Self-care refers to things done by you for your own well-being and comfort. Many people know that self-care is especially important during times of stress, sadness, rejection, grief, and all kinds of upheaval and loss because it is these things that tap our inner resources and render us vulnerable to other emotional and physical maladies. But the benefits of self-care go far beyond crisis management. Small, frequent, and practical acts of self-care can literally change your brain, making it less hospitable to depression and more welcoming to feelings of well being.
Ideally, we learn self-care in the arms and at the knees of able and caring parents. Such parents are perceptive, available, and empathic in discerning our needs and meeting them. Our first positive experience in self-care may be learning that our needs generally do get met. This lays the groundwork for trusting the universe into which we’re born. When our needs have a history of getting met, we tend to have the resilience to manage and endure those times when they are not.
Later, our highly competent parents coach us in healthy ways of navigating distress. In the mirror of our relationship with them, we learn how to identify, trust, express, and bear our feelings. Further, these parents “talk us off the ledge” when we find ourselves on one. They say and do caring and soothing things, like giving encouragement, appropriate physical touch, and redirection. They remind us that difficult events and feelings can be endured and overcome because we’ve seen them do it and they’ve helped us do it. In this way we learn to soothe and care for ourselves as we move into adulthood.
Sadly, everyone is not equal when it comes to self-care. Many parents grew up in environments where their own needs went unmet and where self-soothing may have taken destructive turns, e.g., compulsive and addictive behavior, substance abuse, emotional dysregulation (e.g., aggression) and dissociation (e.g., shutting down, spacing out, etc.). Through the same intergenerational transmission that bestows emotional health and resilience, less favorable traits might be inherited by emotionally wounded caregivers, whose neglect and abuse might have impaired our own ability to care for and soothe ourselves in healthy ways.
Many of my counseling clients have grown to adulthood without having learned how to emotionally self-regulate or recover from distress. Among that population, anxiety and depression are common. Educating clients in appropriate self-care, self-soothing, and boundary setting are core competencies in the counseling field.
I have referred many clients to 12-Step groups, not just clients with their own addictive behavior, but those living with or recovering from family members’ addictive or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. Such groups, like Al-Anon, ACoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), and CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) are rich resources for growth. I have found much in those programs to help people learn and master basic principles and practices of self-care.
In Adult Children of Alcoholics:The Solution, ACoA members learn that instead of continuing the cycle of self-neglect and learned helplessness that characterized their childhoods, “the solution is to become your own loving parent.” Members are also instructed, “We learn to re-parent ourselves with gentleness, humor, love and respect” and “You will take responsibility for your own life and supply your own parenting.”
So who or what is it that’s being re-parented, and by what or whom? The concept of self-parenting or reparenting presupposes that there is something within us that needs to be reparented and something else within us to do it. Is there any scientific rationale for this?
Linda Graham, MFT, writes,
…Attachment theory and research of the last 50 years and modern neuroscience of the last 20 years are telling us:
- Our earliest relationships actually build the brain structures we use for relating lifelong.
- Experiences in those early relationships encode in the neural circuitry of our brains by 12-18 months of age, entirely in implicit memory outside of awareness; these patterns of attachment become the “rules,, templates, schemas, for relating that operate lifelong, the “known but not remembered” givens of our relational lives.
- When those early experiences have been less than optimal, those unconscious patterns of attachment can continue to shape the perceptions and responses of the brain to new relational experiences in old ways that get stuck, that can’t take in new experience as new information, can’t learn or adapt or grow from those experiences. What we have come to call, from outside the brain looking in, as the defensive patterns of personality disorders. What one clinician calls “tragic recursive patterns that become encased in neural cement.”
Others call it the wounded inner child. For simplicity, let’s call it the inner child. The inner child can be thought of as these old unconscious patterns, perceptions, beliefs, and emotional responses from early childhood.
Dr. Nicola Davies writes,
Inner child refers to a part of the adult personality that houses child-like and adolescent behaviors, memories, emotions, habits, attitudes, and thought patterns. It’s generally seen as an autonomous sub-personality with its own needs, desires, issues and goals. In this sense, the inner child functions independently, and sometimes in opposition to, the more mature parts of the adult personality.
It would probably be more accurate to describe the inner child construct itself as being made up of various parts, so as not to give the impression that the term refers to a single entity. Thus, we can talk of the Abandoned child, as well as the Playful, Spoiled, Neglected, Discounted, Disconnected and Fearful parts of the child.
