I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about self care lately because I’ve been trying to practice it, and as part of that I’ve been trying to pin down what are effective self care techniques for me. Soft fabrics, cats, a good glass of wine, familiar smells, books, Netflix, going for a walk in a park, not having to cook…these are all things that I use to take care of myself. And as I’ve thought about many of the things that feel like self care to me, the more I’ve realized that the essence of self care is creating a space in which I can feel safe.
A great deal of this is physical pleasures: when you are experiencing something warm, soft, or comforting, you are more likely to feel safe. But beyond that, many of the things that are self care for me involve making things familiar and understandable. Books have always been a safe space for me because they are controlled. Nature, trees, green spaces, are essentially the same no matter where you go and will always feel like childhood and playing outside. Scents are memories for me, and the moments when I can recreate the smell of home is a moment when I temporarily am at home.
These familiar things remind me of the places that I know I am taken care of, the places I don’t have to worry. A lot of people imagine that self care is about what makes you feel good, but that’s a bit too simplistic. Often it involves things that soothe or calm, but underneath what makes most of my self care successful is that it helps me to feel safe in some fashion. It makes my space my own, it distracts me from things that scare me, or it reminds me that I am allowed to be vulnerable.
This is one of the reasons why familiarity is an important part of self care. Things that are the same as places or people that I trust are the fastest way that I can feel safe. Of course human beings like routine, and things that we’re used to are more comforting than things that are new, but on a deeper level than that, for someone who has a mental illness, familiarity means the places that we trust not to hurt us. It means the places where the anxiety might turn off for a while, or where we can escape from depression. “Home” is often our safe place, and the people we are familiar with are our support system. This isn’t true for everyone: sometimes the things we see every day are oppressive, boring, or painful. But more often than not the fact that they are familiar makes them easier to deal with, and thus safer. Even more than that, our safe places are generally those that represent family or friends, things that have kept us safe in the past, or other parts of our life that are integrally part of who we are. Familiarity.
This of course makes self care more challenging if you’re in a new place or around new people, but it does offer a helpful way to reframe self care so that it might be more effective. I feel safe when I feel competent, accomplished, and cared for. These might be hard feelings to capture in a new place, but I know that when I write I feel competent and accomplished, I know that when I have a to do list I feel better when I get things done, I know that hearing from people (even from a distance) makes me feel cared for. These are not things you might immediately think of when you hear “self care”, but reframing self care from “pampering” to “meeting my emotional needs” or “safety” can elucidate new things to try. Now I’m gonna go start my novel and feel accomplished.