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The Crisis of Self-Care

Dr. Michele Pole | August 13, 2019

The Crisis of Self-Care

It seems like we’re so focused on getting what we think we should have – the right clothes, the right car, the right phone, the right career, the right family – or what others need that we seldom stop to appreciate what we have and, more importantly, accept ourselves just as we are. Our most valuable resource is time, but none of us have nearly enough. Childcare, work, eldercare, and just the overall daily and weekly maintenance of life seem to demand all of our available time, and we end up not having a moment to spend on ourselves.

As a result of this time crush, we need things quick and easy. Information comes to us now as a brief, 30 second video. We communicate in tweets of a certain number of characters. We don’t have much of an attention span anymore, and that includes our ability to relate to our own emotional experience. We feel sad, but if it lasts more than a few minutes, it makes us uncomfortable, we often look for some way to help deal with the feeling. Healthy ways to deal with that emotional discomfort such as meditation or exercise take time we don’t have. That’s where substances such as alcohol and drugs come in. They can provide quick, immediate relief to that discomfort and I think it’s getting us into trouble. For many, substances become a way to deal with being overwhelmed and not knowing how to do everything they are told they should be able to do. We are overwhelmed and pressed for time.

We are suffering from a crisis of self-care. We need to all take a step back, take a deep breath, and think about taking care of ourselves. This is especially true as we approach the back-to-school season and what many families regard as the most grueling month of the year – September.

Self-care starts with self-compassion
A healthy self requires a healthy body-mind-spirit. This triad of physical, emotional, and spiritual is tightly interwoven. It’s common to think of health as being something that involves only the physical side of our bodies, but research shows emotional and spiritual health are just as important. Something that affects your emotional well-being – a death in the family, for example – is going to be reflected in your physical well-being. If you start taking care of yourself physically, it will improve both your emotional and physical health. The same with spiritual health – it will affect the physical and emotional.

With that in mind, something I’ve found very useful to help deal with feeling overwhelmed is self-compassion. Self-compassion allows us to accept we’re not perfect, accept we’re not going to do everything perfectly and have compassion for how much we actually do accomplish despite how hard it is. The key is to realize that we have limitations, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

We naturally have a sense of compassion for the people we care about. Yet we are often hard on ourselves and our own self-perceived shortfalls. If we can tap into that compassion for others and use it for ourselves, it can be a very effective way to practice self-care. Then, taking that sense of self-compassion and visualize sharing it with the people we struggle with can become powerful and liberating.

Cultivating self-compassion
Self-compassion is not something that we are taught growing up. Instead we group people as either completely self-centered, demanding everything and everyone fit their needs, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, as caretakers, who focus on others completely at the denial of their own needs. Neither of those extremes is healthy. Self-compassion falls somewhere in the middle, acknowledging personal needs while being mindful of the needs of others. It doesn’t come naturally and takes time and effort to develop.

To begin to develop self-compassion, one of the meditations I love is called METTA, or the loving kindness meditation. It goes like this:

  • The first meditation phrase: May I be happy, may I be well, may I be safe, may I be peaceful and at ease.

  • Then you turn it to someone you care about: May you be happy, may you be well, may you be safe, may you be peaceful and at ease.

  • Then, thinking of someone you struggle with, share compassion towards them: May you be happy, may you be well, may you be safe, may you be peaceful and at ease.

Self-compassion and addiction
There is a lack of self-compassion in those who are struggling with substance use disorder. People come to treatment utterly guilty and ashamed of their behavior when in active addiction. Where there’s guilt and shame, there is no self-compassion. Self-compassion is necessary to finding recovery.

For instance, many of my patients tell me they don’t understand why they kept drinking or taking drugs even when it turned destructive. I help them understand that when they started using substances, it did something for them – made them not think about what made them anxious or feel bad about themselves. Then the drinking reached a point where it no longer served its initial purpose. They need to understand that premise and learn to forgive themselves so they can help stop the negative cycle helping to drive their addiction.

Looking at the world, we need to counter the #MommyNeedsVodka approach when dealing with life’s difficulties. I’m encouraged to see movements like Sober Curious that shift the focus away from external trappings to wellness. Maybe this movement can influence people to start thinking differently about their behavior. While social media can be a detriment to our health and well-being, in this case, as in the impact of the #MeToo movement did, it can also have a positive influence. The more there are positive messages that facilitate self-care and introspection, the better off we will be in the health of our body-mind-spirit.

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