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Meg-John Barker

Self-Care - for Depression Awareness Week

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 11 Apr 2011, 13:15


This week is depression awareness week (11-17 April). The most important thing I have to say in relation to depression is about self-care.

Towards the end of this week I'm going to an event about which asks, among other things, how people can nurture practices of 'self-care'. Towards the end of last year I ran a weekly workshop on self-care practices, and I'm running a day for therapists on the same topic this Autumn. The first chapter of the book I've recently written about relationships focuses on self-care. Here I want to look at why I think self-care is so important, what it is, and how we can build it into our lives (both when we are depressed and when we aren't).


Why Self-Care?

There's something wrong with me that needs fixing.


The most striking thing, for me, after several years of working as a psychotherapist, has been that virtually every person who comes for counselling or therapy believes that there is something wrong with them which needs fixing. A big part of this is the sense that everyone around them is managing life fine, whilst they are really struggling. There must be some lack or flaw in them in comparison with the rest of the world and they are desperate to put it right. Why can't they just be normal? What is wrong with them? Why aren't they like everyone else?


Sound familiar? I was certainly extremely grateful for this experience of person after person expressing sentiments that I had felt myself so many times. I now try to imbue therapy sessions with this sense that what is normal is to feel abnormal and wrong in this kind of way.


Reading about this sense of lack I've recognised that much of it is down to the difference between the image we present to others and our own inner experiences. The reason that people feel that there must be something wrong with them is that they are comparing themselves against the perfect, shiny people they see every day at work, on television, in the shopping mall, on facebook. But of course they themselves are likely also presenting a similar image to other people. When someone asks how we are we generally say 'fine' and accentuate the positive. Recent research has found that we write about the good stuff in our lives on social networking sites far more than what we are finding difficult. We know the messy, ugly and frightening stuff of our own selves because we live in them, but our point of comparison is a bunch of people who are unlikely to reveal that similar stuff to us unless we are very close to them indeed, or perhaps their therapist!


There may have been an element of this kind of comparison through history, but it is certainly exacerbated at the time we currently live in. Just think about the number of times each day that you receive the explicit or implicit message that there is something wrong with you which needs fixing. Maybe try counting for just one day. The explicit messages are easiest, although we don't often think about them. Every billboard advert and commercial on television, radio, or at the cinema, tells us that we need to be younger, more attractive, more successful and happier by owning more products or have more experiences of the kind that they are offering. This is also an implicit message in many newspaper articles, Hollywood movies, and reality television stories which tell accounts of the achievement of happiness, success or beauty through doing certain things, or sometimes of failure to achieve because of not having done such things as going on a diet, buying a lottery ticket, starting up a business or appearing on a television show. And we are certainly encouraged to compare ourselves to the airbrushed images in magazines, the snapshots of people we get in a brief news story, or to the characters who are being acted out by professional performers. We become used to comparing against a selective version of somebody's life rather the full warts-and-all picture. We could also think more widely about educational systems and organisational processes which are about comparing people against each other and striving for 'excellence' rather than being good enough.


Clearly there are important political conversations to have about this socioeconomic situation which underlies a good deal of current human misery. This is something that is frequently ignored by solutions which focus entirely upon the individual, including many forms of therapy, drug treatments, and people suggesting that we 'pull our socks up' (not that these things can't be helpful in their place, but if they obscure the wider context then there is a danger that they reinforce the idea that there is just something wrong with the individual person). In addition to addressing the wider context, what can we do as individuals to protect against this kind of toxicity, to help us to see these process as they operate through us, and to support each other better?


One suggestion is self-care.


What is Self-care?

It could be argued that, at the same time that society has become so consumer-oriented and focused on individual improvement, we have also lost some of the means we had in the past for caring for ourselves and for reflecting on our lives. It is very easy now to go through days and weeks without ever having a moment of quiet alone. We can easily fill our lives with noise, work and distraction such that we are always playing games on our phone, listing to podcasts, emailing, watching television, meeting people, getting tasks done, or socialising. When we do this it often gets increasingly frightening to be alone with ourselves. We can be anxious about what we will find. If we are struggling this means that it can often reach a crisis point before we do anything about it.


