The Dalai Lama was once asked what his religion is to which he responded, “Love and kindness.” Personally, I like that religion. Love and kindness towards self is the beginning point to healthy living. Love and kindness blended with a little patience is called self-care.
In our western culture sometimes we confuse self-care with selfishness. The perfect illustration to clarify this confusion is pre-flight instructions given prior to a plane take off. The flight attendant instructions include what to do should a sudden shift in cabin pressure occur. They emphasize that you must put the oxygen mask on yourself BEFORE you take care of others. While this presentation is the brunt of many jokes and funny stories it aptly teaches that you cannot be in a position to help and serve others, work towards life goals, or participate in healthy relationships if you are unconscious.
In other words, you cannot burn the candle at both ends and expect the light for very long since the candle will burn itself out. It is self-care that allows for a balanced life. Self-care provides the inner strength needed to serve others. Self-care puts life goals and healthy living into motion.
Filling up Your Bucket
Typically as the concept of filling your bucket is being taught at self-care seminars many heads will nod in complete agreement that you cannot give from an empty bucket. This is an area where what you believe and what you actually do seem to be far apart. Most days are filled with a long to-do list of tasks to perform. As each task is checked off our list we receive great satisfaction of accomplishment suggesting greater self-worth.
John Bradshaw, author of “Healing the Shame that Binds Us” suggests that we have become human doings rather than human beings. We do not allow ourselves opportunities to just be. (See Anxiety – “Power of Being”)
As I was teaching self-care to a group of mothers of all ages with a wide variety of life circumstances I asked the participants who believed that they must fill their own bucket before they could give to their families and children; every hand went up. I asked them to keep their hand in the air if their behavior would let me know that they did indeed believe in filling their own bucket. Almost every hand went down. In reality they were giving lip service to the value of self-care but it did not reflect in their behavior.
Each listed what the ebb and flow of their days consisted of with so many tasks; driving to soccer games, gymnastics, little league or a million varieties to the same taxi theme, helping with homework, and usually some type of employment thrown into the mix. Occasionally there were vacations but only few participated in routine and consistent self-care.
Although, logically they might perceive the simple impossibility to pour from an empty bucket they just could not visualize how to incorporate self-care into their lives. While there were many reasons why it was not possible to create self-care; the common theme was merely no more time in their day. This group of highly educated and successful women admitted to high levels of stress and feeling overwhelmed by the grind of everyday family life. They regarded filling their own bucket as selfish and just one more task to be checked off an already too full to the brim to-do list.
At that point we discussed some different self-care strategies which included living in the present. First, I had them take some deep breaths and come to the present as they described what was really going on in the present moment. Slowly, some of the stress that had been tangible in the room started to subside. As a form of playfulness and a symbol of the power of self-care I had the women take off their shoes and socks.
Giggles floated around the auditorium as I handed out nail polish and asked them to paint their toenails. Some broke up into groups of two and painted each other’s toenails. For some, this was too vulnerable of an interchange and therefore painted their own toenails. Spontaneously, the activity brought an atmosphere of fun.
One statistics professor confessed that she had always wanted to paint her toenails but was afraid that others would think that she was stupid. I told the women their painted toenails symbolized the value of their authentic self; a simple message of love and kindness for themselves resting under their socks each day.
Later that week, I received an email from a woman that said she could feel her pink toe nails under her socks throughout her work day and felt an undercurrent of delight. The symbol of self-care power was doing the trick just by being there. The following week while at the shopping mall I happened to see one of the participants from the seminar and as she approached, her sly smile suggested she knew some deep secret that became even more wonderful with time. She wiggled her toes and told me they were reminding her every day that it was OK to fill her bucket and by doing so was actually helping others; what a wonderful secret to come to believe.
Self-Care is About Attitude
The repeated barrier to self-care is time. How could there really be time or opportunity to nurture and care for one’s self in the daily routine of life? In theory it is a brilliant idea but not practical for everyday life. The truthful answer to filling your bucket has nothing to do with time. It has everything to do with attitude towards self and life.
It is about truly believing and trusting in the process of life. It is about taking a chance of doing things differently with hope that growth and learning towards a new way of being will emerge. It is about mindful living by being aware that you are consciously choosing your life. Interacting with life in the attitude of self-care provides the filling of your bucket that sustains you and supports behaviors honoring and nurturing the divine within you.
Once you understand that self-care is more about attitude than time you can discover small ways to nurture and care for yourself. Fill your surroundings with symbols of your inherent worth; symbols that appeal to the senses reach the unconscious. Adding symbols within your daily life does not take any extra time although it does require a shift in attitude that you are worth it accompanied by a belief that a balanced life is more satisfying. A few easy ideas that bring the shift in attitude and perspective:
- Fill your office and home with a fragrance that is pleasing to you.
- Listen to uplifting music or an inspirational podcast on your way to work.
- Create your surroundings with decorations or artwork that is inspirational to you.
- Look in the mirror less.
- Incorporate some playful components to your daily tasks.
- Smile and say “Hi” to those you pass.
- Consider ways to simplify the tasks on your to-do list.
- Have the courage to set limits so that you are not trying to balance too many plates in the air at one time.
Empowered Life Solutions Workbook premium content has additional detailed suggestions for daily self-care.
Ellen Langer, mindfulness researcher and author, suggests that life in a state of mindfulness can be as simple as doing something different or in a new way. We slog through our days with little awareness of the life before us.
After attending a series of lectures by Ellen Langer I decided to take her at her word. I experimented and tried to do or notice something new every day and by practicing mindfulness. I learned I could feel newness each day that required no extra time. When we experience anything new there is energy and awareness that is not there once it becomes routine.
For instance, when we drive the same route home day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year we scarcely notice anything new. With this in mind, I started driving home a new route each day. In doing so, I noticed the difference in landscapes. I noticed the clouds and variations of color in the sky. I noticed my surroundings and the details of my day as a means of being mindful. I began to notice the details in nature with a sense of marvel that I had not felt since childhood.
I noticed details about the people in my day and complimented others on their new hair cut or wished them well on their vacation. I learned the names of the children in my neighborhood and begin calling the children by name as I saw them. It felt good to drive into my neighborhood and receive a friendly “hi” whereas before I would have just passed by without acknowledgement. These were a few different ideas I came up with in trying something new each day that took no extra time at all. I decided that Ellen Langer was right; doing something new each day feels good.
Self-care is not complicated or selfish. Listening to the warble of the morning bird, breath in the lovely scent of the summer garden, notice the promise in a child’s eyes; all bring you back to your authentic self. Rediscovering yourself is as simple as a shift in attitude that turns small experiences into a feeling of well-being. Self-nurturing is living in an attitude that you are worth it and that is not about time at all.
References and Related Reading
Bienkowski, A. (2010) One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others.
Bradshaw, J. (2005) Healing the Shame that Binds You.
Laroze, C. (2005) The Art of Being: Recapturing the Self.
Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2004) The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal.
Maraboli, S. (2009) Life, the Truth, and Being Free.