Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Henry: Hello! I am Henry Emmons, and welcome to Joy Lab.
Aimee (2): And I am Aimee Prasek. So here at Joy Lab,
we infuse science with soul to help you build your resilience and uncover your joy. We are talking today about the possible downsides of self-care. I think this is a really interesting, conversation because this concept of self-care is such a buzzword. And it's a marketing angle. And I think at least the way it's often communicated, self-care can get warped in pretty unhelpful ways.
So in this episode, we're gonna highlight two downsides of self-care to look out for. And then in many of our episodes, well our episodes all the time, we talk about good ways to care for ourselves, that kind of self-care in more meaningful ways.
Henry: Yes, I, uh, remember when my first book came out and it was put into the self-help section of bookstores, I was a little disappointed. I don't know what I expected, but I think I, I was hoping there'd be something more than that. But this, this whole idea of self-care and self-help, you're right, it does get tangled up in the marketing aspect of it, and, maybe it gets overused too.
It reminds me of this Taoist proverb that I, I, as I recall, it goes kind of like this: "Why are you unhappy? Because nearly everything that you say and do is for yourself, and there isn't one." Now, I am sure that there is a lot deeper meaning to that than I am able to really understand, but it does make me think about what you're talking about, Aimee.
On the one hand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with self-care. I mean, it's so much better than, let's say, neglecting ourselves or even worse doing outright harm to ourselves by the choices, the unhealthy choices we might make.
But on the other hand, if we become overly focused on ourselves, even if we're doing it in the interest of trying to take better care of ourselves, one thing it, I think that it does, is to reinforce this idea that is so entrenched in our Western culture that we are individuals. We are separate from everyone else on the planet. We're on our own here. And so we had darned well better take care of ourselves 'cause nobody else is gonna do it. So put ourselves first, every person for themselves, and not only does that perhaps strengthen our sense of individualism, but you know, doing this frankly is an awful lot of work.
Aimee (2): Yeah, it is a lot of work to give that much, uh, hyper focus to ourselves. That's a good lead in too, to what we wanna talk about, this first sort of possible downside, which is how self-care has been co-opted by companies. And interestingly marketed towards sort of our higher selves, but then ironically, often ignores our most basic needs.
So, for example, I just can't help picture that stereotypical mid forties gentleman who gets a divorce, buys that Miata convertible, gets a tanning membership and a load of hair gel, just hoping to make that empty feeling go away. I am a child of the eighties and nineties, so that is like peak midlife crisis image that's been seared into my brain.
But I think that's pretty much how self-care gets pitched to us. It's an offering of luxuries, solution of luxuries that you have to purchase to step into your most healthy, authentic, evolved self. All amidst the fact that, you know, maybe need a nap or some water or a conversation, a hard conversation.
Maybe you're chronically dehydrated. Like all these things are just happening on the foundational level. And I think it can help to then really step back and see self-care as- just that. These are the fundamental, necessary practices that keep us functioning. Healthy food, sleep, water, hygiene, rest, stress reduction practices.
And then to really savor those practices as a recognition that when we care for and are able to care for our bodies and minds in necessary ways, then we can function better. And all the areas of our lives, all the aspects of our wellbeing are benefited.
Henry: Well, Aimee, you're, you're, you're stepping on a tiny little nerve here because when I was in my early forties, I actually wanted a Mazda Miata.
Aimee (2): You had to! Henry, this is the, that ex you... point, proven! That was in the nineties, right? Late nineties, early two thousands?
Henry: Yeah, yeah, it was!
Aimee (2): perfectly, you know, adopted the marketing schemes. Yeah!
Henry: It was about that same time I also wanted to get an earring and grow, grow, grow a ponytail.
Aimee (2): See!
Henry: None of which I did.
My boys were in their early teens when I went through this phase, and they just, they were merciless, they, they vetoed everything except the Mazda Miata, which they probably wanted 'cause they were about to get their license. I didn't get that 'cause it was just too impractical. So one day I even came home, I bought this leather jacket on a post Christmas sale and they wouldn't even let me keep that.
