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Scott Hamilton, YTI Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling

February 22, 2019

As a licensed psychologist and minister, I companion with people as they find their way—usually through some adverse circumstance or series of events that has left those persons functioning at less than their very best. One of the things I often do as part of that process is give people permission to care well for themselves, and that’s what I want to speak with you about today.

This introductory piece begins a short series crossing the next few months, during which you’ll learn more about self-care and some of the aspects that make self-care so valuable, especially those who work in the academic world. Specifically, you’ll learn what self-care actually is and why self-care is an integral part of exceptional human functioning. I also want to provide you with permission.

Definition and Purpose

In a blog post at, licensed counseling psychologist Raphailia Michael defines self-care as any activity we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. The Oxford Dictionary defines self-care as the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress. The New York Times defines self-care as the practice of taking action to “preserve or improve one’s own health.” Writing for Forbes magazine, Noma Nazish tells us that self-care is about being as kind to yourself as you would be to others. Those who are unwilling to be kind to others are not the focus of today’s session; we’ll save that briar patch for another day.

Further, please note that self-care is not limited to a specific person or group. No one person or group is more or less deserving of self-care than any other. In the grand scheme of things, self-care is inexpensive if not free of cost. The important facts are that self-care is any activity (in some contexts lack of activity) that helps people appropriately manage their mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health.

Contemporary Challenge

Now, we confront a contemporary conundrum. With this definition in mind, I’d like to ask you a question: How many of you go back to work after a holiday break already anticipating the next breather so you can get over the one you just finished? There will always be folks glad to get back to work so they can get some rest. My father-in-law used to tell me the hospital was the last place anyone should go if they wanted to rest.

While noting that not all folks feel guilty for wanting/needing to take better care of themselves, many others do. So, along with needing a break to recover from your break, many feel paradoxically guilty because they are supposed to “feel great” after a week or two away from the daily employment grind. When we don’t feel fantabulous after our breaks, a few well-meaning folks may even say, “Bless your heart. You might be thankful that you had any break at all,” which does not help.

Even if you don’t remember the definition of self-care or why it’s important when you leave here today, take this nugget home with you. You have permission to care for yourself, and frankly, those who would say differently are wrong.

Self-Care Potential

If self-care is any activity we participate in to enhance our general well-being, is there anything we can do to combat the potential guilt for needing/wanting to care for ourselves?  The short answer is, yes. Along with telling us that self-care is about being kind to others, Noma Nazish also tells us that self-care produces positive feelings while boosting confidence and self-esteem.

We often forget that our needs are also important. Contrary to popular belief, working constantly exhausts us, lessens productivity, and creates a counterproductive thought loop. We work, get tired, accomplish less, and feel guilty. What do we do to counter the guilt? We work more, become more fatigued, and feel more guilt, which becomes endless “should-ing” on ourselves.

Don’t mishear me. Moderate stress can actually be healthy, at least with completing an overdue task. On the other hand, constant stress and anxiety is detrimental to a person’s mental and physical health. In 1908, psychologists Yerkes and Dodson discovered that mild electric shocks would motivate rats to complete a maze. When the shocks became too strong, the rats scurried in random directions trying to escape. Increasing levels of stress and arousal levels can help focus motivation and attention on the present task, but only up to a point. Too much stress or anxiety, on the other hand significantly lowers productivity.

Most people I know have more than enough responsibilities. There’s laundry, paying bills, yardwork, herding children, grandchildren, cooking, cleaning, and whatever else comes up in daily life. And don’t forget class preparation. Interestingly, most of us choose such lives. If life is truly not a dress rehearsal, if today is truly as good as life is going to get, why choose to stress, especially about matters over which we have no control?

Just before Christmas, I drove from Bozeman, Montana to Texas in a U-Haul, pulling a car transport loaded with my CR-V. Just north of Colorado Springs, Colorado on the second afternoon of my journey, a tire blew off of the car transport. Luckily, the transport had two axels, and I was able to exit the interstate without further incident.

If you didn’t know, U-Haul handles such matters with free roadside assistance. You call them; U-Haul calls a local service person nearby, and that person comes to get the vehicle up and running again. The process sounds easy enough until it’s Friday afternoon about 4 o’clock. U-Haul couldn’t get anyone to come service the trailer. So, I sat. A very nice fellow from Denver, which was about 50 miles back up the road, arrived to replace the blown tire, about four hours later. I kid you not, this guy jumped from his pickup and turned on some lights and a compressor. He then retrieved a hydraulic jack, jacked up the loaded transport, removed the lugs, retrieved the replacement tire, returned the lugs, and lowered the transport. He accomplished all that in 5 minutes. I had waited four hours for someone to come and complete a 5-minute task. What the heck?

There was a time in one of my previous lives when having to wait for such things would’ve sent my blood pressure through the roof, flushed my attitude into the sewer, and created a level of crankiness few have encountered. None of those things would’ve gotten the repairman there any quicker. Sometimes it’s better to let some things go. All I’m suggesting is this: If stress and anxiety are only going to produce emotional and physical distress, which, in turn, is going to make you less productive, why not watch Netflix instead? Watching Netflix worked for me that day.

Benefits of Self-Care

Let’s now turn our attention toward some of self-care’s benefits. In doing so, we must know and acknowledge when our resources are low and be willing to step back to replenish them as needed – we cannot give what we don’t have. Yes, acknowledging our own needs blazes the trail for our own self-care. A short list of self-care benefits follows:

  1. Better productivity
  2. Improved resistance to disease
  3. Enhanced self-esteem
  4. Increased self-knowledge
  5. Move to give others

To go along with this short list of self-care benefits, let’s look at the types of self-care and some specific activities to go with each.

  1. Sensory
    • Wrap up in a blanket 
    • Take a short drive 
    • Get a massage 
    • Hold your pet 
    • Watch a fire 
  2. Emotional
    • Journal – use feeling words; cry if you need 
  3. Spiritual
    • Create a grateful list 
    • Speak self-affirmations 
    • Take a nature walk 
  4. Physical
    • Dance 
    • Exercise 
    • Walk – I once had a client I encouraged to walk to the end of her driveway and back because that’s all she could do 
    • Take a nap 
    • Get enough sleep 
    • Say, “No” 
  5. Social
    • Know if you’re introverted or extroverted—do you gain energy from being with others or time with yourself? 
    • Have lunch with a friend 
    • Join an interest group 
    • Take a class 
    • Don’t hang out with people who drain or disempower you 

I realize that some of these suggestions require you to say, “No” to certain things and/or people. The idea of saying, “No” to some other event or even a person is also part of the permission I want to grant you today. Even as challenging as telling someone, “No” will be, I encourage you to “try it on” for size. The task of saying “no” to one thing in order to say, “yes” to another becomes easier with practice, and doing so demonstrates how important the task of being compassionate with yourself is, not only for you but for those around you. The entire process helps to form resilience. In other words, as we learn to care well for ourselves, we also learn to deal with life more effectively.