Self-care Is Not Selfish. It Is Courageous.

posted in: Christian Life | 5

I’ve flown a couple dozen times, from Australia to Jamaica to India. Air travel is truly remarkable.

What’s not remarkable is the pre-flight safety briefing. An exercise in futility, at best. I mean, has anyone ever used their seat as a flotation device? Why are you pointing out the emergency exits, just inviting some crazy to pull the latch and take this bird down? And why do you gesture with two fingers?

The whole thing seems pointless. Then comes the part about oxygen masks.

In the event that we lose cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will appear in front of you. Place if firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the band behind your head and breathe normally. If you are traveling with a child or someone who needs assistance, secure your mask first, then assist the other person.

What? Secure my mask first? You folks need Jesus. Selfish. Does anyone else hear this? Why is everyone cool with such blatant narcissism?

Let’s examine the principle. Why does it exist?

I consulted my common sense, and here’s what I found.

If you do not first secure your mask, you will die trying to secure someone else’s. You’re no help to those next to you, in other words, those you love.

At first thought, this announcement strikes the rational brain as selfish.

But it’s not. You must save yourself first if you wish to save the lives of those you love.

So it is with self-care.

Self-care is not selfish. Self-care is not self-absorption. Self-care is not self-indulgence.

Self-care is courageous.

Self-care is a cog in the wheel of our culture, a culture that often uses people as a means to its capitalistic ends. Self-care says, “I matter.” It’s honoring yourself.

And, paradoxically, self-care strengthens your relationships. When you prioritize your physical, emotional and spiritual health, you become a more healthy, loving, empathetic person. When your heart, mind and body are full, you have more to give.

That’s what separates self-care from selfishness. Self-care is about feeding and nourishing your needs so you have a greater capacity to love people and share your gifts with the world.

You cannot give what you do not have. You cannot draw water from a dry well.

If you try to love and give without self-care, you will end up bitter and resentful and cynical. I know from experience.

The Christian community, unfortunately, is not much different than the surrounding culture when it comes to self-care. I’ve warmed pews in churches for over thirty years. All kinds of churches, from conservative to liberal, Church of Christ to Catholic, three-piece-suit-worship-on-Sunday-only to skinny-jeans-worship-whenever. I’ve traveled the spectrum, and I’ve never heard a sermon on self-care.

I worked for a church for five years. I was rewarded for my getting things done, wearing multiple hats, and wearing them well.

No one ever talked about slowing down or prioritizing my health or even my family.

The end result? You guessed it. Burnout. Cynicism. Bitterness.

Even as I write about self-care, I’m hesitant. I know this is right and good and true, but am I advocating narcissism? As if it’s dangerous to challenge people to prioritize their own physical and emotional and spiritual needs, dangerous because, you know, the slope’s slick. And at the bottom is narcissism.

Look, I get it. Self-absorption is a thing. It’s unhealthy. If you’re caught in your own narrative without regard for the larger unfolding story, you need to stop.

But I also can’t ignore the cries of my own soul. For years, my body tried to warn me. In the rare moments of silence, I heard the groans.

Shush it, I would say. I’m El Capitan. You’re the vessel. Get me where I need to go. That’s your only job. No more talking.

After two years of this, my body sprung a leak. And life began to sink. Weird, painful things started happening. Nausea. Extreme, extreme fatigue. Body aches. Brain fog.

So, I decided to chuck up a convo with my body, for the first time, probably.

Hey, what’s going on? I know I rode you hard. You always recovered, though. Why are you doing this? We have stuff to do. I have a job to keep, a reputation to preserve. C’mon.


Silence, deafening, hands-cupped-over-ears silence.

You never realize how completely your body holds you up.

Until it lets you down.

When your body fails you, the whole ship goes down.

It’s been five years since those first symptoms. My life has never been the same. I’ve run the gamut of doctors and specialists. I even spent two weeks at the Mayo Clinic.

Through it all, I’ve learned to open the lines of communication between my mind and heart and body.

