As we draw nearer to the celebration of Christmas and the start of a new liturgical year, it is easy to experience many contradicting pulls and pressures within ourselves. Part of us may feel like “winding down” or relaxing, while another part may feel the pressure of getting ready for Christmas. Part of us may long to connect with family and friends while another part may experience anxiety related to family dynamics or complications of COVID-19. In the midst of the many conflicting voices and pressures that we notice within ourselves, we can miss an invitation God is giving us during this time: to rejuvenate the gift of self that God has given us by engaging in intentional and meaningful self-care.
I realize that self-care is a term that is tossed around nonchalantly and is often equated with overemphasis on the self, which makes it aversive to some. It is important to distinguish self-care from self-indulgence or selfishness. As much as we may think that overindulging in food, binging our favorite Netflix shows or YouTube channels, or spending hours on social media equates to self-care, such actions are actually the “junk-food” of self care: tastes great initially, but we’re left empty and still hungry afterwards. True Self-care acknowledges that our selves, body and soul, do not belong to ourselves, but to God. We can often forget that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, meaning that love for self must also be present. We honor the gift that God has given us when we take into account the various needs of our system in a thoughtful and meaningful way.
To use an analogy, we can think of self-care as practicing regular maintenance on our car or home. If we neglect regular maintenance in those areas, things can rapidly degenerate. The same is true for our internal systems, which do not function with a limitless supply of energy, but in reality take regular care and attention. Self-care looks to what is good for our systems in the long term and creates a life that we do not need to escape from, but can rather enjoy.
From a practical standpoint, what can we do to start implementing effective self-care that builds us up, rejuvenates us, and helps us to enjoy life more? Here are a few practical steps:
- Create a quiet space to cultivate awareness
It is difficult to avoid the trap of thinking “Ok, I’m going to practice self care in 20 different ways,” get burnt out from trying to self-care, and then slide into self-indulgence. Advent is a beautiful opportunity to intentionally create quiet space in order to develop awareness of the various needs within our system and bring them before the Lord. This ensures that instead of reacting to various thoughts or feelings, we can instead respond to them thoughtfully and with compassion. There are many different formats you could use when reflecting on the different needs of your internal system — the acronym PIESS (Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Social, and Spiritual) is a personal favorite. Some may find journaling during this step helpful to get a clearer sense of what is going on internally.
- Identify underlying needs and desires
As we sit with ourselves and notice the different needs within our system, we can reflect on what may be most helpful. This is where we can acknowledge that while part of us just wants to binge Netflix, there may be an underlying deeper need to accept emotions related to a difficult situation that we are trying to escape. Our self-indulgent tendencies often have good intentions but can urge us to fill needs in less than helpful ways. The underlying needs we identify may require difficult action, like calling a therapist to schedule an appointment, implementing a night time routine to practice better sleep hygiene, or starting to increase time spent around friends who are healthier for us. Due to our human nature and how we are made for self-gift, some of our needs related to self-care may pull us to make more of a gift of ourselves to others in our circle of family and friends.
- Intentionally choose a course of action
Once we have sat with our needs and desires and developed a better understanding of them, we can intentionally choose one to three that seem most prevalent and how we want to address them. It’s possible that one action that we choose may fill several different needs. For example, hosting a dinner for those in our church community who are isolated can fill a social, emotional and spiritual need. Beginning to exercise can fill a physical and emotional need. Implementing a morning or evening routine centered around prayer or reading instead of technology can fill both a spiritual and intellectual need.
The point to these steps is not to give a single action or series of actions that we can take. There are plenty of resources on the importance of eating right, exercising, gratitude, and a myriad of other practices related to self-care. Instead the point of these steps is to create more of an awareness of the needs within our systems so that we can care for the gift of ourselves in a more intentional and compassionate way. May this time of advent be a time of rejuvenation and renewal for you.
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Mental Health Crisis Text Line: 741-741