I'm not saying that those kinds of activities can't be done in caring ways (see my last blog entry on mindfulness), but I'm arguing that it is useful to ensure that we have some time in our daily lives devoted to being quiet, to looking after ourselves and to tuning in to where we are at. Otherwise it becomes increasingly difficult to tune into our needs (are we getting enough rest, food, support, activity, etc.) and also to tune outwards towards other people and the wider world.


Self-care is not just another form of monitoring ourselves and finding ourselves lacking, although we are so used to doing this that we need to watch out for it ('damn I haven't built any self-care into today – bad me!'). Similarly it isn't about just giving up on ourselves and thinking we may as well do comfortable nice stuff because we are no good anyway.


People's biggest block to doing self-care is often the idea that it is a selfish or self-absorbed thing to do. My own view is quite the opposite. Constant self-monitoring and self-improvement is self-absorbed because it is so internally focused that it often prevents us from seeing the fullness and struggles of other people. It also exhausts us to the point that we have very little to give to anyone else.


Caring for ourselves means that we are more aware of the kind of painful processes going on for us that make us despondent or fearful. This means that we can tune in better to the fact that other people likely have those same processes, so we can be more compassionate with their snappiness, withdrawal or neediness. We are less likely to just feel hurt and betrayed when others treat us poorly, because we understand it better. Also, when we have looked after ourselves we generally have more energy and patience for looking after others and for engaging with the world more broadly. We are more able to open up because we are less fearful of showing the fact we are lacking and imperfect: we know that everybody is.

What kind of self-care, and how to build it in, is up to each person. Different things work for different people at different times. I'd suggest making space for two things: kindness and reflection. Kind self-care is a way of demonstrating to ourselves that we are as deserving of kindness as anyone else (even when we don't quite feel that we are). Reflective self-care is a way of checking in with ourselves, tuning into our body and our emotions, asking ourselves how we are, thinking through any issues we are currently dealing with, making sense of why we are finding something difficult.


Examples of kind self-care that work for some people include: having a hot bath, giving yourself a treat, taking half an hour in a cafe, spending time with friends, being in the garden or park, sharing a hug with a friend or pet, and watching your favourite programme. Example of reflective self-care include writing in a journal, having a session with a close friend where you both have time to talk through whatever is on your mind, going for a walk, and meditating.


It seems to be really hard to build these into our everyday life. Our tendency is often to leave them till last (if we get everything else done) rather than prioritising them. When things get tough we are often even less likely to do these things because we feel that we don't deserve it, and we are often scared to be quiet or to tune into ourselves because we fear that we really will find something terribly wrong with us. Gently trying to build in a daily kind act towards ourselves is often a good first step at such times, followed later by also taking some time to kindly listen and reflect upon what is going on in our minds and bodies.


Given the world that we live in it is likely that we will keep forgetting self-care and needing to remind ourselves, and that we will easily slip into beating ourselves up about it or doing it with the secret hope that it will make us all 'better' or stop us from ever struggling again. When those things happen it is just another reminder of our imperfect humanness, and of the messages that surround us and others that make this so hard.


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I found your blog incredibly interesting - thank you for taking the time to post this. 

I am studying a health and social care course with the OU - I am also a carer and the combination of both of these things in my life have given me the opportunity to reflect on self care, it's place and importance in my life.

I will also have a read at you blog on 'mindfulness' as much of what you write draw parallels with stuff that is swimming about in my mind.

Thank you - really, really interesting.


Meg-John Barker

Thanks to Jacqueline

Thanks so much for your comment Jacqueline. I'm so glad the posts are of interest. They're really helpful for me to write and get my head around these issues.

There are so many great courses around these issues at OU (in health and social care, in social science and in science). It's really good to see it being taken so seriously.