You might feel you have one or more of the following inner child characteristics:
- The Abandoned Child – feels very lonely, insecure and unwanted, and craves attention and safety; fears of abandonment accompany the adult person, even in marriage. Busy, divorced or separated parents are often the main reason for the child feeling unwanted and struggling with issues of abandonment.
- The Neglected Child – shows itself in depressed, lonesome and withdrawn adults. Not having experienced much love and nurturing during childhood, the person doesn’t know how to express it, and believes that they are unworthy of being loved.
- The Playful Child – an often forgotten, healthy part of the creative adult personality that knows how to have spontaneous fun, and is relatively free of guilt and anxiety.
- The Spoiled Child – shows up as impatient adults that tend to throw temper tantrums when immediate gratification of needs and wants isn’t readily forthcoming.
- The Fearful Child – needs to hear continuous affirmation and encouragement otherwise the adult is nearly always filled with anxiety and panic. As a child, the person received a lot of criticism from caregivers.
- The Disconnected Child – manifests in the adult that cannot trust easily, and stays isolated and uninvolved; intimacy is a fearful and foreign experience, because the developing child never had the opportunity to learn what it means to be close to someone.
- The Discounted Child – this child was treated as if they didn’t exist and was made to feel invisible and generally ignored; in adulthood, self-belief and positive valuation is virtually absent, and the adult needs consistent loving attention and support to feel validated.
What do we do about this “inner child,” with all its various expressions and needs? Going back to the ACoA excerpt, we must become our own loving parent.
The thinking behind self-parenting is that we can create, or recover, a sort of observing self; a part of ourselves that can separate from our limited beliefs and reactions and learn ways of self-calming and self-soothing the inner child. There’s also the notion that being reparented, even by ourselves, has a deeply healing effect.
There’s another aspect that’s useful—that of using the idea of self-parenting to sort out your adult confusions: This means approaching your own life from the perspective of a loving parent. For example, a loving parent would want you to be in healthy relationships with nice people. A loving parent would want you to take good care of yourself—to eat right, get sleep and rest, do fun things, exercise, avoid destructive substances and habits, etc.
Sometimes, when we’re confused about what to do, looking at ourselves and our situation from the perspective of a loving parent gives a healthy separation from the adult self and the reactive inner child. Instead of being hijacked by the inner child, we move into relationship with it. This can bring unexpected relief and allow a remarkable and immediate clarity about what to do. For example, if you can’t decide whether the serious relationship you’re getting into (or staying in) is good for you, the self-parenting perspective can help you ask yourself, “Would a good friend treat me like this?” Or, “Would a loving parent tolerate me being treated like this—or tolerate me putting myself or keeping myself in this situation?”
How do we become our own loving parent — a skillful practitioner of self-care?
Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D., writes,
First, one becomes conscious of her own inner child. Remaining unconscious is what empowers the dissociated inner child to take possession of the personality at times, to overpower the will of the adult. Next, we learn to take our inner child seriously and to consciously communicate with that little girl or boy within: to listen to how he or she feels and what he or she needs from us here and now.
The often frustrated primal needs of that perennial inner child–for love, acceptance, protection, nurturance, understanding–remain the same today as when we were children. As pseudo-adults, we futilely attempt to force others into fulfilling these infantile needs for us. But this is doomed to failure. What we didn’t sufficiently receive in the past from our parents as children must be confronted in the present, painful though it may be.
The past traumas, sadness, disappointments and depression cannot be changed and must be accepted. Becoming an adult means swallowing this “bitter pill.” Unfortunately for most of us, certain infantile needs were, whether maliciously or not, unmet by our imperfect parents or caretakers. And they never will be met now, no matter how good or smart or attractive or spiritual or loving we become. Those days are over. What was done cannot be undone. We should not as adults now expect others to meet all of these unfulfilled childhood needs. They cannot. Authentic adulthood requires both accepting the painful past and the primary responsibility for taking care of that inner child’s needs, for being a “good enough” parent to him or her now—and in the future.
Now for specifics. Here are 30 strategies that could help put Dr. Diamond’s thoughts into operation. They are culled from books, the internet, and my personal and clinical experience:
Self-care when distressed
- First, do no harm. This guiding principle for physicians is a good rule for people whose distress takes an angry, accusatory, or vengeful form. This is not the time to finish that heated discussion with your spouse, lash out at anyone, or confront a colleague. Restraining yourself from undisciplined expression of anger may not lead to immediate relief, but it will protect you from doing something you’ll regret. Just wait. This leads to strategy #2.
