How does self care fit into a relationship? It is an essential element of each individual’s psychological health and impacts that individual’s relationships. We’ll be looking at some ideas for self care.
I remember my mother doing too much. For many years, she ran the household, worked full time, and did a lot of the chores. She didn’t have time for the things she loved. She got caught in this time of doing too much. She became angry, sharp, and frustrated. I was worried about her.
My mother sacrificed too much of herself, which impacted not just her happiness, but that of her children and probably my father as well.
These family dynamics came out of my parent’s histories as well as out of my parents’ relationship. Relationships are two-person systems. Yet sometimes this system is out of balance. An out of balance family system can occur for a variety of reasons. In my mother’s case, she saw that we needed more income, and she wanted her children to have enough. She was hard-working and practical. My father was an artist, and his income fluctuated. He was also, in many ways, much more selfish.
A relationship or family system can get out of balance for many reasons. Perhaps we don’t know how to nurture each other. We may not know how to give or receive support with our partner. We may have ideas about how a family should work that are not useful for our situation. We may be doing too much or too little. We may be self sacrificing. We may be requiring our partner to self sacrifice. Our ideas for self care may have evaporated or never been present.
Psychological theory is complex. It looks at how we are wired, whether we can truly function in a two-person system or if we ultimately rely on ourselves for stimulation and regulation (a one-person system). It explores the relationship between early childhood development, how we were nurtured, our attempts to find safety – and our consequent attachment style and character structure (such as narcissism, etc.) It looks at how we use fantasy, distancing, approaching, etc., in self-regulation. It looks at how we each maintain equilibrium and survive connection and disconnection.
All of this underlies how we each respond to a significant other, how we manage our neurobiological selves. While this knowledge is useful for those working with psychological theory and clinicians, it is probably too complicated for the general public attempting to balance the needs of self and others and improve their relationships.
So what do we do? We decide we can learn. We know others have made significant changes and made their lives and relationships joyful. We know that people have turned their relationships and lives around. We know that we can rewire and change. Deciding to say YES to learning or getting help instead of saying no is the first step. Saying yes could mean reading, joining a group, listening to podcasts, or getting therapy.
Self sacrifice and self care
One issue that emerges in relationships is the continuum from self sacrifice to self care. How much do we sacrifice? How do we take care of ourselves? How do we care for each other? Where do we get lost?
People can get lost in self sacrifice in a variety of ways. We may give too much to our work. We may give too much to our partner. One area where we get caught in self sacrifice is in the raising of our children. We can get lost in self-sacrifice if we make too much a priority over our happiness.
How does this happen?
- You may not believe you are worthy of self care.
- You may have been taught to take care of others to the exclusion of your own needs.
- You may be married to someone who doesn’t want to help, and so you end up doing too much.
- You may simply have too much to do and not know how to manage your time.
- You may have never learned self care because the circumstances of your past taught you to over strive or not honor yourself.
- You may be caught in outdated ideas of who you should be.
- You may find more meaning in doing than in connecting.
Resilience and moment to moment awareness
Regardless, learning self care is vital for balance and resilience. Resilience means we can get through challenging times without undue stress. It means we can make better choices. It means we have greater access to our happiness and are less likely to be overwhelmed.
Resilience requires both support (from self and others) and moment to moment awareness. Support means we are not alone. We can stop and take a breath. We know someone else has our back. We feel safer. So we bounce back quicker.
Self care is a form of support and helps us adapt better in the face of challenges. Without self care, we will have far less resilience.
Awareness is the key
The Buddha emphasized the breath as a path of awakening because the focus on the breath increases awareness.
Moment to moment awareness means that we are aware in each moment of the choice before us, whether it is a choice of action or a choice of attitude. We are tuned in. Without the moment to moment awareness of how we are feeling, we are steering a ship without a rudder. Our awareness is the rudder that allows us to guide ourselves.
How do we understand awareness in the context of self care? We have to know what is supportive and caring for us, whether individually or in relationships with others. We have to learn how to balance the different aspects of our lives. To do so, we have to be aware and look deeply. Often we need to develop and fine tune this skill.
Self care is not a to do list
Sometimes we think of self care as a to do list, which reduces the complexity of what self care is. For example, we decide that if we do something (exercise, meditate, take a nap), this is self care. But this leaves out tuning in to what the best choice is for us in each moment. Some people do need to set up a routine to establish self care. But others may need to tune in and see what they need at that moment. They may need to sit down by themselves that day and rest, rather than jump on their spin bike. Using awareness and tuning in, makes self care more alive and about responding to what we need at that time.
Self care can be tricky
One man started taking a walk most days. It made him feel better. For him, that was what he needed. But he also didn’t take that walk when his body told him he needed to rest.
A woman wanted to start exercising after being ill for an extended time. She was confused about when to push herself and when to skip the exercise. She had a voice in her head that said, “I’m too tired. I shouldn’t exercise.” For her, self care meant that she had to push through that voice and exercise anyway. But a year earlier, had she pushed through that voice, she would have been hurting herself because her body wasn’t ready.
Another woman was teaching her niece a new vocation. She was busy, and sometimes it felt like too much to add to her busy schedule. But as she taught her niece, she was nurturing both her niece and herself. So despite her busyness, this was a form of self care for her.
Self care can be subtle, as in the examples above. Staying aware of and attuned to the needs of the moment, allows for authentic self care.
With that in mind, let’s look at some ideas for self care.
Ideas for self care:
- Affirmations – such as telling yourself you are worthy of spending time doing what you love. Are you able to do this? If not, it is essential to figure out how to learn to do this.
- Taking time out – for physical care, emotional care, spiritual care, and social care. Are you able to do this? If you cannot make time for yourself, what is going on? What do you tell yourself? Will the world really stop if you don’t do everything? Maybe it will. Perhaps you are stuck in a situation where you have to do it all. Then part of yourself care would be telling yourself that your situation is temporary. It might include asking for help, praying, or asking the universe to show you a way out. Sometimes we are building perseverance. Realizing the intention of the challenge helps us.
- Accepting your limitations – our limitations are part of life. Accepting them means we accept our humanness. It may mean we are letting go of control. It certainly means we are no longer driving ourselves in an unsustainable way.
- Making choices that give you happiness – isn’t joy one of the purposes of life? If you forgot this, it is time to reacquaint yourself with this idea.
- Doing things you enjoy – similar to above, it is important to be engaged in activities that feed your sense of happiness and purpose.
- Not fixing every relationship problem that comes up – not everything is your job to fix. You can let your partner (or child) deal with the consequences of his or her actions. Sometimes we are afraid of our partner’s feelings or letting them deal with what they have created. This isn’t good for either of you. How will they grapple with their challenges and reach their potential, if you fix everything that comes up?
- Allowing others to give to you – you are not just the giver. Being the receiver means you are open to an equal exchange of energy.
Change re-aligns our lives
See which of these ideas for self care work for you. Self care will not only contribute towards your resilience, but it will also make you a happier person. If you have children, you will be helping to teach them self care by example.
Self care will also enable you to bring more balance to your relationship. If you do not care for yourself, resentment can build up – which is destructive. When you stop doing too much, generally, our partners have to make adjustments as well.
As we learn to take care of ourselves, our world shifts and re-aligns. Our foundation is more substantial. Accepting that as we find the balance between self and other care, we are helping ourselves and all those we are in contact with – regardless of whether they are aware of it.
If you struggle with healthy boundaries in a relationship, try reading this article, “What are Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship?“.