I mentioned in my last post that early in my recovery from sexual addiction I realized I needed to consider a shift in my thinking about self-care. Every message I’d been taught or had held reinforced a consistent message. Self-care is selfish. Don’t think about yourself. Think about others. Teaching from trusted authority figures doubled down on a message of “dying to self.”
Then I began to realize this was not actually a biblical model. If I am in Christ, then my “self” is not who it used to be. My current self is someone whom God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 2:6). This self is someone with value, someone worth caring for.
With this in mind, what are some important concepts to consider regarding self-care? There are many more, but for this pose I’m going to focus on three:
FIND OUT WHAT FILLS YOUR TANK (AKA “What kind of eggs do I like?”).
Remember the movie “Runaway Bride?” Julia Roberts moved from fiancée to fiancée, never actually following through with a wedding. She’d get right to that point and would bail every time. The movie eventually revealed that one of her problems was that she was adapting her personality to fit the man she was with, because she didn’t really know who she was, what she liked, or what she needed. She was not a secure individual, and would never be able to be a healthy partner in a secure relationship.
Each relationship she had in the movie was characterized by the former fiancée being asked how Julia’s character liked her eggs. Every man had a different answer. In the end she realized she had no idea how she liked her eggs, and she wouldn’t be fulfilled or complete until she figured it out.
Many of us don’t know “how we like our eggs” either. A lot of people, when first considering self-care, have a hard time because they don’t know what they like. They don’t know what makes them feel alive. This is particularly true when recovering from addiction. Addicts have spent so much time withdrawing from others and from really living life and going deeper into the cave of addiction, they often don’t know what they love or enjoy. Joy has not been very present in their lives for a long time. This is also true for partners of addicts. In many cases, their lives have been spent trying to make their marriage work or keep their partner happy, to the detriment of their own emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual needs.
It is important for people in recovery to figure out what gives us life, joy, and energy. Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), has an incredibly helpful exercise called The Three Circles (click link for info). Three concentric circles are drawn. The innermost circle contains a list of “bottom-line” behaviors, actions that are always harmful, sinful, addictive, etc. The middle of the three circles contains questionable behaviors; while not necessarily wrong, they are often connected to a ritual that ends in acting-out behavior. Whenever these middle-circle behaviors are present, it’s wise to ask oneself what’s going on, and to make an adjustment.
While a lot of people see this exercise primarily as a way to identify addictive or dangerous behavior, those are only two of the three circles addressed. The third circle is the largest and arguably the most important. The outer circle contains a list of good, healthy, life-giving, recovery-encouraging behaviors that should fill a recovering person’s life. These are things that fill, not empty, our tanks. Activities don’t have to be overtly recovery activities (therapy, support group meetings, meeting with a sponsor, etc.), although these are important and necessary. Other “outer-circle” behaviors can include getting enough sleep, exercise, healthy eating, playing or listening to music, taking a walk, spending time with friends, reading/studying the Bible, connecting with God in prayer, healthy sexual connection with spouse, reserving some “alone time…” You get the picture. When drawing the three circles, the outer circle is the largest and has the most space because it’s these behaviors we want filling our lives.
If you struggle to know what actions would represent self-care for you, it might be a good start to do the Three Circles exercise for yourself!
WHEN CARING FOR OTHERS, DON’T FORGET TO CARE FOR YOURSELF.
Ugh. This is a tough one for me. I’m a helper. Just ask my Enneagram test. I thrive on helping and caring for other people. Whenever helpers see someone hurting, we want to do absolutely anything and everything we can to help alleviate that hurt and to lead that person to safety.
Helping other people is a core part of recovery. When we work through the Twelve Steps, the last one talks about how we give back and help others. We have had a spiritual awakening through the process, and now we have the opportunity to be part of how others have their awakening. While the ability to help other people is a gift (and to a degree a responsibility) for recovering people, it’s important not to neglect our own needs while trying to be the vessel for meeting the needs of others.
Stacey and I attended a workshop training a couple of years ago, put on by People of the Second Chance (click to visit) and featuring Mike and Jennifer Foster. The workshop was focused on developing skills as a caregiver, and one of the sessions zoomed in on the importance of self-care especially while caring for others. Listen to what Mike had to say…
“Think about your heart and soul like a canteen. Inside this canteen is a week’s worth of water. As you go out to serve and help people, the rule after each activity is this: You’ve got to drink some water from your canteen. Every encounter you have requires you to take some amount of water from your water bottle.
“Some of the people you help will, honestly, be really easy. No sweat, and you’ll just have to take a small sip of water and you’re ready to go help someone else. But sometimes, helping hurting people is really hard and it gets really hot and humid, and the conversation is grueling and emotions from the situation are boiling over.
“Helping some people is a total cakewalk, while helping others feels like a 100-mile journey through Death Valley. So, when you’re walking with people through Death Valley, you need a lot more water. But here’s the problem. Your canteen only holds so much water. And if you don’t stop and fill it up every so often, you’re going to run out of water. And then you burn out, you burn up, you’re cooked, your heart is fried. And now you’re the one needing to be rescued.”
If we really love caring for other people, we have to understand that self-care is an important part of how we do that.
BOUNDARIES ARE NOT BAD.
Sometimes we have to say “no.” We all have a limited amount of time, and a limited amount of mental and emotional energy. Most of us have more people and situations fighting for a share of that energy than we have to spare. We can’t do it all, even if we’d like to. Sometimes we have to say “no” to certain things.
This is really hard for people in recovery. Many recovering people carry a level of shame over what we’ve done, and that translates into a sense of obligation to agree to anything and everything that’s asked of us. While it’s definitely important to be humble and agreeable, especially to our spouses and other people we’ve harmed the most, we don’t want duty or obligation to be the only motivation for why we say “yes” to things.
Boundaries are a very important aspect of self-care, because they reinforce that we – not just other people – have value and a good soul that needs to be nurtured. Sometimes the need to protect a night and stay home to recharge is more important than the thing another person is asking you to do, even if that thing is a good thing. But saying “no” to good things is sometimes necessary to experience even better things.
Be aware, though, that not everyone understands, validates, or respects boundaries. Sometimes people who don’t “do” boundaries make you feel like a villain for having them. When your boundaries are challenged, or when people tell you your boundaries feel like punishment, that good boundaries aren’t for the purpose of punishing the people you say “no” to. Good boundaries are for self-protection, which (like I mentioned in the last point) will ultimately make service and sacrifice even better; because it will be coming from a healthier place.
So, if you – like me – have struggled to accept the validity or acceptability of self-care, I hope these posts have encouraged and invited you to look at the concept a little differently. Self-care is a good thing, a godly thing, and a necessary step to take in recovery and in life.
Greg Oliver was a worship pastor for 15 years before his secret addiction to pornography and sex was exposed in 2009. Since then he has been on a journey of recovery, discovering his true identity and experiencing God’s grace like never before. He and his wife Stacey founded Awaken as a way to walk with individuals, couples, and ministry leaders, and to help them experience healing in the midst of sexual brokenness.