Part One: On the Importance of Self-Care

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Sometimes it’s hard for me to know when to share something or if I should keep it to myself altogether.

Today is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, a perfect combination if you think about it, so it seemed like the best possible day to speak on vulnerable things. 

Last summer, sometime around my birthday, I started doodling on a notepad. I was deep in thought about how to take better care of myself – a mundane topic for some, but monumentally important to me. As someone who’s always struggled with a depressive side, it can take an extra effort to move through the day intentionally, to resist the urge to crawl into bed and introvert so hard that a sturdy wall builds between the rest of the world and me.

Years ago I talked about this depressive streak with my grandmother. She, too, lives with the same little curse. She said, “I guess I’m just turned this way,” and it was then that I realized depression isn’t a cold. You don’t catch it a couple of times a year. It’s always stirring under the surface. Sometimes you feel it coming on slow and steady like a hurricane, and sometimes it pops up like a tornado, fast and furious, and you aren’t prepared at all.

There I sat doodling, drawing circles and lines and names, trying to discern how best to care for my mind, my body, my home, my relationships. Without medication (I’ve been there) and counseling (I’ve done that) and draining the energy out of my husband and closest friends (thanks y’all), I tried to figure out what is absolutely necessary to give myself the best possible chance of success in most circumstances.

While there are times when medication, professional counseling, and reaching out for external help are crucial, I have learned that how I care for myself has the greatest impact on how I move through the world. It is the core from which all the other stuff flows. 

Therefore, it starts with me, and since I’m married and view marriage as a fortress that must be rooted and built up, my husband comes next. Then come the boys, and after that, my closest friendships and family members.

This flow of care is controversial, no doubt. I know many moms whose flow of care is arranged differently, and I don’t intend to tackle or speak to their reasons why. Each woman (and man, for that matter) is capable of arranging her own hierarchies as she sees fit. Also, some of you are single with kids, or married without kids, or in various other ages and stages of life. The hierarchy shifts as life does. Of course!

WHICH IS TO SAY the hierarchy of care is fluid. There are times when care shifts depending on need, but when relationships are in good health, those shifts don’t shatter the system. Simply having a newborn shifts the hierarchy of the house temporarily. Basically, if I need to put more energy into myself, my husband, a friend, etc., I do.

So what does it look like inside each of the circles? I doodled those too.

Me First

While this goes against what we teach our children (“Others First”), I’m curious to know if we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, like we’ve given no room for caveats. How can we care for others when we are not well ourselves? I keep coming back to this question: If I am struggling to stay above water, how can I be a reliable life jacket for any one else?

So, if my goal is to be the best possible person, the healthiest and most helpful to those I love, I need to address all aspects of my well-being (spiritual, emotional, physical, relational, and personal) with a list of specific questions.

First, the spiritual self.

This is the core of the core, the deepest heart space that needs the most attention. For me, it’s my relationship with God. It’s not a perfect relationship, but it’s an intentional one. When I feel the most disconnected from actual life, I can usually point back to a disconnection in my spiritual life.

Second, the emotional self.

If I let them, the burdens of the world will put me prostrate. Burdens I create for myself keep me comatose. Holding grudges, repeating mistakes, hanging on to shame – these emotional bags wear us down, so we must learn to recognize what’s poisoning the well and deal with them accordingly.

Next, the physical self.

Almost as important as my spiritual and emotional life is the attention I place on physical health. Yes, we live in a constant state of dying, but I’m not talking about physical fitness here. Body dysmorphia is my cross to carry in this world, so daily exercise isn’t about fitting into jeans or losing those last ten pounds. For me, tending to the body is the same as tending to the mind. Exercise is my best medicine, and there has been plenty of research to prove it can mentally benefit everyone. Additionally, physical care is about how we nourish our body and how we rest it. 

Then, the personal self.

We’re all given talents and gifts, passions and interests, and it can take a lifetime of sorting through those things to make the most of them. Whether they transpire as full-on careers, lifelong hobbies, or bouts of effort over periods of time, our personal work is important. I was lucky to discern my love and talent for writing early on, but it’s not always been clear what I’m supposed to do with it. When it comes to my whole health, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how necessary personal work is.

Finally, the relational self.

We aren’t meant to move through life alone, which can be a challenging truth for hardcore introverts. Connecting with people isn’t what’s key; it’s how we connect with them that matters. Am I doing my part? Am I being used? Who or what am I neglecting? Living in conflict crowds the mind, and frankly, life is too short to let contention grow.

When one or more of these areas is out of balance, I’m not my best self and that leaves the door open for other areas of my life to suffer. It seems like common sense now, but it’s taken me years to recognize my poor attitude or season of depression was related to one or more of these areas being ignored. Never has my life been unmanageable, but many difficult seasons could’ve been better handled had I tended to my own well-being with intention. This may be old news to you, but for me, it’s been a two-by-four to the head.

I don’t think there’s ever a time when all of these questions are answered affirmatively. We are never 100 percent, are we? Yet, if working heartily on these areas of self-care with diligence, then we’re setting ourselves up to be better partners, parents, and friends.

Next up: caring for my spouse, my children, and those I love most.

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