What Self Care Really Means


Self care has become a bit of a buzz word in therapy and popular psychology – and for good reason – we could all do with caring for ourselves more. Unfortunately as can often happen with pop psychology, a deeper understanding of what self-care really means is sometimes lost. And worse the term is easily appropriated by those of us with a tendency to self-blame, becoming yet another thing we beat ourselves up for getting wrong.

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Self care is about needs. Being able to identify what my true needs are and meeting those needs as best I can.

For many of us identifying our true needs can feel challenging, risky and painful. Identifying what I need requires really listening to myself, to my body, feeling the feelings and not avoiding them. For example if I feel irritable and don’t know why I could do something to distract myself from the irritability, watch TV maybe or eat something, this may give temporary relief but the feelings will come back. However self care here really means seeking out what I need to support me in really feeling the irritability, perhaps it’s talking to someone I trust, writing in my journal or going for a contemplative walk. Perhaps then I can drop deeper in myself and I might find what is under ‘irritable’ maybe I am lonely, maybe I am feeling creatively unmet. Then if I can bear to let myself feel the fullness of the loneliness or lack or whatever it is… the heart ache, the churning in my belly, the tingling in my limbs… If I can bear to feel the embodied experience of myself and be with the question what do I need now,  then the deeper need can present itself and then I am in a position to really make meaningful change in my life.

So self-care is an ever deepening process, as we gradually over time work through the layers of self and get to know ourselves better. How can I care for a self that I do not know? The first step in self care is paying attention to myself, listening to myself. Much like one might listen to a child to understand what this child needs now.Indeed how our needs were responded to when we were children by the adults who cared for us will greatly influence our ability to meet our own needs as adults.

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Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • Were my needs heard when I was little?
  • What depth of need was heard?
  • Was there a family culture of really listening to children?
  • In the house hold  was there one person whose needs always took precedence – a narcissist/ a neurotic for example – everything circled around keeping this person clam/content?
  • And what sort of needs were valued– material needs – food for example… educational needs? Were emotional needs allowed?
  • When I did express my needs what were my expressions met with?

Sometimes adults can’t bear the suffering of their own unmet needs and so cannot bear to really hear the needs of their children. This can lead to serious misattunement. For example if a child who is over excited and needs calming  is given more stimulation, then later as an adult all this person knows when  over- excited or over-  stimulated  is to seek more excitement and more stimulation – coffee, sugar, drama…. We can’t recognise our own need for calm. Or every time a little one seeks physical closeness to mom they are given food instead. Then we might seek food when lonely later in life. Not even knowing that that empty feeling in pit of my belly and the aching feeling in my heart is actually signals a need to connect to another person.


How can we know what we truly need then ? By listening to ourselves at a new depth – and bearing the suffering – as need is always born of suffering.We have to pay attention to the feelings without moving in to quickly to fix and alleviate the suffering for  it is only by allowing the suffering and being present to it we can really know what it is we need and follow that – this is self care.

If as soon as I feel an odd sensation in my belly I reach for food, then I don’t know what is under that. I don’t know the truth of myself in this moment. I am covering up my suffering. Perhaps in same way my parents covered up my suffering and my true need when I was a child. If I can bear to be present to the rumbling and feel it and accept it I may come to new depths of self awareness and find needs that I did not know I had.  To be able to meet our deepest needs leads to real life transformation and liberation.

A client example: Mary is single in her 40’s. Weary of relationships, romantic and friendships. Says she is fine on her own and knows how to take care of herself;  which she absolutely does. Due to emotional abuse in her early years she adapted a survival strategy of going it alone.  Over the course of months of therapy, Mary paid more and more attention to bodily sensation. One area which drew our attention a lot was Mary’s gut. She had been struggling with IBS for years.  Staying with the uncomfortable sensations over time and increasing her window of tolerance for these sensations brought Mary through layers of sensation, emotion and insight, the anger at the abuse she has suffered, grief at what was lost and finding the deeply hidden desire and need for intimate relationships with others. Ultimately she was able to soften and defend herself less. This freed up huge amounts of energy and dynamism.  Her IBS improved greatly as she began to pay attention to the signals her body was giving her about her own needs. And she developed close friendships and a romantic relationship which were satisfying and met her deeper needs.

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This was not an easy, linear or straightforward process for Mary. These things tend to be complicated and convoluted as we work through a life-time of learnt behaviours and go about re-wiring our brains. Sometimes self care is pleasurable and fun – recognising a need to play or to book a massage for example.  And sometimes the self- care is uncomfortable, challenging or scary. Not wanting to talk to your boss about that raise after recognising a need for better income or job security – yet knowing that is really how you can best look after yourself.

If it is too scary it may overwhelm then it’s best to  break  this down into smaller steps.The question ‘what do I need right now?’ is truly helpful to finding what will resource me. A resource is anything that deeply nourish us, feels good, and makes us happy . In recognising I need to ask for that raise I might feel scared so I ask ‘what do I need now’ and I think, ‘a cup of tea!’, ok so I put the kettle on and I ask again, ‘what do I need now’,  I need to sit down, I need warmth… ok I sit by the fire with the tea,’ what do I need now?’, to figure out what words I could use, I will write and practice what I want to say… I am getting nervous as I think about what to say, ok, put the pen down and just feel the warmth of the fire until I feel a bit better…. and so on, tiny step by tiny step until I have spoken to my boss  and found a way to meet my need.

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When the feelings of suffering or fear become overwhelming ,  we may need time out and that might be a walk, a book, a TV show – could be anything – and that’s fine and appropriate sometimes. However time-out can sometimes turn into numbing  and we can perpetuate the misatunement we may have received from care givers,  by giving myself chocolate when I need to cry or numbing with Netflix when I need to reach out.

The discourse around self-care can feed into this superficial reading of need and perpetuate the numbing behaviours . Like an adult saying, “the poor kid is crying, give him sweets and he’ll feel better”  when what he really needs is probably to be heard and held and loved. But it is too painful to hold and hear the suffering of a child when we can’t do that for ourselves – when we can’t bear our own suffering.

So ironically perhaps, self care is all about developing the capacity to feel my own suffering. Resource helps me do that. It is necessary first step to self care. But it is not the whole picture. Resourced enough I can bear my suffering, feel my deeper needs and feel empowered enough to take the actions I need to take.

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Take a few moments to check in with yourself right now and see what this article might have brought to the surface in you. What are you feeling? What of this makes sense to you. What has it inspired you to do in order to care for yourself? What do you need?