Self-care and the concept of balance

When I first started my job at the university, I noticed the term ‘self-care’ was used a lot by my counselling colleagues.

I understand self-care as any deliberate activity that an individual engages in with the distinct purpose of improving their physical, mental, social, spiritual or intellectual health.

Since starting my role, I’ve thought a lot about self-care. I’ve written guides on self-care. I’ve done talks to students on the topic of self-care. I’ve tried to improve my own self-care.

A theme that keeps emerging in my considerations of self-care is the idea of balance. I want to use this blog post to explore the concept of balance in self-care

Balance as contrasting extremes

Sometimes when we talk about balance, we are talking about moderation.

When one says ‘drink in moderation’ what we mean is to drink occasionally and in sensible amounts. The idea is that the ‘best’ place to exist, on the spectrum of drinking is in the middle.

Whilst moderation makes sense when considering alcohol consumption, it doesn’t necessarily work when discussing study.

For example, in the lead-up to and during exams, I would expect that students are at the more extreme end of studying: spending many hours of the day (and maybe night) getting themselves prepared. That period of intense work is then ‘balanced’ by a significant post-exam break, where they can pick their exhausted brain up off the floor and attempt to have some fun and recuperate.

I’ve had similar experiences in my work life: periods of intense work (usually towards the end of a project), balanced by periods of more relaxed creative work.

I’ve also had analogous experiences in exercise: intense workouts, followed by appropriate rest and recuperation.

Thus achieving balance is sometimes about knowing how to counter-balance the extreme end of any given spectrum.

Balancing cognitive ‘energy’

Study requires attention, concentration, memory, creativity and diligence. It is cognitively taxing. It depletes our levels of those attributes. We’ve all had that experience of feeling mentally exhausted at the end of a busy day.

Balancing that isn’t necessarily as simple as just switching off (e.g. red wine in front of the TV). In fact, we may have to find activities that actually replenish attention, concentration, memory, creativity and diligence. Sleep is near the top of that list and also one of the areas that students commonly neglect. Time in nature also has attention restorative qualities. Exercise is good also.

Activities that may on the surface seem appropriate (e.g. watching TV) might not be as good as activities that appear to be further cognitively taxing, but are actually a way to stimulate other parts of our brain (e.g. casual reading, socialising).

Hence I encourage students to experiment with different rejuvenating activities and be mindful about what activities genuinely feel restorative of their thinking capacities and use those to balance periods of extended work.

Balancing future self and current self

Talk of self-care often focuses on the current self, asking the question ‘What can you do now to look after yourself?’

But self-care needs to also consider your future self. That version of you is very susceptible to the choices you make now.

Your future self generally needs you to make choices that lead to growth in a desired direction. Your future self needs you to save and invest money, assign time to increase your skills, eat well and exercise so your health is maintained or improves. Your future self needs you to be quite disciplined.

But sometimes your current self needs to abandon responsibility, be free, take a risk, drop the shackles.

University life can represent an active conflict of the current and future selves of students. Studying and getting a degree is a great investment in one’s future self (future me is more skilled and knowledgeable and employable). But the university environment also includes many tempting offers for the current self to abandon work and develop other parts of the self (fun activities, clubs, people, events etc).

Given the human tendency to value immediate rewards higher than future rewards, I encourage students to think about their future selves regularly and ensure their future selves has a vote in the present moment.

Balancing the needs of self and others

If we’re lucky, we have other people in our lives.

Those people have their own needs and self-care requirements.

At first glance, adding the needs of others to our own self-care equation might seem to push us into a state of overwork. Helping another person with their problems simply adds more ‘work’ to our situation, and hence requires more self-care on our part.

However it doesn’t seem to operate this way all the time.

Yes, there can be people in our lives who are a constant drain on our energies, but mostly it seems that connection with others, even if to be a listening ear or source of support, is actually rejuvenating.

I think this is because, in good quality friendships and relationships, the presence of others allows everyone’s emotional load to be shared. You help me hold some of my emotional load, I’ll help you hold some of yours. The actual dynamic is more complicated than that, but you get my point.

I spent many years thinking that the perfect end to a hard day or hard week was to isolate myself. However I have learned that the presence of valued others has a re-energising effect that is considerably greater than what I can typically achieve on my own.

So I encourage students now to test whether that little voice in their head that encourages them to isolate themselves is actually accurate in its assessment. Testing involves setting up different social situations and seeing what impact it has on their motivation and energy to study.

Balancing the contributors to self-worth and motivation

I wrote an article recently on the dangers of students getting all their self-worth from a single activity, that is, their studies. If their studies are going well, they feel good about themselves. If their studies are going badly, they get down on themselves.

The big danger in deriving one’s self-worth from a single activity seems to be motivation.

If the cycle below is operating well, then everything is fine.

However if that person experiences a significant setback in that domain, then it can have a catastrophic impact on their motivation. I’ve been told many stories of students who experience a failure in their studies and this leads to a depression that spreads across their whole life. They lose the motivation to keep moving forward.

We need multiple sources of motivation, to ensure we can buffer against failure in one or more domains. Multiple things to work towards. Multiple activities from which to draw self-worth.

This isn’t to say that all things must be happening in parallel. I think it is reasonable (and sometimes simply necessary) for a period of our life to be dominated by a single main activity. However, over time, motivation should be generated from different sources.

Final words

To self-care is to make deliberate investments in one’s health.

Balance is a key concept to grasp when considering how one engages in self-care.

Balance isn’t just a single conceptualisation but can include:

  • learning how to counter-balance extreme states of work
  • learning how to balance current and future needs
  • learning how to balance personal and other needs
  • learning how to balance energy depletion and replenishment
  • learning how to balance contributors to motivation

In this respect, self-care is as much about having a good internal working model of balance, as it is about the self-care activities we engage in.

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