If we don’t learn to listen to our bodies, as well as our minds and our hearts, we will continue to be plagued with anxiety. We will continue to feel dry, empty, lonely. We will traverse our lives on the wings of ever-increasing cynicism and apathy. We will settle for a mediocre existence, never considering our potential in Christ.

It’s an unfortunate indictment of the church that I first learned about self-care in a counseling class at the Mayo Clinic. It was here that I first considered my own needs.

I’m learning to listen to my body, to “check-in” with myself every now and then. When I’m anxious, when my mood is low, when cynicism or apathy start towards the surface, I know my body is trying to tell me something. It’s a warning.

You’re doing too much. You’re relying on the opinions of others. This is unhealthy. You need to slow down. Say no to that. Get more sleep. Eat healthier. This isn’t going to end well.

So, what is self-care, anyway? On a practical level, I mean.

When the Dalai Lama was asked for advice about how people could improve their lives spiritually, he said it was clear: Eat less, don’t stay up so late, and sleep more.

Maybe you don’t jive with the Dalai Lama. He’s not “Christian” or whatever. His answer here, though, Jedi-level wisdom.

Think about it. Let’s assume someone asks you the same question: How do you grow spiritually?

What’s your answer? For thirty-one years, I would have responded with reading the Bible and prayer and corporate worship. You know, classic spiritual disciplines. On my best day, I might have even prayed with the person asking.

While my answer wasn’t wrong, I want to suggest it was inadequate. I read the Bible every day for years. Same with prayer and worship. And still, I was often riddled with anxiety, fear and cynicism.

Do you see it now, the wisdom in the Dalai Lama’s response? If you’re burnt-out or fuming through your days or riddled with anxiety or depression or plagued with cynicism, chances are you’re reading the Bible. You’re praying.

And still…

Brothers and sisters, I contend we need to move beyond Scripture and prayer ALONE as the answer to every spiritual problem. Yes, we need spiritual disciplines. But we also need to examine other pieces of life’s puzzle. If God is in everything, then finding peace and wholeness depends on incorporating everything, all facets of our lives.

Here are 8 ways to practice self-care.

1. Say no.

This one point could change your life, especially if you’ve never practiced it. Saying no takes courage. It’s an act of faith. Don’t believe me? Try it.

2. Laugh.

A spiritual practice, this is. We Americans are uptight. We’re too serious. Laughter is cleansing (assuming, of course, it’s not at someone else’s expense).

3. Exercise.

No need to join your local CrossFit. But you do need to get moving.

4. Sleep.

In the last six months, I’ve prioritized what experts call “sleep hygiene.” It’s just a fancy way to say “Stop taking your phone to bed, staying up ’til 2 a.m. and passing out over a bowl of ice cream.” My phone now sleeps in a separate room. My bed is for two things: sleep and sex. Game-changing stuff.

5. Invest in relationships.

Fun fact: one study showed you’re more likely to die early from loneliness than excessive drinking and obesity. Wow. 

6. Eat better.

What you put into your body matters. No need to be a nutrition fundamentalist. I have no patience for such people. I’m calling for moderation. Maybe a salad here and there. Water instead of Coke. A single rather than double patty. Common sense stuff.

7. Find a life-giving hobby or activity. Do it consistently.

What gives you life? What relieves stress? You like books. Read. You enjoy outdoors? Schedule a camping trip with the fam or spend an afternoon walking a nature trail. Is golfing or fishing or sewing your thing? Then do it.

Don’t feel guilty, either.

8. Meditate. 

If this word scares you, find a replacement. The idea here is to be still, to find time every day where you can be silent, free from the buzzing of cell phones and the frantic pace of life.

Another personal game-changer.

I could go on, but you get the idea. I pray you consider the value of a more holistic life. Self-care is not selfish. It’s courageous.

Grace and peace, friends.

Follow Frank Powell:

Frank is a contributing writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.

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5 Responses

  1. Kim Fredrickson

    Love this! I love how you shared about your experience with burn out, listening to your body, and your spiritual wrestling about this topic. I write about self-compassion integrated with our faith, so your post really resonated with me. Thanks so much.

    • Frank Powell

      Awesome, Kim! Self-compassion is hugely important. Something I’m learning. Blessings!

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