Much of what happens to us in life isn’t within our control. But our decisions, choices, actions, attitudes and thoughts do matter and can change how we cope, adapt, grow and even thrive in the face of the challenges we face. Self-care is to take responsibility for the things you can change in order to achieve the outcomes you want. I dig into this in this post. Reading time ~ 5 minutes.
Since arriving at Flinders in 2017, I have been trying to clarify my mission, that is, what is it I am working to achieve.
At present it is about making available to everyone high quality, evidence-based knowledge, tools, skills and resources so they can build better lives and cope, adapt, grow, and even thrive in the face of the challenges of life.
In fact, if you see me presenting this year (2023), it is likely that this is the underlying goal, even if I might not explicitly say so.
Underpinning this mission is a recognition of a couple of truths that I think are captured in many religious, philosophical and psychological texts.
The first is that challenges, setbacks, adversity, and difficulties are built into life. Some (death, illness) are simply part of how nature works. Some (e.g. financial difficulties) are inherited through the circumstances we find ourselves in. Some are even the result of our own choices. For example, the stress of exams was brought to you by your decision to do a degree (it was still a good decision 😊).
The second truth is that despite these challenges (or maybe even because of them) humans are capable of remarkable things. We have the capacity to cope, adapt, grow and even thrive in the face of these challenges (often called resilience). There are people who have transformed their physical or psychological health after injury or illness. Despite starting with very little, people build rich, rewarding, creative and meaningful lives. Even in lives marked by fear or anger, people can find the capacity to love and be loved. Over a lifetime a person can bear witness to an amazing assortment of positive experiences. These ‘outcomes’ are not guaranteed or evenly/fairly distributed, but even in some of the worst conditions, people can find meaning and purpose.
So how is that done?
There isn’t a precise formula or equation for maximising the good in one’s life. One reason why philosophy and psychology remain active disciplines is that humans continue to search for the knowledge, skills, tools and resources to make the most of the life we have. But some principles, practices and perspectives are regularly highlighted. I’ll discuss a couple here.
First, it’s important to recognise that there are many factors outside of our control. We don’t choose our genetics or our families or the cultures/conditions into which we were born. We live in complex societies, subject to multiple interacting forces. Many things have influenced the unfolding of your life, many of which you didn’t choose or have control over. As such, it is important to assess which things we can and can’t control. This can mean learning to let go of controlling some things.
Second is acknowledging that despite the many things that you might not have control over, your decisions, choices, actions, attitudes and thoughts do matter. They shape your experience in the present moment, but also your future trajectory. We can grasp this concept by thinking about a typical day. You know there is a difference in outcomes from a day where you make helpful choices and engage in positive actions, versus a day where you sabotage yourself, make poor choices. And those decisions, choices, actions, attitudes and thoughts we activate in any given moment can actually resonate over large time scales – they don’t just affect us in the present moment. They may change the trajectory of our future as well as reframe the past. A silly but illustrative example is that when I choose a cup of tea (#teamearlgrey) over a Red Bull, that has short-term implications (better metabolic markers) but also sets the scene for more sensible future choices and long-term health. In short, your actions and choices matter.
Third is accepting some responsibility for those decisions, choices, actions, attitudes and thinking and their relationship to your current situation and the outcomes you desire. It is recognising that you have some autonomy in picking your next action and that what you choose will either move you closer to, or further away from the life you want. I’m not suggesting that wielding that autonomy feels easy, results in us feeling in complete control, or works all the time, but doing so matters.
It is the wielding of autonomy in the service of a good life that I think is the basis of self-care, namely the recognition that the things YOU do, influence YOUR outcomes.
So, self-care = the actions you take to improve your outcomes (in the face of the challenges confronting you)
The broadness of this definition means self-care can take many forms:
- self-improvement – getting better at something in order to achieve a desired outcome
- coping – responding to a challenge by implementing healthy adaptive responses
- self-nurturance – recognising a situation causing you harm and seeking to reverse those patterns
- rest – recognising one’s physical or mental fatigue and taking time to rest and recuperate
- self-soothing – putting strategies in place to reduce a sense of overwhelm
- healing – recognising the presence of mental or physical illness and taking steps to treat or cure that illness
- finding balance – up or down-regulating different aspects of our lives to get them in better balance
What all self-care scenarios share are:
- The recognition that you are facing or about to face some kind of challenge that if avoided is likely to reduce the quality of your life
- The acknowledgement that whilst many aspects of the situation may not be in your control, your decisions, choices, actions, attitudes and thoughts do matter and are likely to alter the outcome of the situation
- Selecting specific actions to take in relation to the situation that you think will help you cope, adapt, grow or thrive
- Implementing those actions effectively
- Reviewing the situation to see if those actions worked or alternative choices are required
An (oversimplified) example might be:
- I recognise that I am falling behind on my studies
- Whilst one reason for that is increased caregiving demands (not changeable), I’ve also not asked my partner for help in negotiating different caring arrangements in order for me to devote time to study
- Sitting down with my partner and mapping out our time and responsibilities might help me find the necessary time to study
- We usually chat before going to bed, so I will raise the topic then
- If that doesn’t work, I can look into other possibilities like changes in child-care
If you see or hear me giving a talk around the uni, it is likely that I’m addressing one of the 5 steps.
For example, when I teach the Be Well Plan, I am showing people how to assess their mental health (#1 ), recognise their capacity to change (#2), select strategies (#3), utilise behaviour principles to implement them into everyday life (#4) and then review the results (#5).
When I’m talking to OT or Dietetics students about their upcoming clinical placements, I am focused on highlighting the many different strategies (#3) people use to manage and cope with the stress of placement.
When I am talking about goal pursuit with Law students, I am focused on how we change our behaviour (#4) to be goal consistent.
The content above is quite dense, so I will try to simplify the takeaway message(s).
Self-care = the actions you take to improve your outcomes (in the face of the challenges confronting you)
It requires the recognition of a challenge, taking responsibility for the bits you can control, selecting appropriate actions (that you think will produce the outcomes you want), implementing them and then reviewing if progress has been made.
In a future post, I will talk about how you can equally replace ‘challenge’ with ‘opportunity’ and recognise that self-care is also those actions you take to manifest opportunities.
If you want to explore different self-care strategies that people use to make progress in different aspects of their life, check out our Self-care Mega Guide. I’m working on its replacement at the moment.