Self care is an essential aspect of a stable mood. Perhaps that statement seems obvious. You might be surprised, though, by how often people try to ignore that fact. It is common in my practice to be asked, directly or indirectly, to make a person feel good about themselves even though they are not taking care of their most basic needs.
- A young mother tells me about all of the things that she is doing to care for her newborn, and wants me to make her depression go away so that she can continue to focus on her child’s needs. She finds it hard to pay attention to anything else, and, as a result, she neglects the basics of self care – she doesn’t take advantage of the opportunities that do exist to get some sleep, she eats poorly, and she never gets out of the house.
- An older woman is immersed in the needs of her extended family, and neglects to take care of her diabetes and overall physical health. She is pulled into the drama and urgency of various family crises, and that sense of urgency makes her own needs seem less important.
- A middle aged man, an executive in a large construction company which is facing many big challenges, works 60 plus hours a week, travels all of the time, and is unable to understand why he feels so depleted.
The importance and primacy of self-care goes well beyond the physical needs of your body. It is the foundation of a good mood. Why is that? Let’s take a quick detour through the ideas of two great social psychologists…
Social psychologist George Herbert Mead wrote a fascinating book called Mind, Self and Society in which he proposed that self consciousness arises out of our dependence, as children, on the care of our parents. The helpless child incorporates the attitudes and values of the parent into a part of the mind that constantly seeks to shape, and understand, its own behavior.
In his view, self-awareness and self-control are derived from the same developmental process. Our self awareness is a side effect of this need to modify our behavior to please our parents. As we grow up, we incorporate other views, the views of significant others and, ultimately, the views of society, into this self aware self.
He referred to these aspects of the self as the “I” and the “me.” The “I” is the part of us that acts, that chooses what to do and what not to do. The “me” is the socially developed self that shapes the behavior of the “I” through self-talk and self-appraisal. Conscious awareness is embedded in the “me,” the “I” cannot be understood except indirectly, by observation.
How is this relevant to the dilemma of the patient who needs to feel good despite not taking care of his or her self?
The implication of this model is that one’s sense of self, one’s understanding of whether one is “good” or “bad,” worthy of love or not, is based on the observation of one’s own behavior.
This idea was further developed by another social psychologist, Daryl Bem, who conducted a series of experiments that suggested that if we could be tricked into doing something or saying something that was not compatible with our original values and beliefs, we tended to change our values and beliefs to match the behavior.
The self-observing and self-assessing part of the self (the “me”) observes our behavior (the “I”) and says, “hmmm… maybe I am not a Republican” after we are asked, as part of a psychology experiment, to convince other students of a Democratic viewpoint.
Bem called this “self-perception theory” and there are many experiments that seem to validate the theory.
These two theorists suggest that it is intrinsically impossible to feel good about oneself without self care The mother who cares only for her child, and neglects herself, is “learning” that she is not important except as a caregiver. The executive who focuses only on work is “learning” that all his value is only proportional to his productivity.
The wish to have me, or anyone else, change this is inherently impossible. If I, as a therapist, tell the person that they do matter, that they are lovable, and if they continue to behave as though they are not, my intervention will carry no weight.
The good news is that it does not take much to begin to get out of this trap.
Because, while we cannot just tell ourselves that we are worthy of love, we do have the ability to pay attention to certain behaviors, to notice the beginning acts of self care. And as we start to take care of our needs, we will notice that we feel better, stronger, more positive about our selves, and this positive feedback can lead from small steps to rapid changes.
Take a small step to take better care of yourself today, notice that step, give yourself credit for beginning a positive change (and recognize that it is always the beginnings of change that are the hardest) and you may find that your mood begins to improve…