“Self-Care” Revisited Or How We Talk To Ourselves
I’m catching up on some of my favorite podcasts and recommend this one from Ezra Klein, (although one of his colleagues sits in for him as the interviewer. Ezra’s on “book leave”). This one is with the psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin on her new book, Real Self-Care.
For those who are perhaps sick of hearing about “self-care,” the conversation begins at a helpful place. Lakshmin acknowledges, the words are overused. Worse they have been turned into a preoccupation with externals: products you buy, life-hacks you are to implement, stuff you apply to your body, indulgences like Starbucks milkshakes masquerading as a “coffee drink.”
Real self-care, according to Lakshmin, is not an external job, but an internal one. Reminders of what Lincoln said about happiness: “It’s an inside job.”
Lakshmin focuses on four elements of real self-care: boundaries, self-compassion, values and agency. I encourage you to listen to the whole podcast. Here I want to focus primarily on the second element, self-compassion and how that expresses itself in our “self-talk,” the words we say to ourselves.
Which turn out, at least often, to be hard, harsh and even mean. We’re tough on ourselves. Hammering ourselves with judgments. Telling ourselves we’re never “good enough.” Or haven’t “done” enough. Which is, of course, true. We’re not always all that great. Sometimes we’re idiots. And, to be sure, in a broken and bruised world, there’s always more we could do and should do. But instead of confessing our sin/ failure/ foolishness, and then hearing and receiving the words of grace from a merciful God, we keep up the internal patter of critique, even denunciation.
Back when I was doing more pastoral work/ counseling, the thing I most often found myself saying to people was, “I think you are being a little hard on yourself.”
“Self-compassion,” doesn’t mean filling the air around ourselves with silly “happy-talk” or platitudes about our great we are. But it does mean going easier on yourself than you maybe you have been. It means picking up on the good you have done and are doing as much, or more, as what you haven’t gotten to. It means, if you are a Christian, letting God be God for you and trusting, as I sometimes to say during the words of assurance time in worship, “There is always more grace in God than there is sin in us.”
I think a lot of us inherit our steady drumbeat of negative self-talk from our parents. Not blaming them. Just noting it. I remember my Dad sometimes muttering, on a day when he wasn’t at work, “Really haven’t gotten anything at all done today!” He was not congratulating himself! My Mom had her own way of basically cursing herself. Again, not blaming, just imagining that we pick up on that as kids and repeat it. And of course many kids get messages from their parents about themselves that aren’t very loving ones.
On top of that plenty in the culture, and sometimes in the church, that provides a steady background chatter about our looks, our weight, our clothes, our resume, our unmet to-do lists and our failure to be as brilliant and accomplished as we really should be. Does it work? Does it help? Not really. It’s hammering ourselves with what Scripture calls, “the Law.”
So going a little easier on ourselves . . . As I say, noting the things we have done that are worthwhile and good, a little clap for the progress we’ve made on this or that, and realizing that important things that we are working on don’t happen overnight . . . all seem like good moves on the “self-compassion” front. I suppose this is why we so love our dogs. They are always so happy to see us. So reliably positive about us.
It’s easy to turn all this into another self-improvement project. “You now must talk nicely to yourself!” What it is, is 1) serious internal work and 2) grounded in a larger trust in the grace of God. I note, of myself, and many believers that we are generally better at extending grace to others than we are in extending grace to ourselves, or receiving God’s grace for us.
You don’t need to get yourself that Starbucks milkshake or buy the latest “self-care” product. Just, as my friends at Calvary/ St. Georges Church in NYC like to say, “Enjoy your forgiveness.”