How to Practice Loving Self-Care

“Life consists not in holding good cards, but in playing those we do hold well.” —Josh Billings

loving self-care

Guest post by Larry Berkelhammer, PhD

“Self-care” is a straightforward term that encompasses any action we take to nurture our health. Finding the right physicians to help us manage our conditions, receiving appropriate treatments, eating nourishing foods, and getting sufficient rest are all examples of self-care. But what is loving self-care?

When we practice loving self-care, we give ourselves the gift of full presence, moment by moment, whenever we engage in self-care activities. This is especially beneficial for people living with cancer or chronic medical conditions, as the ability to be fully present to this experience builds mastery and wellbeing.

Excellent nutrition, adequate sleep and exercise, skilled and knowledgeable medical care, complying with treatments, and dropping unhealthy habits—the typical focus of behavioral medicine—are all critical in maintaining health. But for people living with conditions such as autoimmune diseases or cancer, they do not go far enough. Of critical importance is to pursue self-care with an attitude of caring for ourselves with the same commitment and focus we would bring to the task of caring for a newborn baby—fully engaged in the activity and acting out of love.

The analogy of caring for an infant, who is not yet capable of telling us what it needs, is a very helpful one because of the degree of attention this requires. When we engage in loving self-care we must continually ask ourselves what we need in order to feel better and improve our health. It becomes a valued way of life, one that carries with it a sense of meaning and purpose. Parents often derive a sense of meaning and purpose from caring for their young children, who are utterly dependent upon them. In much the same way, our own care, survival, vitality, and quality of life are intrinsically worthy endeavors.

Choosing Self-Care

We make frequent choices throughout the day about how we care for ourselves, but most of the time they are beneath our conscious awareness. A commitment to living with presence and intentionality can change that, and here’s an example. This morning I found myself thinking I have to go all the way in to San Francisco for another dreaded medical appointment at UCSF. Practicing loving self-care, I replaced have to with want to because, even though it’s no fun, it’s a productive and meaningful activity.

Keeping the appointment and recognizing that I was doing so out of choice connected me to its meaning and purpose. And I knew that if I used the whole experience to practice staying present with my inner experiences, I would build mindfulness and mastery skills, contributing in highly effective ways to my own health and happiness. It also meant I was authentically living my life in accordance with my personal life values. I especially tune in to intentionality and choice when I go in for an MRI, an endoscopy, or any other unpleasant procedure; this is loving self-care.

Recently, I chose to go in for a repeat esophagogastroduodenoscopy and colonoscopy. Drinking the four liters of polyethylene glycol solution the evening before was, as usual, extremely disgusting and very close to being intolerable. However, practicing loving self-care, I was able to remind myself that I was doing it out of choice, and that every time I choose to take care of myself I am cultivating a sense of mastery and living by my values.

Loving Self-Care, Want, and Need

Often, we can improve our health by acting in accordance with what we need rather than what we want. For example, I often want chocolate, pie, cake, or ice cream when people around me are eating them. But I almost never eat more than one bite because I know I don’t need any of them. I live with a severe malabsorption syndrome, which means I don’t absorb all the nutrients in the food I eat.

This is a serious condition because the nutrients in food make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which allows the mitochondria in our cells to make the energy that keeps all our cells functioning. One of the ways I practice loving self-care is to remind myself that eating more than one bite of any foods that lack nutrients—like sugary treats—is equivalent to scratching an itch for five minutes straight; in both cases, it will do more harm than good. On those very rare occasions when I eat an entire piece of cake or pie and ice cream, I practice loving self-care by eating mindfully, focusing all my attention on savoring every moment.

Suggestions for Practicing Loving Self-Care

• Eliminate the words should and have to from your vocabulary. Anytime you find yourself dreading going somewhere or doing a certain activity in support of your self-care, ask yourself how you would feel if you cancelled it; would you have regrets? If the activity is something you value, replace should with want to.

• Also practice saying “No.” If an activity you dread isn’t conducive to health, recognize that you are choosing that activity and reject that choice. For example, you may feel depressed about an upcoming visit with someone who always seems to leave you feeling worse: perhaps you only do it out of a sense of guilt or obligation. Recognize that this mental state is not consistent with loving self-care, and make a different choice.

• Focus all your attention on the activity at hand. This is a challenge with routine activities that you can literally do with your eyes closed, such as showering. Be fully with the water, the soap, the whole process.

• Whenever you are in doubt about how to proceed—even concerning really small decisions such as what to eat—approach the choice as a loving self-care practice; simply choose what is best for you in the same way a good parent would choose what is healthiest for a young child.

• Do more activities that leave you feeling better afterward, and do fewer activities that leave you feeling worse.

• Practice self-compassion. Imagine how you have felt when you have extended compassion to someone else and give that gift to yourself. When you notice self-critical thoughts, soothe yourself just as you would a dear friend.

• Remember that every little thing you do to care for yourself in a loving way matters—sometimes enough to create a noticeable improvement in your health and well-being.

About the Author

Larry Berkelhammer, PhD., worked in a psychotherapy practice with patients with serious medical conditions for many years. He now runs a public service website, www.larryberkelhammer.com, and speaks to chronic illness groups and associations.

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Let us know how you practice loving self-care for yourself. Share your favorite tips or your thoughts in the comment box below.

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