Life consists not in holding good cards, but in playing those we do hold well.—Josh Billings
“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 a nutrient-dense diet, and getting sufficient daily exercise and 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 self-efficacy, resilience, and wellbeing.
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. Of critical importance is 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.
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 resilience 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.
The act of applying loving attention and mindfulness to ordinary self-care not only improves the results of the care, it dramatically improves our state of mind. When we act out of conscious choice rather than a sense of have to, and we do it lovingly, that level of intentionality alone contributes to improved health and wellbeing.
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