- Let time do its job. Painful emotional states are temporary. Because they pull us into a regressed state, we get decieved by the childhood feeling that “this is forever.” But it’s not. Remember the slogan, “Become your own loving parent,” and make yourself as comfortable as possible while you wait out the pain.
- Ask for help. Even good parents get assistance for their children from time to time. Talk openly and frankly to trusted friends and, when more is needed, to a therapist.
- Take a warm bath and have a cup of chamomile tea. It’s a one-two punch.
- Dance with yourself. Put on your favorite dance song and move—large, active movements—even if you’re not in the mood. Watch what animals do after a fight or a scare. They shake it off. Dancing is a powerful way to shake off your distress.
- Activate your self-soothing system by gently patting your cheek with your hand or lightly rubbing your chest over your heart.
- Sit by a fireplace or outdoor fire-pit. Watch the flames and take in the warmth.
Strategies for ongoing self-care
- Frequently listen to music you enjoy.
- Massage. Appropriate non-sexual touch is not just a luxury, it’s requirement for well-being. If there is a scarcity of healthy physical touch in your life, outsource it!
- Make dates with yourself. Plan some time alone doing something that nourishes or inspires you. It can be reading, working on a hobby, visiting a museum or art gallery, or going out to a movie at your favorite theater by yourself. Or go bigger: Plan a fun weekend getaway with yourself.
- Get outside every single day, preferably in nature. When it’s warm, run your fingers or toes through some grass.
- Plant something—a tree, a small vegetable garden, a flower, or a roomful of orchids.
- Balance the natural negative bias of the brain by listening to inspiring podcasts and audiobooks when you drive.
- Build something with blocks or Legos, using only your imagination instead of instructions. Play with paper, colors, and pictures. Draw or sculpt things just for fun, with no requirement to be “good.” Try making a vision board to give shape to your dreams and aspirations, without the need to be “realistic.”
- Sing along with your favorite songs.
- Practice gratitude and appreciation. Keep a daily or ongoing gratitude list or a list of things you appreciate about yourself. This is not mere positive thinking. It is, to use Dr. Daniel Siegel’s words, “Using the mind to change the brain to change the mind.”
- Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a well-researched strategy for improving mood, calming anxiety, and reducing the recurrence of depression. With practice, it thickens the area of the prefrontal cortex responsible for generating feelings of happiness and well-being.
- Self-defense class and/or strength building. If you were bullied or abused as a child, consider taking a self-defense course or bodybuilding to change your perception of yourself from victim to powerful adult.
- Cultivate a positive relationship with money. Keep track of money coming in and going out so you always know how much money you have right now. Use that to create a spending plan based on what you actually earn and spend, with the focus on self-care. Just ending your terminal vagueness about the disposition of your money can be life changing.
- Eat a nourishing, well balanced diet. Staying healthy is a good enough reason, but the added reason is that feeding yourself nourishing food is a highly symbolic, potent, and cumulative act of self-care that changes how you think of yourself.
- Get enough sleep. Make space in your life for naps and rest.
- Make exercise a regular part of your life. Do it. Start as small as you need to, and do something you like. The 10 minute walk you take every day is better than the 45 minute run you never get around to.
- Tend your body. Don’t put off dental or medical care. Make a point to care for your body as you would for a beloved child.
- Take a yoga class.
- Buy yourself a little something just because you want it.
- Keep a photo of yourself as a young child someplace where you see it frequently. Direct feelings of warmth and acceptance to this child.
- Don’t buy poor quality or low fashion clothing just because it’s on sale. Save up for good quality clothes, shoes, and other goods. (You’re not required to overspend! You can still buy high quality items on sale.)
- Incarnate. Cultivate an awareness of your own body and the sense of yourself in it.
- Recalibrate your brain through participating regularly in synchronous activities such as line dancing, choral singing, drumming circles, or yoga, tai-chi or chi-gong classes.
- Try to be a source of support, hope, and inspiration for others who are struggling to achieve self-care. This isn’t just a noble gesture. It creates beneficial changes in your own neurochemistry.
There are many more ideas for self-care than can fit into one article. Try these, or simply ask, “What would I do for a child of mine who felt like this?” And do it.