In this article, I’m going to offer you a multi-dimensional perspective that may provoke you to review your own arrangements for self-care.
As a coach I have met a lot of people who have the basics of self-care right — diet, exercise, sleep — but are still on the brink of burnout.
The time of my own life when I felt most energised and purposeful was when leading an internal start up in Manchester in the early 2000s. My attention to diet, exercise, and sleep could best be described as patchy, but there were other dynamics in play that led to an overall impression of wellbeing.
This is my premise, that there is more to self-care — ‘the actions we take in support of our physical and emotional well-being’ — than that which is observable externally.
“If you stick with a job or a lifestyle that is out of sync with who are it will eat away at your soul.”
I am not going to dwell on diet, exercise, and sleep. There is a whole industry dedicated to optimising these aspects of our lives. And rightfully so. Dan Siegel (1) describes them as “the foundations of neuroplasticity:” our brain requires a healthy supply of blood, nutrients, and rest— on average it accounts for 20% of our energy use — however, they are far from the whole story.
Self-compassion has a direct impact on our emotional well-being, and an indirect impact on our physical well-being: if we spend our time in self-recrimination and rumination, we can make ourselves physically ill. Our mental state has a profound impact on virtually all aspects of our physiology, including blood pressure and the immune system.
Kristin Neff (2) offers a three-part model for self-compassion:
Common humanity: Feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. It’s my observation that very few people make it through life without setbacks, and our temptation to judge others is quickly dispelled when we talk to them up close. Our feelings of inadequacy, our experiences of bullying, humiliation, rejection, illness, failure have been encountered by everyone to some degree.
Self-kindness: Being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgemental. Part of this comes from becoming aware that many of the mental challenges we experience, such as ruminating on our relationships with others, are natural evolutionary adaptations, that were designed to keep us safe. At one time, a loss of connection with others in the tribe could be fatal, and so our minds are built to focus on such issues.
Mindfulness: Holding our experience in balanced awareness rather than ignoring or exaggerating our pain. This supports the other two dimensions of Neff’s model. It’s hard to build a practice of feeling connected or self-kindness until we develop sufficient self-awareness to spot when we are feeling isolated, or self-critical. This means the ability to observe our thoughts and feelings rather than being buried in them. Practices such as meditation, silent prayer, and yoga can help with this, but so can any ritual that you use to bring your awareness into the present moment. For six years I worked in an office in Euston Road, London, and every morning I would buy a coffee and savour the drink and my surroundings on the last 500 yards of my commute.
After I’d reflected on my recent interview with Stephen Trzeciak, author of Compassionomics (3), I realised that compassion for others, which might be considered part of “common humanity,” probably deserves a segment of its own.
In the book that he co-wrote with Anthony Mazarrelli, he notes a strong inverse association between physician compassion and burnout and says “compassion can be a powerful therapy for the giver too”. When you bear witness to pain and suffering you activate the pain centres of your brain, but moving on to compassionate action activates the reward pathways. “Compassion feels good” and caring for others is fulfilling.
Personal growth and congruence
Finally, for most people, a feeling of learning and growth is essential to their mental well-being. This is perhaps why I felt so alive in my Manchester job. I was on a steep upwards learning trajectory.
It’s worth noting that a) learning and growth doesn’t have to originate at work — in fact for most people work is not the primary setting for this — and b) that learning and growth does not have to comprise lectures, training, or reading. If we want to transform the way we think rather than merely cram in more information, consider taking on a coach or therapist, parenthood (obviously not something to be explored for purely developmental motives!), journalling, or stretch projects.
Equally, as Carl Rogers (4) observed, most people also need to work and live in alignment with their values. He called this congruence. In fact he maintained that for people to thrive they needed empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence. If you stick with a job or a lifestyle that is out of sync with who are it will eat away at your soul.
These are aspects of self-care that are less obvious than diet, exercise, and sleep, but are at least as important if not more so.
In summary, here’s a model I would offer you for self-care.
Like many aspects of living, there’s more to self-care than than we might initially think, and it’s the work of a lifetime to become competent at it. Recently I interviewed a highly successful management consultant who only noticed his tendency for destructive self-criticism in his late 50's.
I hope he was compassionate with himself about that. You’re not going to read a post on Instagram, or this article, and suddenly become a Zen master in self-care. That just isn’t how we are wired. But you might try a few experiments, find what works for you, and build on it from there.
- Siegel, Daniel J. (2011). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, New York: Bantam.
- Neff, Kristin (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Trzeciak S, and Mazzarelli A. (2019). Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference. Pensacola: Studer Group.
- Rogers, Carl R. (1980). A Way of Being. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.