CATES: One change at a time: Self-care

By Carol A. Cates, MSN, MBA, RN

Chief Nursing Officer

Odessa Regional Medical Center

I was the little girl that bandaged the dog. I genuinely feel like I was called to be a nurse, because all I have ever wanted to do is take care of others. But one thing I struggle with remembering, is that part of taking care of others is taking care of myself. Sometimes I feel like it’s a bit of a sin to think of my own needs. I know so many people who feel like I do, and those people are not limited to healthcare. I think that is all of us to a certain extent. We equate self-care with selfishness. It’s such a common problem, I think it might be embedded in our culture. Today, I wanted to remind everyone that as we take care of others, we also must take care of ourselves. Self-care is not selfish, it’s the opposite.

Self-care means you are physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. When you care for yourself, you can do your job, you can care for others, and you can accomplish your goals. The World Heath Organization defines self-care as, “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker.” If you look at self-care under that definition, self-care is an obligation if you want to take care of others. Again, self-care is not selfish.

Unfortunately, there are not hard and fast rules for what defines good self-care. What works well for one person might not work well for others. Self-care day to day might change too, what works today, might not work in a year. One expert said, self-care is “anything that floats your boat. It’s the things that put a smile on your face and makes you feel cared for.” That is a broad definition. But there are three general categories of self-care that can help you start thinking about self-care and your own well-being: physical, emotional, and spiritual self-care,

When it comes to physical self-care, there are several things to consider. Are you getting good sleep, are you exercising regularly, are you choosing a diet that is high in healthy food choices, and do you see a primary health care provider regularly to make sure you are catching any potential health issues early when they are the most manageable? All of those actions, even with small, one at a time changes will make a big difference in your physical health.

I recently saw a wonderful TED Talk on emotional self-care by Dr. Guy Winch. He talked about being emotionally healthy. One of the points he made was about how when we fail or we are rejected, we all tend to beat up on ourselves. He told the story of a person who was recently divorced and went out for the first time on a date. A few minutes into the date, the other person got up and left and said, “not interested.” That person told a friend about the experience, and the friend said, why are you surprised, you are overweight, you are old, and you are boring. Dr. Winch said, if a friend said such things, we would all say they were not a friend at all. But, he said, we do exactly that to ourselves.

He said, if you have a cut on your arm, you don’t take a knife and make that cut deeper to help it heal. But when we get an emotional cut, we tell ourselves we deserve it which makes the emotional cut deeper. Dr. Winch in that TED talk gave some great tips for what he calls “emotional first aid.” If you want to learn more, please go see his TED talk at

Emotional self-care can also be accomplished by saying no to things that cause stress, giving yourself permission to take a break, doing activities or spending time with people that give you joy.

Spiritual self-care is not just about religion. It’s about things that give you joy and peace. That might be participating in religious services, prayer, meditation, communing with nature, practicing gratitude, or performing acts of kindness. Spiritual self-care is taking the time to refresh your spirit.

As you are considering making one change at a time for better health, remember self-care. When we are physically healthy, we can meet the physical needs of caring for others. When we are emotionally healthy, we can help others who are having emotional struggles. And, when we are spiritually healthy, we can pass joy and peace to others. This lets us do all the things we want to do in taking caring for our families, our friends, our work, and our communities. Caring for yourself doesn’t just make you healthier, it makes those around you healthier too. What could be farther from selfish?