying the “right” thing to someone we care about. But often times, they just need someone to listen and acknowledge. Next time you find someone telling you something important, listen to listen. Instead of saying “Oh, that sounds hard. Maybe you should try this…” say, “Oh, man. That sounds like that was really tough for you. I’m sorry you experienced x, y, and z” or whatever. When we paraphrase what someone else has said to us, it shows we truly listened and helps validate their experiences. Try it sometime! I bet you’ll be surprised by the results.
What do you think would happen if we practiced this concept with ourselves? If you took the time to stop and think: “What’s really happening here? What am I feeling? Why am I feeling this way?” It seems like it would open a lot of doors for us to treat ourselves with kindness.
Self compassion is tough. I find that my clients have a hard time practicing this one, and I’m constantly reminding them to give it a go. Honestly, though, I have a hard time with this one, too. It’s hard to treat ourselves with compassion, but with it can come some beautiful benefits.
I like to think that self compassion is all about treating yourself like you would a friend. If your friend was feeling down because she got lost on her way to dinner, you wouldn’t berate her and tell her how dumb she was because she got lost (at least I really really really hope not!). But if you yourself got lost, I can safely bet you’re more likely to say to yourself “gah you’re such an idiot for getting lost!”. Why do we do this?! Why do we think it’s ok to be so hard on ourselves but not others? This causes us to spin that negative thinking cycle, which causes us to feel depressed or angry. We can stop it, you know.
According to Kristin Neff, “self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, you stop to tell yourself ‘this is really difficult right now,’ how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment? (2016).”
This is so important and can really help us further understanding to what we need in that moment. I challenge you to practice these concepts, along with self care, to ensure that your body is in the best physical, mental, and emotional state it can be.
I’m working on it, and every day it is a challenge. But it is perfectly ok – and normal! – to say “no” to something you don’t want to do, or to say “I need to take a break to make sure I’m ok”. It’s hard because society makes us feel selfish or weird for needing this time to work on ourselves. But I’m here to tell you that you are by no means selfish. Practicing self care is the best thing you can do for yourself, your family, your friends, and your job. You will see the benefits radiating everywhere, I guarantee it.
What do you like to do to practice self care? Share your tips with me in the comments below!
Ebrahim, Z., & Giles, J. (2014). The terrorist’s son: a story of choice. First TED Books hardcover edition. New York, NY: TED Books, Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Empathy. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy
Neff, K. (2016). Definition of self compassion. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/#definition