We talk a lot about self-care in this culture, but what does self-care really mean? For most people, self-care translates to getting a massage, taking a walk, eating lunch away from our desk, enjoying an ice cream cone, putting on our oxygen mask first. These are all valid self-caring activities, but a deeper level of self-care exists that is not about externally doing for ourselves, but rather, internally being with ourselves in a manner that is non-judgmental and loving. It is one thing to take ourselves out for lunch, but something else entirely and far more radical to honor and comfort our own feelings. This being variety of self-care is not only NOT encouraged in this culture, but also often, radically feared. We are afraid of what will happen to us—who we will become—if start caring for and about our own feelings, and being kind to ourselves. So what are we so afraid of? What is so threatening about developing a friendly relationship with ourselves?
When it comes to treating ourselves kindly, and making ourselves a priority, the first criticism we usually encounter is that of being selfish! How selfish of me to consider my own feelings when so many people are suffering! I don’t have it nearly as bad as them! The fear of being judged as selfish (by oneself and/or others) is what keeps many people from asking for help, even when they desperately want and need it.
We are afraid to care about ourselves. We believe that if we self-care, there won’t be any caring left over for others, as if caring were a finite commodity. If we take the time to pay attention to our own experience, we will become so self-involved that we will end up interested only in ourselves, so egotistical that we will stop wanting to ever be kind to anyone else. In this belief system, our caring for others is a façade of sorts, something we do to appear as if we are good. Underneath it, we believe that we are only interested in ourselves, and that this truth must be kept rigorously in check.
And yet, it is only when we feel well taken care of, when our feelings have been properly heard and addressed that we have adequate resources to offer others. When our own well is full, we can experience our genuine desire to help others. Relating to ourselves with kindness actually increases our compassion and makes us less selfish.
Furthermore, when we are able to empathize with our own suffering, we can geuinely empathize with the pain of others. When we reject our own feelings, we cannot be truly compassionate with others, certainly not to our fullest capacity, as a large part of our heart is closed off and inaccessible. This is not to say that we cannot be kind human beings without being kind to ourselves, but without the ability to relate lovingly with our own experience, we are severed from the real depth of our loving potential. It is as if we are living in a puddle when we have full access to the ocean.
When we know what loving attention actually feels like, and can receive it from our own self, then, we can genuinely offer it to and for another creature. What we bring to others then arises out of our own compassionate heart, which includes compassion for ourselves, as another living creature that is equally deserving of kindness.
A close second to the judgment of “selfish” is that of being “lazy.” We believe that, if we are kind to ourselves, we will end up laying on the couch and eating bon-bons. We believe that the only way to make ourselves do anything is to use force—to become our own dictators. The sense is that kindness toward ourselves will only lead to sloth. In this system our basic nature is understood to be lazy and uninspired. Since action is contrary to our basic nature, it must be imposed against our will and with aggression. The danger in honoring our own feelings is that nothing will ever get done.
The link between self-care and sloth is false. When we have a friendly relationship with ourselves, when we can listen kindly to our own experience and take our own side, we are far more likely to take action and risk the unknown. If we know that when we fall, a friend will be there to catch us, we are more willing to get off the couch and take the leap. On the other hand, if our relationship with ourselves is aggressive and critical, we remain afraid to take chances because of how we will be treated (by ourselves) if we fall short of expectations. The fear of our own aggression is what paralyzes our natural ability to act.
Compassion for others begins with and within ourselves, and is, at its most profound level, the act of tuning into our own experience and listening with kindness and curiosity. Am I okay? Am I well? These are the kinds of questions that replenish our spirit, and make us feel truly cared for. As a result, when we feel cared for—loved—the very best in us emerges, and our capacity to take care of others, and the world, blooms.