If I were to tell you that there was one thing that you could do to improve your mental health that does NOT include talking to a therapist, or even talking about your issues at all, would you do it? Well, to be honest, there are probably quite a few things that would qualify for that description, but I’m thinking of one in particular: Self care.
Taking good care of yourself may seem like a no-brainer to some people. True, it “should” be obvious that self care is a necessary priority in life, I don’t take for granted that everyone knows it… and does it! I, for example, have not always known that it was important.
As is true for many children who grow up with an alcoholic parent, I had no idea that self care was even something people did. I’d certainly never heard of the term, and don’t recall the concept modeled or taught. My childhood was all about scanning the adults for safety, and quickly making sure you aligned with what was expected so that you could say and do the “right” things that would ensure approval. From that mindset of watching other people to know if I was OK, I started adulthood thinking you just worked and worked and worked, and hoped for approval….and when the approval came through, you were on the right road.
Luckily life taught me some new things along the way. One thing that I gradually started to realize was that I became incredibly angry, worn out, and empty if I never took time for myself. I remember when I first heard about self-care. I was in therapy (this was before I ever became a therapist), and my counselor told me that I needed to take time for myself. I was totally puzzled. I didn’t know what she meant. I never went back to see her because I didn’t understand. It took me years to see what she was trying to get at. And that is why I don’t take for granted that everyone understands the concept of self care, because I certainly didn’t at first.
So here is a really quick crash course on self care.
First, picture a little child, maybe four or five years old. Imagine that you are babysitting the child for a few days. What kinds of things would he or she need in order to be healthy and happy? Well, first, we know the child would need food… and NOT a ton of junk food. Real food that is nutritious. Skipping meals would probably make the kid irritable, so don’t do that. Next is sleep. Would you want to keep this kid up late night after night? Not if you wanted the kid to be in a good mood… so you’d help make sure bed time was regular. Another need the child would have would be to learn something. You might think of some activities the two of you could to together such as reading a book or trying a new game. That always makes kids happy! And then there’s friends. This kid would probably love to hang out with a cousin or have a play date with a neighbor friend. There is no guarantee that the two would always get along, but kids are happier when they’ve had some social time. At some point every day, you’d probably insist on going outside a bit and getting some exercise. Now, if the child got dirty, you’d help him or her clean up. If he felt sad, you’d offer a hug and a listening ear. You’d probably say prayers at meals or bed time together; you’d go to church together and talk about God. And if you were really doing an amazing job of babysitting, you’d even put together some kind of schedule so that the child would have predictability and a sense of control of his or her day. One more thing. If the child made a mistake, you would not yell at her; you wouldn’t tell her what an awful child she was. You’d be encouraging and tell her that she can do better next time.
If we look at what kids need, it can seem somewhat clear what humans need. Indeed, as adults, we need all of the same things. The big difference is that WE are the ones who are responsible to provide these things for ourselves! There is nobody that is going to miraculously read our minds and provide for all of our needs. There may be times that others help fill a need here or there, but for the most part, we are responsible to inventory how we are doing at meeting these needs, and then making arrangements to get it done.
Ask yourself how you do with the following self care items. How well do you do at….
-Getting enough sleep
-Eating nutritious, regular meals
-Drinking adequate water
-Taking breaks throughout the day
-Practicing good hygiene (clean clothes, clean teeth, etc.)
-Getting some outside and some exercise time most every day
-Talking kindly to yourself when you make mistakes
-Arranging to see friends and extended family at least monthly
-Taking care of your medical concerns
-Reaching out to others for emotional support at times
-Reaching out to God daily in prayer at other spiritual observance
-Organizing yourself to achieve those goals
-Learning new things
-Playing and laughing
Hopefully from the list above, you were able to identify quite a few things you are already doing well to take care of yourself. But if you are like most people, there are a few things that you could really do to improve your level of self care. Take a moment to pick a few things you can do, and make a plan to improve.
One thing to really be aware of is how the issue of same-gender attraction can impact motivation to participate in self care. For some people that I work with, they may get so caught up in depressive or confused feelings that they may neglect taking good care of themselves as a punishment. Or they may feel that it is not a priority because there are so many other difficult things they are dealing with. Or they may be so involved in working on relationships that they forget about themselves. Any of these can threaten the level of self care.
Sometimes a friend or family member of an LGBT individual becomes so “caught up” in their worries about that person that they quit prioritizing their own self care. Some people tell themselves the story that they need to be 100% available to someone who is having a hard time, and they forget that an empty vessel is not very good at sharing nourishment.
One more problem can be if we didn’t get excellent care as a child, it can feel “wrong” somehow to take time and energy and spend it on us. But, if we feel this way, we can remind ourselves that we can learn to do good things for ourselves to be more healthy. We can learn to work on this unfamiliar territory, and it can eventually feel very comfortable, nurturing, and deserved.
So, for all of us, regardless of the roles we play in the whole issue of being LDS and being gay, or transgender, or whatever, we need to remember to fill our own bucket and sweep our own porch. If we do that first, we will be able to feel more stable and grounded for ourselves and also for our loved ones.