I burrowed into the far corner of the white leather couch, clutching the silky, floral pillow like a life preserver. I looked up and my gaze floated away into the painting pinned to the wall behind her. Maybe I was hoping to drift away from this ceaseless cyclone of frustration, exhaustion, anxiety and depression. Seated across from me, my counselor gently began to navigate into the depths of my unsettling emotions and thoughts.
Right after college, I landed my dream job. I would be serving students in a college ministry role at my alma mater. For someone who grew exponentially in her desire to know and follow Jesus during undergrad, I couldn’t wait to help other young women do the same.
Well, it turns out that caring for 100+ college students is messy and weighty and tiring. Pro tip: if Jesus only invested in 12 close friendships, it may not be a good idea to try to outshine Him.
Pretty soon, I found myself in a downward spiral of unhealth. No time, energy or motivation for building supportive community, caring for my body, resting or exploring my faith outside of the context of a “job.”
So, four years later, I left my ministry position, began a new career and sat down on that white leather couch for the first time because something needed to change. I was drowning. But I didn’t need rescuing; I needed to learn how to swim, how to ride the waves, how to navigate the storms.
This is when I was first discovered self-care. Self-care is any deliberate activity aimed at cultivating emotional, mental and physical health. This may include prioritizing rest, setting healthy boundaries, pursuing passions, seeing a therapist - all of which I thought were unnecessary, discretionary and, well…self-ish!
However, after years of embracing and applying several of these practices, the clouds started to clear and I finally caught sight of stable, dry land.
As time went on, I got too comfortable on my safe little island, spending the majority of my time alone, focusing on my needs. I built a sturdy shelter, shielding me from any potential dangers that may pull me back out into the tumultuous waves of unhealth and unhappiness. It became predictable. Cozy. Serene.
It also became isolating. And complacent. And permissive. This is when I first learned about the snares of self-care.
"THAT ISLAND HAD SAVED MY LIFE, BUT I WASN'T MEANT TO LIVE THERE FOREVER."
Instead, I was meant to use that focused time to build the right tools to take back into the world.
Here are three signs we may be over-staying our welcome in the tropics of self-care:
1. We’re scared to let other people onto our island.
We labored over the gathering, building and protecting of our resources. In the process, maybe we’ve had others lure us back into unhealthy environments and practices. So, now we’re cautious. We don’t want to undo everything we’ve worked so hard to develop. It feels safer to hide, to not risk letting people back in, to extend our time away from it all.
Honestly, I scoured Scripture with the hope that this was ok, begging for proof of permission to stay hidden and safe. But my search came up lacking. Instead, I found words like these: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24), “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). And of course, the ultimate example: Jesus’ journey to the cross.
Imagine if Jesus had said no to the cross in the name of “self-care.” Thankfully, He didn’t. He took the strength built from His times of intentional self-care (we’ll get to that), counted the cost and gave Himself up so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10).
2. We think we’ll find everything we need here.
Self-care is so good. That island is brimming with palm trees and white-sand beaches and crystal blue water. I genuinely believe -- and know from experience -- that these are God-given gifts that He can use to bless and heal us. I also know that they are not enough. If we spend all of our time seeking the ultimate resource or practice to meet every desire, appetite and need, we’ll be left wanting. Chances are, we may even end up right back where we started -- burnt out after searching for joy and fulfillment in the gifts rather than the Giver.
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
3. We don’t want to leave our island.
I love collecting souvenirs from vacations. They serve as reminders of the beauty and refreshment I experienced there. Let’s choose our souvenirs: the self-care practices that we can bring home and realistically implement into our daily lives. But once we’ve selected our souvenirs, it’s time to set off again.
Leighton Ford once said, “God loves us the way we are, but too much to leave us that way.”
Jesus took time to care for Himself: He withdrew from crowds (John 10:40), spent time alone with the Father (Luke 5:15-16), enjoyed meals (John 12:2), napped (Mark 4:38)…but He didn’t stay there. He returned to the needy masses, continued His ministry, used God’s Word for nourishment (Matthew 4:4) and awoke from his nap…just in time to calm the stormy waters.
"THERE WILL BE SEASONS WHEN WE MAY NEED TO RETRACT BACK TO THIS PARADISE OF PEACE, A TIME FOR FOCUSING PRIMARILY ON OURSELVES."
There will also come a time to push off from shore and swim back out into the unknown, equipped with the survival kit we’ve built during our time there.
So, if that island of Self-Care is a place for rebuilding and refreshing to prepare us to set off toward the mainland again, how do we make sure we use our trip into self-care wisely? How do we make sure we don’t leave behind the tools and skills we learned there?
Here are three tips before we head back out into open water:
1. Get rid of the excess baggage.
“It’s more blessed to give than to receive” (Act 20:35) -- if that’s not our experience when we give and serve, it’s time to ask why. Are we over-committed? Are we giving for the wrong reasons? Do we need a break? Even Jesus set boundaries (Luke 23:8-9). As the saying goes, “Say no to the good so you can say yes to the best!”
2. Enlist a fellow paddler.
Find a counselor, a trusted friend, a family member for inspiration and accountability for your new self-care skills. Jesus sought support from his friends (Matthew 26:36-46) and Scripture is filled with prayers, encouragement and commands to both give and receive from others (Proverbs 27:17; Romans 12:4-5; Romans 15:5-7).
3. Trust the Compass.
There will be more storms. We’ll get turned around. We’ll lose sight of dry land. We’ll think north is south and east is west. However, just like a trusty compass, God is unaltered by the changing winds. He will always be a steady source of peace (John 14:27), joy (Psalm 16:11) and comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). All the other resources that He can (and does) use are ultimately from Him. Therefore, we can place our hope in the Provider instead of the provisions themselves.
God graciously ushered me into the sanctuary of self-care, a focused season of snuggling up on that white leather couch and letting Him use resources like my counselor, safe friends, limited obligations and extra rest to not just rebuild my strength, but to create a new strength. A new strength that would be used not for selfish purposes but for God’s purposes.
How do you see God using self-care practices to build a new strength in you?
How is He using your survival story to help bring others safely to the shore to rest in God’s grace?