The Art of Self-Care
By Paige Freeborn
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg defines compassion as the quivering of the heart in response to pain or suffering. Often, we have no problem extending our compassion to another person; making a nutritious meal for loved ones, offering a smile to a stranger, or creating space for someone else’s suffering can bring us a heightened sense of purpose, belonging, and connection. Sometimes, however, it can feel uncomfortable extending this same compassion to ourselves. For some, the very thought of self-compassion can seem pointless, weak or selfish; however, nothing could be further from the truth.
Self-compassion brings us into a sense of wholeness. It teaches us to come into a different relationship with ourselves when we are suffering or in pain. As we engage with self-compassion practices, we learn to love all parts of our human experience, even those we consider imperfect. We stop accepting responsibility for that which we have no control over, and the comparing mind quietens down. We come into a new relationship with anxiety that is grounded in tenderness and curiosity. Learning to see ourselves as worthy of love gives us the strength we need to be able to weather life’s inevitable storms. Just as we have the ability to recognize when others are suffering, and just as we are called into action to support them, so too do we begin to recognize our own moments of suffering, and take the necessary actions to care for ourselves.
When we are in our eating disorder, we try to deny a critical aspect of our human experience, and often don’t feel deserving of care and attention. One of the gifts of recovery is learning to prioritize our own health and wellbeing. Taking care of our own well-being requires conscious effort, and as we recover, we learn to reclaim our life and come into a different relationship with our own suffering. We learn to hold our suffering with care, and become tender with ourselves, especially when we are hurting. Once recovered, we are standing on a foundation of new skills, perspectives, and insights. These are the rewards of overcoming something as monstrous - and as monstrously misunderstood - as an eating disorder.
Eating disorder sufferers can be relentless in their self-punishment, and deem themselves profoundly unworthy of care. In order to heal, we must learn to embrace all aspects of our existence, and this means coming into a loving relationship with the parts of our lives that feel difficult, messy or ‘out of control.’ A profound shift happens when we meet our difficulties with a caring presence, rather than turning to the eating disordered behaviours to help us cope. We learn that something inherently trustworthy can replace the eating disorder, and that choosing the path of self-care is more wonderful than we ever could have imagined. At first, this takes a leap of the imagination. Like an artist creating a masterpiece, we must first imagine what that masterpiece might look like. Then, we begin employing the skills needed to be able to realize our vision. All artistic processes involve setting intentions, practicing, making mistakes, and learning to enjoy the process along the way. Failures and unforeseen outcomes are all a part of the learning process, and often surprise us in their ability to turn us in a new direction - one that is even more exquisite than we could have imagined. In order for us to come into a comforting relationship with ourselves, we must learn to practice the art of self-care.
While on the one hand our human struggles are universal in nature, there are differences between cultures when it comes to self-care routines. In collectivist cultures, the interconnectedness of people is the primary orientation for identity formation. When one person celebrates, the whole community celebrates, and when one person mourns, everyone mourns along with them. Celebration and mourning ceremonies are highly ritualized, and people know where they can turn when they are suffering. Isolation and loneliness are lessened when the community comes together in solidarity, and connects with rituals that have brought their people comfort through the ages. Modern examples include communal bathing rituals, contemplative practices or taking special food and beverages together on a daily basis. The concept of “self-care” is a relatively recent phenomenon in North America, with an interesting history, and it is wonderful to see many workplaces and organizations now recognizing the need for individual self-care as a response to the well-documented effects of long-term stress. Some European countries are in the process of enacting laws to protect their citizens’ right to disconnect from technology, so that they can pursue more relaxation time outside of work. For those of us raised in an individualistic society, the art of self-care can take more thought and practice; however, through trial and error, we can learn to identify our needs and self-advocate. Here are some self-care lessons I have learned along the way:
You don’t need to earn it. We don’t need to exhaust ourselves or do anything “exceptional” before engaging in self-care. We are already deserving of love, care, and attention by virtue of the fact that we are human. Using self-care as a preventative measure - a response to daily stress - is one of the wisest pursuits we can invest in. By learning to support ourselves, we gain strength and resilience, and are in a better position to be able to support others.
Authenticity. There are as many ways to engage in self-care as there are people on the planet, and what works for one person might not work for another. Every day, we are bombarded by information and images that showcase the lifestyles of others, and it can sometimes be difficult to decipher what we ourselves need in any given moment. As we practice, we become more finely attuned to what works for us. It is important to pay attention to how we feel as we engage in our self-care rituals, so that we can learn to trust our deepest and truest instincts, and learn to advocate for ourselves when we need support.
Mindful ritual. Knowing when we are engaging in self-care routines, and creating intentionality around our actions is critical. Habits imply repeated, mindless actions, while resolutions have a hard and unforgiving quality. Intentions, on the other hand, allow us to mindfully choose what we would like to give our attention to, and to engage in a series of actions with the purpose of enjoying the process. Self-care rituals are loving, symbolic gestures that allow us to be fully present without attaching to any particular outcome. They help ease the stress of the human condition, and can give us a profound sense of comfort and belonging. Almost anything can be considered a mindful ritual if we orient to it in a way that is healing and nourishing. This includes the simple act of walking, sipping a cup of tea, or snuggling into bed for a nap.
Loving-kindness meditation. Thanks to many wise modern meditation teachers, the concept of “lovingkindness” is entering our culture in significant ways. There are loving-kindness (“Metta”) meditations online, and many meditation retreats devote time to this ancient tradition. For some, at first, it can be difficult to connect with this type of meditation. For others, it is like landing upon something they have been searching for their whole life. Research shows that making this a regular part of our practice can help rebuild our brain’s gray matter, and orient us towards a calmer, more peaceful, balanced life.
Connecting with nature. Human beings are transformed when they are out in nature. The Japanese art of “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku) has gained international attention, and highlights the importance of creating the space for intentional time in nature. This is not a time for goal setting and achievements, but rather a time to experience nature through our senses: smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and touch.
The compassionate “no.” As we tune into our own needs, we come to the realization that they do not always align with those of others; and therefore, self-care requires clear communication and compassionate boundary setting, so that we can create the space we need to rejuvenate. Learning to advocate for our own wellbeing means we won’t always please everyone; however, we can learn to advocate for ourselves in ways that allow everyone to retain their dignity.
As we develop self-care routines, we learn to create a life of caring attention. Through experience, we come to understand that taking care of ourselves is not optional, but a necessary part of living a fully engaged life. As with all art forms, the practice of self-care opens our heart and mind to new and hopeful possibilities, makes us more observant, and reignites our imagination. As we learn and grow, we gain a more expansive view of life, and understand that it has the potential to be filled with more beauty, purpose, peace, and presence.
Paige Freeborn is an artist, educator, meditation and yoga teacher, and sociocultural leader who recovered from an eating disorder over twenty years ago. She regularly works with teenagers and adults, helping them develop more self-compassion, as well as the confidence they will need to be able to be a support for others. Over the years, Paige has oriented much of her life around service. She is looking forward to becoming involved with the Looking Glass Foundation’s Hand In Hand Program.