Most counselors have a toolbox from which they pull skills to train and equip their clients with to optimize their wellness or work towards their goals. There’s a certain group of those skills that stay at the top of the toolbox because the therapist uses them with almost every client. I’m going to talk about one of my most common go-to strategies when I’m working with almost any individual presenting almost any struggle: self-care.
As a matter of fact, struggle or not, self-care is essential. It sounds like a rather vague term to me though, also very subjective. Simply terming it “self” care highlights the individualized aspect of it. What does self-care mean to you?
I like to refer to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs when considering self-care. The bottom, widest, and foundational section of the pyramid indicates physiological needs. I like to encourage a less basic approach to this section that extends beyond food, shelter, and water. I ask my clients about their sleep routines, exercise regimens, and nutritional plans. I’m not checking in on their fitness or weight loss goals here. I define exercise as physical exertion beyond their norm, even at a minimal level. For some, that means a walk around the block each evening or ten jumping jacks in the morning. Research supports the neurological and psychological benefits of exercise. I encourage my clients to think in terms of small, manageable commitments. The idea is not to set oneself up for self-deprecation so there is an incredible importance to having self-forgiveness and positive regard when intentions aren’t met. Rather than focusing on the fact that you missed your exercise, be compassionate, identify the barriers that got in the way and develop a plan to overcome them in the future.
The second most essential need is safety. This doesn’t only mean actual safety, but also perceived safety. The modern modification I make involves assessing one’s boundaries with toxic relationships or involvements. “Security” can mean a lot of different things for people. How secure are you with various things in your life and what can you do to either secure them further or develop a more secure perspective towards them?
The next need is love/belonging. As you can see, the needs become more complex. All of these needs involve one’s experiences from childhood. How were these needs met then when they were more the responsibility of someone else versus as adults who are expected to provide these things for themselves? We are unlikely to have love or feel belongingness in all settings, but the need is met if love and belongingness exist significantly in the meaningful aspects of a person’s life.
Esteem, the fourth section of the hierarchy is an even more involved ideal. As you may notice, the latter needs are dependent on the former to be met. If one is without food and water, survival will take priority over their distress about whether or not their boss approves of them. Esteem is an overwhelming concept for someone who feels completely unloved. Esteem could be the breakdown in someone’s self-care that is the root cause for them seeking therapy. Esteem involves the way we perceive ourselves in relation to our outside world. It influences the way we interpret incoming information and, sometimes, the way we deliver information. What do you do to nurture and promote your esteem?
The highest of Maslow’s identified needs is self-actualization. Maslow describes this as identifying and reaching one’s full potential. That couldn’t be more vague, right? Some define this very specifically while others more holistically. Doing work or applying effort towards your interests and having confidence in your ability is essential for this need. It is said that one must not only achieve the former hierarchical needs, but master them in order to accomplish self-actualization. Do I think you need to master anything to have good self-care? No way! That idea may be the dated nature of this theory. I simply want to see prioritization of these needs. I often make reference to the ‘oxygen mask on a plane’ scenario. The attendants always instruct adults to put their masks on first before assisting children. What if you’re in the middle of putting their mask on and you pass out? Who will save them? Who will revive you? You can revive your child if they pass out simply by applying the oxygen mask correctly…if you’re conscious. So often I learn about parents putting their children’s needs before their own. As a matter of fact, an example of specific self-actualization is to be an ideal parent. According to Maslow, you won’t accomplish that unless you master the subordinate needs. Nothing is that black and white, but I encourage you to re-evaluate your self-care plan to truly optimize the way you think and feel, not only about yourself, but about the world around you as well.