By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
What is self care? Self care means attending to your self increasing and/or maintaining your personal emotional well being.
An objection to self care that I've heard people say is that it seems self indulgent. This objection is commonly rooted in the Christian understanding that our calling is to serve and focus on others. There are, in fact, scriptures that seem at first to be in support of this viewpoint.
"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:45
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." Phil 2:3-4
There are actually plenty of passages we could reference to support this idea. But I want to consider a few other passages to help us to gain balance as to the intention of the passages on serving.
"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ." Col 3: 23-24
In this verse we see an instruction to work heartily, under the notion that it is God whom we are ultimately serving. And how is God served well and honored? I believe that it requires energy and strength and love for me to serve well. And I have found that energy and strength are not endless and that when I am running low, my ability to give and serve wanes. Yes, God says in Isaiah 40:28-31 that He will "give strength to the weary", but then it says that "even youths grow tired and weary", meaning everyone gets worn out. And when that happens the next verse proclaims that "those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles." The implication is that everyone gets weary and when they do, they can turn to God for renewal. And God is inviting and encouraging this. He wants us to be renewed and recharged so we can soar. God doesn't seem to support the notion that being renewed is self centered here.
"In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church" Ephesians 5:28-29
In this passage Paul is teaching about marriage by comparing it to the relationship that Christ has with his church. And he plainly explains that a husband should love his wife in the same way that he loves himself; caring for her is like caring for himself. He then says that no one hates his own flesh. And there is no judgment here, it seems to be a given. It sure doesn't treat caring for oneself as 'bad' here.
So, how do we honor God's Word and balance these scripture passages? I believe that as Christians we are called and empowered to serve others and consider their needs and interests, often times above our own, in the same way that Jesus modeled for us. However, we are told that Jesus also took time to withdraw from the crowds or to pray in solitude. Jesus also got hungry and thirsty and tired, as evidenced by his time in the desert, the meeting of the woman at the well and when he fell asleep in the boat during a storm. Jesus needed times of retreat and refreshment, and that meant he was exhibiting self care. Self care is not a self-absorbed activity in which you cease to consider or care for others. Self care is an intentional approach of self management so that you can be your best and offer your best to others. Obviously there are selfish people living unto themselves, but that is not actually self care either. (Luke 9:24) Living selfishly is incredibly popular in our culture and is something we are drawn to by our nature. It is a strategy for finding satisfaction in life, but it does not fulfill and therefore is not true self care; it is not in our personal best interest. So, self care is not living selfishly, and it is not solely putting others first. I see self care as broken down into four elements. I would assume there are other potential elements and other ways of looking at this. This is not meant to be exhaustive.
Why a stool?
In our house the stool is a helpful tool, to reach something up high or to provide support or steady me. But the stool is only as helpful as it is sturdy and balanced and tall enough to help me reach where I need to. Our Stool of Self Care is the same. Each of its legs needs to be in balance with one another; otherwise we will lean and be in danger of crashing. You see, each leg works together and depends on each other in order to do their job effectively. Each leg is significant; they work best in relationship with one another. Let me show you what I mean.
What are the Four Legs of the Stool of Self Care?
1. The Physical: Does being tired affect your emotional well being? How about when you are sick or experiencing physical pain? Yes, this is a very practical leg. It says simply that if you get good sleep, eat healthy foods and exercise, then you are contributing positively to your self care.
2. The Relational: This one is about having quality relationships in your life. Those would be ones that refresh or recharge you. People who you can trust and lean on. People who listen without judgment or lectures. People you can be yourself with. Otherwise how can it refresh you if the real you cannot be present?
3. The Mental/Psychological: This category involves all that goes through your mind and how it affects you; your self talk, your fears, your ruminations, your desires, your perceptions and beliefs about events and people and much more. Taking care of yourself in this area first involves developing your self awareness of what goes on inside and then finding productive ways to process all that stuff. Journaling or talking to a friend or praying would be a few approaches. And that would be an example of the way the legs interact and work together.
4. The Spiritual: This is about a connection to our Creator - for direction, peace, renewal and transformation.
Look over the four elements and make an assessment for yourself. How are you doing at taking care of yourself in each category? Is there one you are strong in or one you have neglected? Does your stool seem to be in balance, meaning do the legs each have length and strength to them? Is there an area that you are having trouble developing? Remember the legs work together and support each other, so if you are having trouble, you can look back to the legs for help. If you are having trouble with the Relational Leg, and are lacking in supportive friendships, then you can look to the Spiritual and seek guidance and wisdom. Or you could look to the Mental/Psychological to see if there are perceptual obstacles that need to be addressed. Or let's say you are weak in the Physical category; say you don't like exercising, and don't have the finances to join a gym. Well, you could turn to the Relational Leg and see if you have a friend to go walking with.
Let me invite you to consider one way you can strengthen one of your legs this week. Overwhelming yourself with the pressure to improve in many categories simultaneously would not be good psychological self care. However, there may be ways to combine the legs, such as finding a friend to go to church with (Relational and Spiritual Legs) or bringing your worries to God (Mental and Spiritual Legs).
And may God lead you and bless your efforts!
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Matt W Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Orlando, Fl with the Life Works Group. He was a missionary for 14 years before God led him to pursue a new mission of helping people get free and become who God made them to be.
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