Is Self Care Selfish?


“Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself, it is very difficult to take care of another person. In Buddhist teaching, it is clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

Shambhala Sun

In my practice, there are some recurring themes. When they keep showing up in session or in training, it is a sign that they are of great importance. There have been a lot of signs pointing to self care lately. On the plane to the IITAP conference, the above reading from Thich Nhat Hanh struck me as rather profound and I immediately related it to many of my clients.

In therapy we often talk about the need for self care. There are certain phrases that I hear quite often from clients when we talk about the need for them to engage in more self care. The most common phrase is “I can’t.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard “I can’t” I would be able to treat everyone free of charge!

“I can’t take time to meditate, do yoga, exercise, read a book, walk the dog, have lunch with a friend. I can’t go to 12 step because I have to (insert reason/excuse here).”

Another reason that many clients in recovery don’t take or make time for self care is either the reaction of loved ones or their perception of the possible reaction of loved ones. My husband won’t be happy if I go to too many meetings in the evening and he has to put the kids to bed. My partner keeps asking why I have to go to meetings and wants me to stay home to watch a movie with her. These are two of many, many possible examples of how doing for others can become a priority instead of doing for ourselves.

This often sounds counter intuitive to someone early in recovery. “My entire addiction has been selfish and self centered. I spent my time acting out and not thinking of others and now you want me to focus on myself? Haven’t I been selfish enough?”

My fundamental answer to this is that self care is not selfish. Self care is essential. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we cannot take care of anyone else. If a person is not taking care of herself, working a program, grounded and centered, she may end up taking it out on her kids by yelling or snapping at them. If a person is not taking care of their physical and emotional health and well-being, eventually they will hit burn out and won’t be able to take care of anyone, themselves included.

I really like an exercise in an old school ACOA book called Adult Child’s Guide to What’s “Normal”. You make a circle for yourself and then surround your circle with those things in your life, such as work, husband/wife, kids, family, friends, program. Then you draw arrows from you to each circle that represent the flow of energy between you and the other circle at the present time. For example, if all my energy is going into work and I am not getting any energy back, I am out of balance with work. If all my energy is going into my friendships without getting energy back, I am out of balance. Worst case scenario, when we are not practicing self care, all the arrows point away from you and no energy is flowing into you. You can’t maintain all output and no input for any period of time. For some of us this leads to burn out. For others this leads to relapse.

When relapse is a possible outcome of lack of self care, it becomes obvious. Self care is NOT selfish. It is essential.

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