They persuaded me to take it back. Dad, you're just not a leather jacket guy. So, you know, in the context of this discussion, kind of interesting for me to think about this 'cause my teenage boys, I think had the wisdom to see that I was trying to be somebody I'm not at that point. And now at this, uh, stage in my life, I see authenticity as being one of the cornerstones of a joyful life. So, let me try to put this in a little context. Get myself out of trouble here.
I think most folks are familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which is shaped like a pyramid. And at the very bottom are what Maslow considered the basic essential requirements for survival. And you know, they are things we'd all agree, things like food and physical activity and rest. At the very top of this pyramid are the things that he believed helped us to thrive, which he called self-actualization. So we actually use a model at Natural Mental Health that has some similarities to this. I want to talk through that just a little bit. So let's say for example, that someone initially comes to us because they are struggling with something like anxiety and depression. And what they want at that point is just to feel better. So we try to offer targeted suggestions, you know, specific suggestions for what might fit each individual. For things like movement, sleep, diet and stress reduction. And we consider this to be a recovery phase. And it does of course include good self-care practices as well as natural therapies whenever those are, are feasible. But we don't wanna stop there. We, we want folks to move up that pyramid, so to speak, so that they can sustain their recovery. By getting beyond their original baseline and developing new skills to be able to deal with things like negative thoughts and emotions. And so we have a program that we call Resilience Training to help folks with this. And I think you could consider this self-care as well, although I see it as involving a lot of letting go rather than a lot of doing. You know, doing more things. And you wanna let go some of our old patterns and our old, old ways of thinking or feeling so that we can feel lighter, more resilient, you know, closer to what we think of as one's natural self. Now, this involves what you might consider self-awareness or mindfulness skills, and I guess I view this as a deeper form of self-care. And then we created Joy Lab to try to keep our focus on the top of that pyramid, to help us not just recover and stay out of depression, but also to flourish.
And you know, there is a lot more to flourishing than what we traditionally think of as self-care. Now we're all immersed in this world of marketing that might suggest if you buy this product you will flourish. But usually, if it does make a difference at all, it's pretty short lived.
So I think of this model I just described really simply, phase one, the recovery phase is mostly about filling yourself back up after you become depleted. You have to restore yourself. Phase two, which we call sustain, is about letting go of the stuff that you don't need, but that you have held onto unconsciously. And then the last phase flourish is mostly about opening up. So first you refill your tank, then you release the things that are holding you back, and then you open up to something larger than your individual self, maybe even much larger. And so you want to see the goodness in yourself, see the goodness all around you, and let it in. And I think ironically, that last stage, this top of the pyramid, so to speak, might actually require less effort than those others and yet have the biggest payoff by far. And I gotta admit, Amy, I still kind of want that Mazda Miata.
I still have sort of a, a thing about that.
Aimee (2): Maybe Maslow on the top of the pyramid. It's like a little Miata balancing on top.
Henry: Can't totally let it go.
Aimee (2): I get it. That's okay. But I think that if you can do that work, you know that restoring, sustaining, flourishing, then that Miata might come from a place of contentment or curiosity, at least not a gnawing ache of emptiness or an existential crisis. So,
Henry: Yeah, maybe I could really learn, put that in my, as one of my savoring practices, driving it and really, really getting the juice out of it.
Aimee (2): Yeah!. We'll tag it with Joy Lab on the side. So, back to the focus. The second aspect we wanna talk about then is how self-care, so this is another one of the possible downsides, how self-care often can ignore the impact of external factors of wellbeing. This is actually kinda what you've alluded to at the beginning of the episode, I think Henry.
And this is important because there are external factors that can make self-care easier and others that can make it harder. I think it's really important to be able to see that. I'll give an example, maybe a very common one. So, a self-care program at work may tell us that we need to gain those extra wellness points, those self-care points to calm our stress, to lose weight, and be more productive when the problem is that the company expects employees to work 12 hour days, six days a week.
