I’ll address two important ways that self-care is vital in our relationships.
Finding the Strength to Calm Ourselves
Our human desire system is very powerful. Attachment Theory tells us that we humans have a strong longing to be respected, understood, and connected. It may feel like our very survival is at stake when our needs are unmet.
Love relationships ask something of us that is not always easy to give — something we actually need to give to ourselves! We need to find a way to manage our desire system so that we’re not immediately hijacked by the fight, flight, freeze response when we don’t get what we want — when we’re not gratified in the ways we expect or hope for.
Much has been written about the importance of self-soothing. When things don’t go as expected, we may feel angry, hurt, or sad. We might feel shame — a contracted feeling that bespeaks a belief that we don’t deserve love — or don’t know how to find it or create it. As we develop the self-care practice of being with our feelings in a gentle way, we might find that they settle, leaving us feeling calmer.
As we find more centeredness within ourselves, we serve not only ourselves, but also the relationship. We might then be able to express our feelings and needs more clearly and effectively. The skill of self-soothing enables us to do a double-take on what we’re trying to communicate. As we pause to soothe ourselves, we may find that our tone of voice and body language is softer and less contentious — and more likely to receive a positive response.
Love asks us to find the strength to sometimes temporarily put aside our own pressing feelings and desires in order to hear and respond to what our loved one needs to be happy. As we find a way to manage our reactivity when we’re emotionally triggered (perhaps when we’re feeling unheard or unappreciated), we can hear each other more deeply and be more inclined to respond not out of obligation, but because our heart is touched and we want our loved one to be happy.
Uncovering Our Feelings and Wants
Learning to take care of ourselves emotionally helps us uncover our deeper feelings and needs. During couples therapy sessions, I often hear a frustrated partner say to the other: “I never know what you’re feeling” or “I wish you’d tell me what you need from me.”
An important part of self-care is to dive deeply into ourselves and notice what we’re really feeling. When we’re in a reactive mode, we usually vent secondary emotions, such anger; we become irritable and critical. Emotional self-care means gently attuning to the primary feelings that are rumbling around inside us. These may be vulnerable feelings such as sadness, hurt, fear, or shame.
As we attend to our important feelings with a “caring, feeling presence,” as Focusing teachers Edwin McMahon and Peter Campbell put it, our feelings have a chance to settle and be heard by us. It often feels good to recognize what we’re actually feeling inside. Even if we’re noticing a painful or uncomfortable feeling, we may feel better because we’re no longer fighting with ourselves.
Self-care means being gentle with ourselves, rather than having an attitude of violence, disdain, or dismissiveness toward our feelings and needs. The more we cultivate non-judgmental self-care in this way — that is, the more that we bring a gentle presence to ourselves — the more we can bring a sense of presence to our important relationships.
A foundation for experiencing a secure attachment with our loved ones is to be more connected to ourselves. The more we cultivate emotional self-care, the more available we become for emotional connection, and the more capable we become of self-revealing communication that allows for the growth of intimacy.