“Self-care” is a straightforward term that encompasses any action we take to nurture our health. Finding the right physicians to help us manage our conditions, receiving appropriate treatments, eating nourishing foods, and getting sufficient rest are all examples of self-care. But what is loving self-care?
When we practice loving self-care, we give ourselves the gift of full presence, moment by moment, whenever we engage in self-care activities. This is especially beneficial for people living with cancer or chronic medical conditions, as the ability to be fully present to this experience builds mastery.
Excellent nutrition, adequate sleep and exercise, skilled and knowledgeable medical care, complying with treatments, and dropping unhealthy habits—the typical focus of behavioral medicine—are all critical in maintaining health. But for people living with conditions such as autoimmune diseases or cancer, they don’t go far enough.
It is of critical importance to pursue self-care with an attitude of caring for ourselves with the same commitment and focus we would bring to the task of caring for a newborn baby—fully engaged in the activity and acting out of love.
The analogy of caring for an infant, who isn’t yet capable of telling us what it needs, is a very helpful one because of the degree of attention this requires. When we engage in loving self-care we must continually ask ourselves what we need in order to feel better and improve our health. It becomes a valued way of life, one that carries with it a sense of meaning and purpose. Parents often derive a sense of meaning and purpose from caring for their young children, who are utterly dependent upon them. In much the same way, our own care, survival, vitality, and quality of life are intrinsically worthy endeavors.
Unfortunately, most people fall far short of devoting this level of attention to their own care. They may lovingly care for their pets, other people, their gardens, and even their cars but not turn the same quality of attention toward themselves. They may receive wonderful advice concerning diet, exercise, sleep, and changing their habits, only to ignore it because they haven’t yet committed to loving self-care practice. Yet the benefits of such a practice are many. For the chronically ill, it not only ensures better self-care, as one might expect; it also makes for a rewarding mindfulness practice and increases happiness. And these benefits, in turn, improve health outcomes.
We make frequent choices throughout the day about how we care for ourselves, but most of the time they are beneath our conscious awareness. A commitment to living with presence and intentionality can change that, and here’s an example. This morning I found myself thinking I have to go all the way in to San Francisco for another dreaded medical appointment at UCSF. Practicing loving self-care, I replaced have to with want to because, even though it’s no fun, it’s a productive and meaningful activity. Keeping the appointment and recognizing that I was doing so out of choice connected me to its meaning and purpose. And I knew that if I used the whole experience to practice staying present with my inner experiences, I would build mindfulness and mastery skills, contributing in highly effective ways to my own health and happiness. It also meant I was authentically living my life in accordance with my personal life values.
This is the same process I go through in recognizing choices concerning food, exercise, formal sitting meditation, or any other aspect of self-care. I also tune in to intentionality and choice when I go in for an MRI, an endoscopy, or any other unpleasant procedure; this is loving self-care. Recently, I chose to go in for a repeat esophagogastroduodenoscopy and colonoscopy. Drinking the four liters of polyethylene glycol solution the evening before was, as usual, extremely disgusting and very close to being intolerable. However, practicing loving self-care, I was able to remind myself that I was doing it out of choice, and that every time I choose to take care of myself I am cultivating a sense of mastery and living by my values.