Replacing Self-Care with a Practice of Caring


Published Jun 26, 2017 on Lyra Blog

By Robyn D. Walser, PhD

Are we getting self-care wrong? Lately, I’ve started to wonder if self-care itself needs self-care.

A few years ago, I was telling a friend about a work situation. My supervisor informed me that everyone in the office needed to try harder. He complained that my colleagues and I were doing C-level work. I felt a mix of anxiety and annoyance since I knew how hard we were all working. And now my to-do list just got longer: I had to add the task of upgrading my performance from his idea of a C to an A+.

My dear friend, bless her heart, responded by saying, “Don’t forget self-care.”

Thanks, I thought cynically. I’ll put that one on my to-do list as well.

Usually, those who suggest self-care as a solution to stress want to be supportive. It’s just that sometimes the recommendation may feel invalidating and, in some moments, ludicrous.

Stealing spa time for yourself in moments of stress is like finding the mythical unicorn. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not happening. How can you add one more thing to your to-do list when it’s already longer than your arm?

The Problem with Self-Care

“Self-care” has become something of a buzzword lately; it’s used so often that its meaning has begun to shift. Sometimes it means being selfish. Sometimes it’s just about having a glass of wine. It’s usually considered something only women do. And for busy people, it’s often the last priority. When self-care becomes so onerous that no one has time for it, something has gone awry.

So what can you do when feeling stressed, annoyed, or let down? I don’t think the answer always lies in getting that massage, taking that holiday, or calling in sick one day a year. Yes, these options can be helpful and, at times, essential. However, sometimes they just add to your to-do list, making real self-care feel out of reach.

A Practice of Caring

Rather than forcing self-care as an afterthought into your already-too-full schedule, consider taking on a practice of caring. What do I mean by that? I mean letting the act of caring inform every part of your life.

A practice of caring is about how you treat yourself and others. It’s about bringing care and attention to how you live all the moments of your day— work, play, meetings, home, email, eating, exercise, etc.

In the practice of caring you can choose to take a stance. This stance depends on what matters to you. What’s important in terms of how you want to show up in the world? Is it gratitude, humor, or benevolence? Generosity, authenticity, or curiosity? Choose the quality that you wish to embody and, as best you can, bring it to all that matters in your life.

What Does a Practice of Caring Look Like?

For me, it can mean holding things more lightly and not getting too bogged down in the seriousness of life. I try to see humor in challenging situations. So when my boss said everyone was doing C-level work, I whimsically added even more to-dos to my to-do list:

  1. Make a better to-do list
  2. Go trick-or-treating on April Fool’s Day
  3. Take a fishing pole to Sea World
  4. Place vanilla pudding in mayo jar; eat in public
  5. Brainstorm item number 5 on to-do list
  6. Cross off item number one on to-do list

When I do something like this, I get a little chuckle. I feel a little freer to take the difficulty I find myself in less seriously, and the situation softens.

Also – and this is sometimes harder – I practice being grateful. For instance, when I start to get caught up in the stresses of the day, I reflect on what’s waiting for me at home. I own two small dogs, and I’m so thankful for the way they greet me when I walk in the door. It’s an animal party, literally: jumping, wagging, running, barking. Remembering the joy they bring me lifts me up, just a little and just enough, out of that sinking place that stress can take me to.

Or I might do the opposite. If I’m feeling annoyed with someone, rather than trying to ignore them, I connect my response with what I care about: being kind. For example, a colleague kept coming into my office to share her complaints and anxiety. I wanted it to stop. I had work to do and was behind schedule. Instead of doing what I felt tempted to do – telling her to go away – I paused. I got one of her favorite sodas and took it to her, saying, “I hope your day gets better.” She was grateful and, interestingly, stopped coming to my office for the rest of the day.

Whatever you choose, whatever caring means to you, the key is to carry it with you wherever you go. Offer it to yourself and to others every day, not just when you’re feeling stressed or let down.

In this way, self-care becomes readily accessible. It’s no longer about booking that special appointment, although you can do that too if you like. (A massage now and then feels fantastic!) It’s about how you want to behave toward yourself and others. There’s no need to go searching for a unicorn. Instead, your caring can be seen and felt in all that you do.