As a counseling intern in the Wellness Center at Franciscan University, one thing I have noticed is that it is very difficult for people to practice self-care. Yes, we get busy. Yes, we have papers due and tests to study for. Yes, we have over-committed ourselves to different activities. But if we’re not finding time for self-care, we won’t last long. I have also noticed that many people take on the obligations of caring for others; I have seen this in family situations where some clients have taken on a caregiver role because one parent is an addict, or someone in the family has been in an accident and needs extra care, or even when there are financial difficulties where they need to pitch in.
In these situations, I often (ok, almost always) hear the word “should.” I should be helping whenever I can. I should be there for my mom every time she calls. I should be getting straight A’s. I should be available to my siblings if they need me. I should volunteer two days a week. I should listen to a friend tell me all her problems. And I should do all of these things perfectly. My question: Says who? Don’t get me wrong: accomplishing our goals in life takes fulfilling our responsibilities. Some should’s are necessary, whether we want them or not. Yet sometimes it’s important to stop and see if what we are spending our time doing are really our responsibilities, or responsibilities other people have shirked and put on us instead.
When it comes to self-care, many people feel guilty even thinking about it. Phillipians 2:4 says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Notice that the first part of the passage already supposes that you are looking out after your interests. It then says “but also” to the interests of others. In other words, take care of yourself, then others. You cannot take care of others unless you are taking care of yourself. If every person carries his/her own load (see Galatians 6:2-5), then relationships are complementary. We see these complementary relationships throughout the Bible, often in the context of marriage. Christ said to serve others, not to abandon yourself to save others. In examining the “should’s” in your own life, ask yourself: are they legitimate ways of serving others after you have looked after your own interests, or are these interests of other people who give them to you, diminishing your time and energy for what you are truly responsible for? This is a tough, but necessary, question.
If that’s not enough to convince you that self-care is necessary, let’s look to Jesus, our perfect model of humanity. Luke 5:15–16 states: “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Could Jesus have healed everyone? Yes! Should Jesus have spent all his time healing everyone? No! Jesus could have walked town to town, spending every moment he had serving and healing other people. But He didn’t. Why not? It’s because Jesus recognized that you do not experience the fullness of life by taking on a performance-oriented way of living. He showed us that we need to take time to ourselves and pray. We often have parts of us telling us to do more and make us feel guilty when we say no. But spending more time listening to the voice of God will help you discover your desires. This is when you figure out if the things you are doing are necessary or not. If they are not necessary, do something about it.
I often work with students who believe they should be serving more, but they are anxious, do not have time for all their commitments, and their grades are suffering. I ask them to evaluate their goals; what is it that they want to do with their lives and what are they doing now to get there? From there, they are able to discern what it is that is helping them get there and what activities might just be taking up time (even if it involves good work). Again, just because you can do something, should you? Believe it or not, life is not always about the “should’s.” We were created with wants and desires as well. The should’s that we implement into our lives should (ha) coincide with our wants and desires. If not, it might be time to take an inventory, spend time with God, and figure out what it is we can do to live more fulfilling lives. Stop “shoulding” on yourself (coined by psychologist Clayton Barbeau). Take time for yourself. It’s not selfish. It’s what God expects us to do so that we may have life abundantly!
While I am excited to become a licensed clinical counselor, I see much value in pastoral counseling. I believe pastoral counselors in the Catholic tradition can be both religious persons or lay people, with or without psychological training, who are able to help people make meaning through the transitions and struggles in their lives, while drawing on Jesus’ life and other spiritual resources. The spiritual resources available to pastoral counselors are usually missing in the clinical setting, especially if the client is from a different faith tradition. Spiritual resources like prayer, sacraments, and scripture are vital to the spiritual well-being of clients. While some problems are strictly psychological and would need psychiatric attention, the bottom line is that it is all connected.