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Hi Meg, Can you shed some light on ways of dealing with the underlying causes. Those which are having such a profound and unseen effect on our lives, for example : we have it ingrained and programmed into us from birth, that we are good enough if... and we are good enough when... etc. The message sent to us is not that we are good enough as we are, but good enough if... and good enough when... And so all we do in life becomes harnessed to the needing and the acquiring of this approval. This is no small thing! When survival depends upon compliance and love, acceptance, and inclusion are given or witheld. This programming then continues and is re-enforced through our schools; and then our workplaces. The media bombardment we receive which targets our self-worth as adults then finds us already well pre-programmed to know we are not good enough! How do we overcome that which began at birth? How do we replace the lie of 'you are good enough if...and when...'; with the truth of ' you are good enough, just as you are', when our societies, educations, families, religions, employments, and recreations, are geared to the teaching us to believe we are not acceptable? How do we replace the false foundation that has been build for us? Especially, how do we do it in the face of all that is around us being geared to make sure we do not do it! We spend our lives fighting to be free of that which we never were; that which has been imposed upon us from outside; that which is at odds with the truth of who and what we really are. Our crime is that we see and hear through this false overlay of society's programming, and the punishments are severe!
Meg-John Barker

Thanks to Wren

Thank you for your extremely thoughtful comment Wren which articulates so very well what we are up against. I do agree that this exposure from the word go in life makes it incredibly difficult. Small amounts of self-care can seem like a drop in the ocean.

I suppose that my answer (which may not be for everyone) is to try to commit to practices which run counter to that culture you speak of as much as possible (like the self-care practices I mention, and mindfulness which I have written about here before), to build networks with others who think along similar lines, and to try to do a tiny bit to shift things with my own writing, events, teaching, etc.

I like John Welwood's book 'Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships' which tackles this stuff in more depth, as do many of the books by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

I'll leave you with this quote from two of my favourite psychologists, Vivien Burr and Trevor Butt:

It is a brave person who tries to defy the categories, expectations and anticipations of others. Individual reconstruing is not necessarily echoed throughout the rest of society. But surely there can be no such change without it.


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I completely agree with Wren. This is about being brain washed from an early age. The 'mentally ill' often see through this farce and are punished by being cast out and alienated. I think this is an interesting topic and I am glad to see it here. I would just like to point out that some people with alternative perceptions do not necessarily wish to be 'normal' they just wish that 'normal' people would wake up and see what's going on. I do not want to be like the shiny people because then we would all just be replicants. This is, of course, what the powers that be want us to be. This may be an aspirational state for most but to me what they hold up as the norm and desirable is a nightmarish state of subsumation into blinkered half life.
Jameela Bi

Hi all!

Thank you once again, for a wonderful post Meg.  Really appreciate the clarity that you are illustrating as regards to this subject.  All I can say is, that as someone who has been a 'carer' for almost an entire lifetime- and hit a (psychological) brick wall a few years back...I will now stop feeling guilty about the 'self-care' which has been such an important part of my life, these past few years.

I agree with all comments made prior to this one; I personally think that it is about finding a balance.  On the one hand, you want to be the 'real you', on the other hand, you don't want to alienate yourself from the rest of society to the point where you become extremely isolated.

As has been mentioned, realizing such a state of being, is very difficult.

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Hi Meg, We both know that which each of us is saying, is that which many others say, and have said, throughout time and the world. Of ordinary people, each finding their own way to the speaking, whispering, or known in silence, depending upon circumstance; each repeating these truths to their own self and eachother, in new ways for each new time. The size of the large oppressing the small is usually huge. We have to recognise it; and then try not to contribute to it nor collude with it. Whilst remembering 'it' is created and maintained by 'we the people'! And so we move to : ''The power of the small to act upon the large'' clown And whether allowed to do so openly or not; we are forever unravelling one part, whilst weaving another. '... and for want of a name, I call it Tao.' (Lao Tzu). clown