By Suzanne Pollak
Self-care is in the zeitgeist.
More interesting than the numbers behind the $10 billion dollar, consumer-driven, often pricey self-care industry are the conversations taking place in the present about what caring for yourself really means and how we can practice it.
First, let’s look at what self-care is not. Although there are exciting products out there—some that I either use or covet—the actual foundation of self-care is not something we can buy. It’s much more profound than slipping our perfectly pedicured feet into Golden Goose sneakers and drinking an organic kale smoothie while wearing a hydrating face mask. One definition of self-care is “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” But this requires us to develop a specific intelligence.
It means listening to your body and letting it guide you, going granular on how you view your emotions, paying careful attention to how you are feeling, asking if you need to take care of yourself, and knowing what that means at that moment. As scientists learn more about the balance between the body and the brain, they have discovered that the mind often acts like an unruly toddler and does not listen. The brain responds to signals from the body, but who among us is trained to pay attention to those signals? Only professional athletes, and even they usually have a team of care specialists working behind the scenes. The brain can easily misinterpret or overrule what the body is saying.
When you realize new patterns have come to life, listening means using this information. Do not ignore what your gut is telling you. When you follow your body’s signals, you develop fluid intelligence. Listen to your body, and then instruct your brain: “Hey, it’s OK. We’ve got this! You don’t need to worry; we are safe—so chill out.”
Essential communication happens at deep levels within our minds. Sometimes we are required to go into self-protection mode, but when we use our fluid intelligence, we can figure out smarter ways to react, which will make us feel better in the end. Stressful feelings don’t have to stop us in our tracks. Maybe we need to respond with fight or flight, but it’s better to understand how to use such “gut reaction” information and respond fluidly.
Fluid intelligence means you know when you need a day off, or even just a few minutes of “time out,” and then you do something about it. It means your neuro system and your body can communicate more deeply than just listening to the voice in your head.
Self-care means intentionally being there for yourself. The critical principle is being aware of how you feel—in both your body and your brain—and then acting. Move away from fear, anxiety, and isolation. Opt for feelings of safety, kindness, and no judgment toward yourself.
Understanding what true self-care is means we can also teach those around us and therefore take care of each other.
In practical terms, this might mean:
Physical movement. When you feel angry or upset, know how to discharge it. First, notice and understand the body wants to unload emotion. If you swim or run, do it with anger, and healing will begin. Stress immobilizes us, but movement helps release tension from the body. The conscious self-care decision is to get up and move.
Going into nature. Did you know you can surmise the health of a city by the number of parks it has? Use nature and your city’s parks for unknotting your gut. Find a horticultural environment in which to walk and notice new growth blossoming right in front of your eyes. The ways plants change and grow remind us that we change and grow too. Remember the adage “This too shall pass.” My favorite self-care quote is from Henry V: “Presume not that I am the thing that I was.” Shakespeare was one smart guy.
Connection. Find companionship in another heartbeat, especially when you’re feeling isolated. Make a meal with friends or even acquaintances. Making food together feeds people on many levels. Plan a day off with a dear friend—part of self-care is anticipating when you will need a break. And tell yourself it’s OK to do so. Your mind does not know the difference between reality and imagination, so it needs reassurance.
Smiling slightly. It might sound silly, but even forcing a tiny smile is a form of self-care. Someone needs to share a smile, and it might as well be you smiling at yourself each morning in the mirror. (Might I add that self-care does not mean focusing on wrinkles?)
Filling your stomach. Cook delicious foods to fill your freezer so you can pull something out whenever you need some easy TLC. Take care of your future self too!
Do you feel overly involved with the “self,” as in self-absorbed? Smart self-care gets us out of the self-protection mode and helps us perceive the world in a more significant way—a world you might not see when you’re anxious. That anxiety might cause you to focus on a seven-hundred-dollar pair of silk pajamas as a band-aid for your feelings. So, while we can enjoy spas and luxury products, let’s not mistake these things for self-care. When you work with your mind and body in tandem and move toward a balanced state, you can heal. Understanding what true self-care is means we can also teach those around us and therefore take care of each other.
— V —
Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal “Mansion” section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.