Taking the Self Out of Self-Care

When my husband and I were engaged, I heard people say that marriage reveals your own self-centeredness. While I believe that’s true, nothing prepared me for the mirror that motherhood would hold up to me. Becoming a mom slowly and painfully revealed the depths of selfishness in which I had existed for years.

Motherhood shattered the illusion of control and autonomy I thought I had over my daily life. Previously, I had been able to exist in my self-centeredness, even in marriage. All of my relationships up to that point were with independent, self-sufficient adults. While I wanted to serve my husband and others, I had quite a bit of control over when and how I did so.

It was becoming a mom that forced me to put the needs of someone above my own. I was at the mercy of this tiny, helpless human who depended upon me for pretty much everything. I was responsible for meeting her needs whenever they came up. And she did not care—not even a little bit—about what I needed or how I’d structured my days before she came along.

Compounding Struggles and Problematic Advice

As dramatic as it may sound, having a baby kind of shocked my system—and I don’t just mean the physical one. It was my spiritual and emotional systems that took a self-inflicted beating. I had worshipped at the altar of myself for a long time and what’s worse, I’d been completely oblivious to it. The Lord used the birth of my daughter to reveal just how self-centered I had become—and it wasn’t pretty.

Compounding my struggles with self-centeredness was some advice I received via mommy blogs, on social media, and from well-meaning friends and family members. Unfortunately, their advice inadvertently encouraged the self-centeredness I desperately needed to kill. It may have been well-intended, but good intentions don’t always make for good—or right—advice. It could be summed up in this one statement:

“Make time for self-care.”

“Self-care” has become a prolific term, not just for new moms but for anyone who feels overextended, burned out, and busy. A quick Google search defines self-care as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”

The phrase “protecting one’s own well being and happiness” doesn’t sit well. I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the burgeoning encouragement towards self-care, especially within the church. In my opinion, the very term “self-care” is problematic and I am only further convinced of this after reading the common definition of the term. Taken at face value, the pursuit of self-care runs counter to what Scripture calls us to do.1

Before I elaborate, however, I do want to be clear that the scope of this article is limited to a narrow definition of “self-care” as listed above. What I write below is not intended to apply toward those in abusive relationships, those struggling with physical or mental health issues, or similar circumstances.

This article is also directed towards those who, like me, have a tendency to set too many boundaries and underestimate their bandwidth. I realize there is another side to this coin—those who perhaps set too few boundaries. If you fall in the latter category, you may not be able to identify with what I write here, but my hope is that the basic principles laid out here are helpful to you, too.

What the World Says is Not What Jesus Says

The Lord uses all kinds of circumstances to reveal our idols. For me, becoming a mom initiated a slow, painful process of learning to die to myself—to put to death this idol I have worshipped for far too long. It has, and will be a lifelong exercise. Idols don’t go away just because you want them to—especially when I’m my own idol.

When I’m struggling with wanting to put my needs above my kids’, husband’s, or other’s, I meditate on verses that remind me of how Jesus and Paul related to others. Consequentially, the more I meditate on these verses, the more uncomfortable I have become with the idea of self-care.

Consider these verses:

  • Philippians 2:3-4: We should consider others more important than ourselves. We should not look out for our own interests but for the interests of others.
  • Philippians 2:7: Christ, though He was God Himself, emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant.
  • Matthew 6:25-33: The Bible tells us not to worry—not because we are capable of meeting our own needs but because God Himself knows our needs better than we do and He meets our needs for us. In fact, we should first seek God’s kingdom.

There are many other verses like these. All of them encourage and command us to keep our eyes focused outwardly—fixed on Christ and caring for others.

A Paradox

My concern with self-care, then, is that more often than not it is indulgent, isolating, and sinfully self-focused. So it would seem that pursuing or practicing self-care actually leads us to disobey what Scripture calls us to do, especially concerning how we relate to other people.

If you are like me, you struggle with setting too many boundaries with others. I am frequently concerned about overextending myself and often make the mistake of underestimating my bandwidth. I need to be reminded that my time is not my own and the Lord is more than sufficient to meet my needs as I sacrifice myself for the sake of others.

I have two toddlers now. Inevitably, one or both of them will need something from me at any hour of the day or night. That’s in addition to whatever my husband, coworkers, friends, or others may need from me at any given time. When I am hyperfocused on protecting my time and energy, I become hesitant to meet the needs of those around me and bitter about serving others. But I have also found that the more I try to meet my own needs, the less I am able to rest because I am constantly on edge that someone or something will get in the way of that.

Conversely, as I slowly learn what it means to joyfully pour myself out for my kids, God is also teaching me that selflessness is not just for my kids’ and husband’s sake, but for others as well. The more I practice selflessness, the more joy I find in parenting, serving, and sacrifice.

Though we may not always realize it, I imagine this is a common scenario for many people—not just those who are parents, but anyone who has work, family, ministry, or other responsibilities. Certainly, we must recognize our own limits as fallen human beings. However, we must also recognize the temptation to overexaggerate our limitations and use them as an excuse to neglect the needs of others. We cannot forsake what Scripture calls us to do in the name of “self-care.”

At its best, self-care is actually the practice of Biblical rest and wise pursuit of the Lord’s presence—we also call this the practice of spiritual disciplines. Caring for ourselves, then, is not a matter of focusing inward but of turning our eyes outward to the only One who can truly meet all of our needs.

Perhaps God does intend for us to come to the end of ourselves, for only then are we able to truly rest in His sufficiency. It is dying to ourselves that allows us to experience His present grace that sustains us through long days or sleepless nights. It is pouring ourselves out for others that allows us to truly see His mercies poured out on us, the mercies that are new every morning.

1 I realize that my aversion to the term “self-care” is a bit extreme. I have only recently begun to comprehend how deep the waters of selfishness run in my own heart and I write from this perspective. There are other mature, Christian perspectives on self-care that I respect, such as this article from my friend, Marie.

Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash