What do you think of when you hear the term “self-care”? Do you think of indulgences like triple chocolate ice cream or a bottle of wine? When you think of self-discipline, do you think of depriving yourself of the things you enjoy? Today I want dig a little deeper and think about what self-care really means and why it’s important for us to take time out and pay some attention to ourselves.
“The mind must be given relaxation. It will rise improved and sharper after a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced to produce a crop year after year, so constant work on the anvil will fracture the force of the mind.”
The Stress of Life
Life can be very stressful. There are so many things that we need to take care of. Between work, family, school, social life, hobbies and other activities there are a lot of things vying for our time and attention. Add to that the complexity of modern life, societal stress and political divisiveness, life can often feel overwhelming. We often feel burned out and feel like we don’t have the energy to work on anything else outside of work, or family.
When we get into this kind of rut, life can often feel like we’re just stuck in the same loop day after day. We never feel like we really have time to work on some of the goals outside of work that we might want to accomplish. This is often why so many people get home from work and all they want to do is just chill out and watch Netflix then head to bed. Others end up distracting themselves with video games, social media, as well alcohol or other substances to help distract them in hopes of reducing their stress.
Over the past few years though it’s become part of the zeitgeist to recognize burnout and to work on self-care. As people find that they aren’t handling the stresses of modern life very well, they’re finding ways to be deliberate about carving out downtime and activities that help them relax and rejuvenate.
Often people use self-care as an excuse to overindulge or to do things that aren’t necessarily good for them, and might even have the opposite effect. It’s even become popular on social media for people to post about how they’re indulging in something and calling it “self-care”. Drinking too much, eating unhealthy foods, binge eating, or buying things you don’t need are all habits that people justify with the term “self-care”. The problem with these habits is that they only bring short term pleasure. They don’t provide the rest and rejuvenation that is truly need. They also don’t address underlying issues and often cause long term problems.
Self-Care is Self-Discipline
“Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel."
— Eleanor Brownn
So, I want to propose the idea that self-care is more than just indulging ourselves in things that make us feel better in the moment, but rather that self-care is when we do what is good for us in the long term. It’s about taking care of ourselves so that we are better equipped to handle the other more demanding parts of our lives. It’s about knowing when and how to rest and recover so that we can push hard when we need to while avoiding burnout.
A prime example of understanding why rest is so important is when you’re building muscle. When you lift weights you’re actually breaking down your muscles, and your body then rebuilds the muscles. Your body needs a certain amount of stress in order to get stronger, but it’s in the rest periods between workouts that your body rebuilds the muscles. Life is very much the same way. We need stressors and challenges to grow, but we also need to rest so that can face those challenges at our best.
Self-awareness is the start of any change in your life. It takes time and effort not only to be self-aware but also to actually do something about the things that you learn about yourself through that awareness. You need to understand why you do the things you do. Are you drinking too much to avoid some emotional pain? Are you playing hours of video games each night to stave off loneliness? If you’re unaware of your own thoughts, motivations, habits, and behaviors, you are unable to change. You cannot change from a place of ignorance.
The reason self-awareness is a core part of self-care is that in order to choose things that help you to take care of yourself, you need to know yourself. It’s not just about knowing what to avoid, but about understanding the things that you should pursue. You need to know what is actually helpful for you so you can live your life in a way that helps you thrive. Self-awareness is the first step to developing self-discipline.
Developing self-discipline is a form of self-care because it helps you prioritize your own needs, values, and goals. Self-discipline is not about denying yourself pleasure or forcing yourself to do things you don't want to do. It's about making choices that are aligned with your long-term well-being and goals. It’s about making choices that you know are in your best interest.
When you exercise self-discipline, you're showing yourself that you care about yourself and your future. Self-discipline is built on several of the core stoic virtues. You need wisdom to know what things you should do that will help you in the long run. It takes courage to be willing to do those things. Lastly, it take moderation to know when to push yourself and when to pull back.
For example, when you overeat or eat unhealthy food for extended periods of time your body will not work at its best. When your digestive system is not working well, it causes low energy levels, gastrointestinal distress, as well as diminishing your cognitive abilities. While the exact mechanisms behind this link to cognitive functioning are still being investigated, researchers believe that the gut microbiome plays a role in cognitive function through its impact on the immune system, neurotransmitter production, and overall inflammation in the body. Because your body is the vehicle through which you experience the world, the better your body functions the more you are able to enjoy your life.
How many times have you done something impulsive in the moment only to later regret it? I know that I have made plenty of bad decisions when I was tired, stressed out, or not feeling well. Practicing self-discipline and doing the things that help your physical and mental health in the long run leads to a more balanced and fulfilling life. The better you feel overall, the more likely it is that you’ll make clearheaded decisions that benefit you in the long-term and help you avoid impulsive or short-sighted decisions that can cause regret or distress later on.
Make Proactive Choices
“You must learn to be gentle with yourself and to take time to renew your strength, both physically and mentally.”
So what can we do to help improve our self-discipline and take better care of ourselves? How can we truly practice self-care?
Self-care means that we actively take a role in improving our mental and physical health, not just avoiding things that don’t serve us. For example, this year I have worked really hard to improve my health. While I’ve cut down on drinking alcohol and avoid things with high amounts of sugar, I’ve also changed my diet to include a lot more fruits and vegetables. I’ve worked with my doctor on some outstanding health issues, and have been working with my chiropractor on some old injuries. I workout several times a week and walk or hike on the other days. I also make sure that I get between 7-9 hours of sleep every night.
Now understand that doing pleasurable things like taking a bubble bath or enjoying a glass of wine can be self-care. Resting and enjoying things that we like is rejuvenating. It really comes down to making choices that will benefit us in the long term. Sometimes that means choosing what is good for us rather than what brings us immediate pleasure. For example, making sure you get to bed at a reasonable hour rather than staying up late playing video games.
“If you are tired, rest. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that you have been working hard and need to recharge.”
"Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won't accept."
— Anna Taylor
Often we get overwhelmed because we try to fulfill all kinds of expectations that others have for us. Often that is due to our culture or family. Expectations of how we’re supposed to behave, think, and live our lives. Whether that’s demands at work that are unreasonable, expectations from our families or friends, or even pressures from society as whole, learning to say no and setting boundaries is one of the most important things that we can do to take care of ourselves.
This can be really challenging at times because we often feel selfish when we don’t uphold the expectations of others, but doing so helps you to show up in the world as your best self. We have limited amounts of time and energy so learning to be protective of them is important to maintain your mental and physical health.
This can also mean that we question the choices that we’re making in our lives overall. If our job is constantly leaving us drained and stressed out, maybe we need to reconsider our career choice or look for a position that is better suited for us and improves the quality of our lives. By understanding our motivations behind our career choice, and knowing what we truly want, we can make choices that suit us better and help us live happier lives. Getting your mental and physical health in order can help you make better life decisions. When you don’t feel like you’re in survival mode, you’re more likely to make good long term choices.
Some times we think of self-discipline as something that is not pleasant and at times means that we miss out on the good things in life. But really it’s about choosing to do what is good for you rather than what is just pleasurable. It’s about choosing to prioritize your physical and mental health so that you can live your best life. It doesn’t mean forgoing pleasure, but just being intentional with your choices. Practicing self-discipline can help you maintain healthy habits, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, and getting enough sleep, which are all important aspects of self-care. Practicing self-discipline is the best way to truly practice self-care.
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