Are You Surviving, or Thriving?


This post is adapted from Chapter 1 of "From Coping to Thriving: How to Turn Self-care into a Way of Life", which is available now.

“How can I:
  • Stop watching so much TV?
  • Cut down my drinking?
  • Stop spending so much money?
  • Stop smoking?
  • Get fitter?
  • Eat more healthily?
  • Experience a richer social life?
  • Get enough sleep?
  • Reduce my busyness?
  • Improve my relationships?”

Before we begin looking at the questions above, let’s start with another question:What does self-care mean to you?It’s a question I have struggled with for many years, only recently realizing that the answer is hard to define in strong, tangible terms. The goalposts move according to how I’m feeling, what’s happening in my life, and what needs I want to meet at the time.My favorite definition of self-care comes from Pauline Salvucci, author of Self-Care Now! (Salvucci, 2001.) She defines self-care as: “the right and responsibility to take care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.”I selected this definition because it includes several key facts about self-care:1. Self-care involves our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. As I mentioned briefly in the introduction, self-care is less about going out and doing things that fall under the category of “pampering,” and more about consciously taking steps to meet our needs in these three areas.2. Self-care is our right. Another way of phrasing this is: “we all deserve self- care”—even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. If you experience internal debate around whether or not you deserve self-care, I address this in the book.3. Self-care is our responsibility. Yes, that means that no one is going to take care of us—it’s down to us and us alone. Although it’s not always conscious, many of us yearn for someone to come along and take care of us, to assume a nurturing parent role, and to meet our unmet needs. While we’re waiting for that unspecified (and nonexistent) person to come along, we’re neglecting our needs. Taking responsibility for our own self-care allows us to enter into mutually beneficial relationships to meet our needs, rather than being dependent on someone else.

The secret ingredient to real, genuine self-care is very simple, yet many people miss its power.At its essence, its very core, self-care is about identifying and meeting your needs.Self-care is integral to our relationship with ourselves and our relationship with the outside world. It provides us with a chance to rest, replenish, and re-nourish physically, mentally, and emotionally.As children, we rely on our parents and caregivers to meet our needs and take care of ourselves. As adults, we are the only people who can meet our own needs, and that’s what self-care is all about. When we engage in self-care, we send the message to ourselves: “You are worth taking care of.”

What are our needs, and why do they matter?

We all have a variety of human needs that range from basics—like food, shelter, safety, and sleep—to more existential needs, like self-expression, acceptance, stability, empathy, and to know and to be known. These needs are the driving force behind our decisions and actions, even if we’re not conscious of them at the time. These needs have a deep influence on our internal worlds and our external behavior. Therefore, we need to meet these needs if we’re going to have the best possible experience of our lives.Even if we’re not consciously aware of our needs (or we are, but we reject them), parts of us will still be working away under the surface, trying to meet them. This is a recipe for disaster. It leads to us doing things, saying things, and feeling things that we just don’t understand. It leads to depression, procrastination, and a whole host of other undesirable phenomena. It keeps us stuck in the same patterns over and over again, and it curbs our ability to live to our full potential.The parts of us that are left trying to meet these unmet needs are entering a tennis game blindfolded. We hear the “thwack” of the ball from our partner and swing wildly, running all over the court in an attempt to guess where that ball has gone. Soon, we’re drained, frustrated, and feeling rather helpless; meeting our needs takes energy—even more so when we’re trying to do it unconsciously.To create a meaningful and fulfilling self-care practice, we need to develop our awareness of our unmet needs. When we’re unconsciously working to meet one or more needs, either because part of us has rejected them, or because we’re disconnected from them altogether, we aren’t going to be able to engage in activities that will truly meet those needs.When we are conscious of our needs, when we accept them, and when we work out what we need to do to meet them directly, we free up that emotional and physical energy. We’re back in the tennis game, blindfold off and ready. We’re able to hone our skills, play our best game, feel good about our performance and provide a more satisfying experience for our game partner, too.When we’re aware of our needs, we free up a huge amount of headspace. We can live our lives without feeling distracted and weighed down by malaise, emptiness, and that “something’s missing” feeling.In a nutshell, we are much freer to live the life we want to lead as the best version of ourselves.

Want to know more? Check out the book and From Coping to Thriving: The Live Coursewhere we'll be putting theory into practice this October.