Self-care cannot compete with that schedule. So that's an external factor. Overworking. It's being ignored. Employee health is impacted, and the employees get the blame. You know, you aren't taking enough time to care for yourself. You aren't doing enough. It actually, this might be a big tangent, but it makes me think too, that oxygen mask on the airplane metaphor. In this case though, the pilot has dropped the cabin pressure on purpose and instead of oxygen masks sort of dropping from the ceiling, I picture like electrolysis kits or something like these oxygen making kits, they fall down into your lap. It's like make your own oxygen suckers, and you're so distracted because you're like, what's this?
I don't know how to make oxygen. So you can't breathe. And then it's impossible to look up or help anybody else, which is the point, right? That's how they sell fancier oxygen kits. You're so distracted. That's how companies sort of market self-care. That's my real take on self-care culture. I don't know if that makes any sense.
Henry: I think that's a really great great metaphor, You should, you should go with that
Aimee (2): Yeah, we can, we can, uh, polish it up. But I think the other piece of that is that it... the way we're talking about self-care or, or reframing self-care, it does not dismiss personal responsibility. You know, or the importance as we've talked about, of self-care and focusing on the practices we can engage in to support our own personal health.
It just recognizes that there are other factors at play here, both as causes, um, or related to distress and disease and as essential, you know, collaborators in our own wellbeing. And I think when we can look up and see those factors, I don't think we'd be so hard on ourselves actually, or on others. We'd realize that our self-care is really important and it's interdependent on everyone else's, which I think is fuel for change.
Actually, so, Writer, Wendell Berry probably sums it up better. I just love his writing. And this quote, it's from his book, the Art of the Commonplace. Here's what he wrote:
" I believe that the community in the fullest sense, a place and all its creatures is the smallest unit of health. And that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms."
Henry: I, I love that he points right at the importance of community. He's talking about health, but I think this concept is just as important for joy when we talk about joy. So if folks have followed Joy Lab for a while, you know that we have 12 elements of joy. Things like inspiration, curiosity, fun, compassion, or this month's element, which is savoring. And you can cultivate any of these elements on your own, but they are so much richer and more nourishing if they are done in community- with others. Maslow put love and belonging just above safety in his hierarchy of needs because he saw it as being so essential to being a human. I might actually put it in the same category as eating and breathing. You know, most of us don't give a second thought to having air that's clean enough to breathe or enough food to eat. But if you take one of them away, you will think of little else until you get it back. And I think something like that is true for love and belonging.
If you've got it and you know that you have it, you are blessed. Life is good and it almost doesn't matter what else is happening. You probably don't even need to do much self-care because your health and your emotional wellbeing is gonna be so good.
If you don't have love and belonging, or if you do have it, but you just can't let it in for some reason, then you're gonna miss it so much you're gonna focus on it and I would encourage you to keep working to develop that until it does become just as routine as the air that we breathe.
Aimee (2): Yeah, you nailed it, Henry. Love and belonging. I think it can be easy to think that love and belonging come after self-care, like a consequence of sort of ticking off the right boxes. But it certainly is, it comes far earlier in that equation. The bottom of the pyramid as you noted. So I, I hope this episode shakes up some discussion a bit when it comes to self-care. And that it can inspire some really meaningful self-care practices for you because they do matter.
It's actually part of that next phase of our resilient community as well, we're integrating these kinds of meaningful self-care and resilience practices into our community, so that we can focus on self-care practices that really make a difference in how we feel in our bodies and how we move through the world.
You know, that smallest unit of health. That's, evolving into our resilient community. You can check that out. I'll put in the show notes and join us. Now to close our time, I do wanna share some wisdom from Joan Chittister. It's a story that she's told. It's titled, "What Can I Do?"
A student asks their elder teacher, "is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?"
The elder responds, "as little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning."
"Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?" The student asks.
The elder responds: "To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise."
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