Mindfulness and Self-Care: Acknowledging How the Two are Interchangeable and Sometimes Frustrating
Many of us have developed conflicted relationships with the terms “self-care” and “mindfulness”. While these practices are certainly crucial to a healthy emotional state, they can be tricky to understand and are often used in ways that can feel invalidating.
A company that advertises “the importance of self-care,” yet continues to overwork and underpay their employees - failing to acknowledge the main factors leading to employee stress, let alone realistic action steps that could possibly lead to this self-care.
It is understandable why many of us have become frustrated with these terms. They are frequently tossed around in overly simplistic ways, yet their definitions aren’t always the most straightforward.
Self-care in itself isn’t the most obvious operation. Self-care, by definition, can be divided into 8 parts: emotional, social, professional, environmental, spiritual, physical, psychological, and financial. Self-care can seem daunting because, for the most part, when we are in the most desperate need for it we are also our most stressed. When we are stressed, it can be hard to function, let alone look within and navigate our own needs and develop an action plan to fulfill meeting them. Yet, when we are stressed is when we need self-care the most.
In some highly demanding situations, self-care can be narrowed down to our basic physical survival needs. During grief, for example, we often experience days in which taking a shower, eating a meal, or drinking water are the only care we can manage for ourselves. During other, less intense periods, we will be able think of our self-care needs on a broader spectrum. These needs naturally will vary from each person and circumstance. For example, during a weekend after a busy and hectic work week, self-care for one individual may involve solitude and quiet, and for another may involve social plans. Or for someone else, a little bit of both.
This is where mindfulness comes in to play. For many of us, mindfulness is yet another term that can feel almost aggressive because of its overuse and seemingly abstract definition. By definition, mindfulness is awareness of the present: our feelings, our bodily sensations, and our thoughts. Mindfulness is at the very center of living with intention. As you are reading this right now, I encourage you to take a few seconds to practice mindfulness. How is your posture, your body language? How is your breathing? Are you engaging in shallow breaths, or breathing in through the nose and filling your lungs with oxygen for several seconds? What kind of thoughts are coming up for you? How do you feel? Are you irritated, stressed? Is your mind wandering off to your schedule or to-do list for the rest of this day? This, right here, is mindfulness.
Because self-care can be so vast, a level of mindfulness is required to better understand what we need in the moment. Maybe it is mid workday and we are realizing how tired and sleep deprived we are. Or how hungry or dehydrated we are. Maybe we are realizing we haven’t seen our friends or spent real quality time with our partner in weeks. Maybe we are noticing how thin we are spread, and that spending two nights a week working overtime just isn’t feasible anymore. Of course, we may not be able to take action in addressing these concerns immediately. But, noticing them will bring awareness to the areas of our life that are contributing to our stress, and awareness will enable us to be more empowered and therefore live with more intention - both of which are at the core of a self-care practice.
All of these ideas may seem complicated or confusing. These very ideas are at the heart of the work that can be done with a therapist. A big part of therapy is, in fact, practicing mindfulness. You, as the client, come into the session (or phone or video) and start talking about how you feel, what’s going on in your body, the thoughts that you have been having. You may start to notice how you are feeling in the session, or your therapist may point it out. That is mindfulness. All in all, understanding our needs and being able to set an action plan for our self-care requires awareness and intention - both can come from integrating more mindfulness into our practice.