Do you think you know Michael Jackson well?
How about Bill Clinton?
Oprah Winfrey? Julia Roberts? Adolph Hitler?
We think we know these famous people quite well
even though we’ve never even shared a cup of coffee with them.
They are too well known to be understood.
The same thing happens with popular ideas.
In the United States, for instance,
we think we know all about what a democracy is.
We even think we live in one (while we actually live in a republic).
Democracy is too well known to be understood.
In psychology, “self-care” is like big celebrities and grand ideas.
It’s too well known to be understood.
Self-care means always taking full responsibility
for our own safety and warmth.
Each part of this definition needs to be looked at carefully.
Since we are the only person who is always with us,
we need to ALWAYS be our own caregiver.
It is wise and healthy to allow good people to take care of us sometimes.
It feels great to imagine that someone else is fully in charge of our care.
But if their mood changes dramatically
or if they get called away suddenly
we need to know immediately
that we can continue to feel safe and warm on our own.
We only imagined that they were fully in charge of our care.
They were just a temporary substitute for our own good internal parent.
We were always fully responsible ourselves.
SAFETY AND WARMTH?
How do we know when we are safe enough and warm enough?
It would be accurate to simply say
“we know it when we feel it,”
but for a more complete understanding
we need to think about when we were infants.
Adults need to feel just as safe and warm as infants do.
To feel safe, we need enough-but-not-too-much
food, air, heat, water, exercise, rest, and elimination.
Of course, we also need to be away from physical danger.
And to feel warm we need plenty of kind attention.
Feeling safe seems a lot more complicated when we get older.
Driving a car, violence in the culture, physical addictions,
and many other aspects of adult life must be handled.
But all of these can be covered under one umbrella:
Do we want to live and do we want to live well?
If we are certain, down deep, that we want both of these things
we will almost always be able to find a way to stay safe from real threats.
Our survival instinct is enormously strong.
Getting emotional warmth in adult life also seems more complicated.
Most of us think that getting enough warmth isn’t our job,
it’s the job of our closest friend or our primary partner.
This thinking comes naturally from our experience of being a small child,
and it needs to be changed when we grow up.
Our closest friend and primary partner in adulthood is our self!
It is our own job now to find enough good people to get close to.
If we don’t do it, it won’t get done.
SAFETY OR WARMTH?
Once in a while we will have to choose between safety and warmth.
The most common example is when we live with someone who threatens violence.
Another very different example is when we are
angry at our children for dangerous play.
Regardless of the reason for the conflict between safety and warmth,
we must always choose safety.
If your partner is violent, get away from them
– regardless of how warm they are at other times.
If your kids are playing in traffic,
scream at them to get the hell back in the yard – regardless!
SELF-CARE PROBLEMS WE ALL HAVE
Even if we had excellent parents
who kept us safe and warm ninety-five percent of the time,
we still need to learn how to do it for ourselves,
and how to keep improving as our circumstances change.
And when we are tired or sick or lonely or feeling weak in any other way,
we will notice at least a little resentment about having to do it ourselves.
But most of us quickly accept that we do have to do it,
and we do what we need to do.
SELF-CARE PROBLEMS MANY PEOPLE HAVE
Many people had parents who neglected, abused,
or continually shamed and terrified them.
They may never have felt well taken care of as a child, even for an instant.
Although they somehow found a way to survive,
they did not get what they needed to thrive.
As adults, they deeply resent having to be their own internal parent,
and they aren’t good at it.
They still need someone who feels like a good parent to them.
And when parent-starved people receive
enough safety and warmth from parent substitutes
(usually an extremely loving partner, a patient and caring therapist, or both),
they actually become better at taking care of themselves
than those who had good parents to start with!