The Power of Sustainable Self-Care

Shelly Tygielski explores how consistently showing up for yourself first lays the foundation for our life’s purpose—showing up for others—and how to create your own self-care practice.

Have you ever pruned or cut back a tree or a plant, then been shocked at how barren it looks? Only to then watch with amazement as each branch explodes with new life? I used to be reluctant to cut back any plant until someone told me that it is actually good for plants.

It goes against everything that we think is “healthy.” How could inflicting such trauma and stress help plants grow and, yes, even thrive? This is just a simple example of nature’s fight for survival. When we prune the plant or tree, it then puts even greater energy into growing more. Having been hacked to pieces, plants and trees could decide to give in, to just shrivel up and die. But they don’t. The same is true for us. When things get tough, we can choose: to give in or to give more, to get bitter or to get better. We can choose to mirror nature and face our problems rather than run from them. We can choose to meet the stressors we are facing and use them to help us expand our capacity for resilience, and perhaps even thrive as a result.

One morning, during a particularly difficult time in my life, I was lying on the floor, scared about the future, and I thought about the blessings of this challenge. I thought about the line in Mary Oliver’s poem “The Uses of Sorrow”: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” At that time, in my box full of darkness were the fossilized remains of a failed marriage, but I also had my son. My physical body was failing me, but it was also asking me to take note and remember to appreciate my health. My mental condition was frightening me, but it also presented an opportunity for me to step into courage. My life had been dictated for so long by other people and forces—my parents, my husband, my religion, societal norms—and now I was free to make my own decisions. This was my reckoning to choose, and I was consciously going to lean in to it. I knew that change is one of the only certain things in our lives, and so I had that choice to make. I wanted to get better, and I knew that required me to give more.

I wanted to try and accept this box of darkness and see it as a positive thing, a gift, as much as possible. What got me through this turbulent time was writing my own self-care list.

The power of sustainable self-care - Illustration of lungs covered in flowers
Illustrations by Carole Hénaff

Why Self-Care Feels Selfish

Self-care means we commit to taking an active role in safeguarding our mental and physical wellness, proactively and (especially) in times of duress.

By definition, self-care means doing what is good for us—increasing our emotional and physical stamina, improving our self-esteem, and building resilience. Maintaining good self-care ensures that we stay compassionate, impassioned, and engaged. It means doing important work in one area without sacrificing other parts of our life. It means maintaining a positive attitude in spite of personal challenges and the larger injustices in the world. Self-care activities create daily improvement in our lives and have beneficial long-term effects. That said, these activities are not always fun. Sometimes they even border on boring.

Self-care means doing what is good for us—increasing our emotional and physical stamina, improving our self-esteem, and building resilience.

We might feel guilty about self-care because it can go against what we’ve been taught, which is that to be a good friend, parent, spouse or partner, coworker, and community member we have to put others first. Self-care means putting ourselves first, and we’re often conditioned to believe this is wrong. It’s rude. It isn’t consistent with how so many inspirational leaders throughout history are portrayed, such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and Margaret Sanger. We admire these individuals because they endured suffering and hardship, while practicing self-sacrifice. Proper nutrition, healthy relationships, and exercise are secondary, if not frivolous. They didn’t have time for yoga!

Two problems contribute to a negative view of self-care. The first is what I mention above, that self-care is often considered self-centered. It can imply caring that extends only to ourselves as individuals. But we can expand our definition of self to extend beyond the individual and include our family, community, the natural world, and
all sentient beings. Self-care actually means caring for the entire community of which we are a part; it encompasses and protects this larger order. Self-care is not about being virtuous. In a way, it means living and working in ways that are consistent with and model how we want the world to work.

Additionally, the concept of self-care has been hijacked by corporations to create a profitable industrial wellness complex, one that focuses on beauty, happiness, and comfort in the name of self-love and self-compassion. In Western society, this is mostly geared toward white women of means, but it can include anyone. The main goal of this industry is to sell goods and services that provide only a superficial appearance of self-care, one that is often, in fact, indulgent and frivolous precisely because it’s a temporary quick fix that only aims to make the individual feel better about themselves.

We can expand our definition of self to extend beyond the individual and include our family, community, the natural world, and all sentient beings.

The reality is that authentic self-care is unsexy, hard work—which isn’t an attractive marketing pitch for corporations or brands. The way the term is broadly used today has very little to do with the healthy choices that reflect true self-love and self-compassion. It certainly has nothing to do with the struggle to survive in the face of political and structural oppression. For communities that are under attack by their own government, and for individuals with little access to health care, fresh food, clean water, and safe housing, self-care is a radical act of self-preservation.

The power of sustainable self-care - Illustration of a person walking down an outdoor path.
Illustrations by Carole Hénaff

What is Authentic Self-Care?

Authentic self-care is for everyone. It’s what we all need and deserve, but it can be hard because it’s not a quick fix. Ironically, neither is our own inner journey, or something as lofty as social justice work. Seen this way, wellness
is one aspect of social justice, and like social justice, wellness doesn’t happen overnight.

This is another reason that self-care has gotten such a bad name: It is much easier to practice “self-care” in easy ways that feel good right now than it is to develop the discipline of a healthy lifestyle that often sucks in the moment but feels really great later. Authentic self-care is not self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is unrestrained gratification of our desires and whims, behaviors meant only to alter our mood and provide a m temporary escape from pain and grief

How can we tell the difference between self-indulgence and true acts of self-care? First, ask if what you’re doing is a temporary quick fix or something that is meant to yield long-term benefits. Sometimes, self-care is best expressed by setting limits in ways that prioritize what’s most important. This takes discipline. Some everyday examples might include watching only one episode of a TV show, not bingeing a whole season, so you get to bed at a decent hour and experience a full night’s rest. It might be not having a glass of wine with dinner, or only having one; saying no when you don’t want to do some- thing; or waking up early so you have extra time to meditate, journal, or exercise before work.

The morning when I wrote my own self-care list, which was my response to true despair and a will to survive, I felt an instinctual inner knowing that I had to give up most of my vices in order to truly dedicate myself to self-care, to my healing, and to my overall wellness. If the work we do in the world is larger than ourselves—and for me at that moment being a mother to my son was just that—then self- care means defining clear boundaries that help ensure our long-term physical, mental, and spiritual health. But I didn’t give up all my vices. I knew there were healthy indulgences I could still enjoy, ones that provided important moments of joy and happiness. For me, these were defined by even the smallest of actions that helped me restore balance during one of the most imbalanced periods in my life. This included things like spending an evening reading a good book with a mud mask on my face, shutting down my phone and not respond- ing to texts or emails for a few hours of solitude, and having a meal with a friend while engaging in meaningful conversation. I didn’t consider any of these things frivolous.

My point is this: Self-care is not one-size-fits-all. We each must decide what’s right for ourselves. The biggest challenge I needed to overcome was the guilt and ingrained belief that taking any time for mys