Taking Care of Yourself: Present You and Future You
“You owe it to yourself. Take care of yourself. Look out for yourself.” You have likely heard statements like these and others that are attempts to communicate the idea of self-care. Self-care can loosely be defined as prioritizing and acting out things that preserve our well-being as well as promote improvement in our lives. While caring for others is a strong motivating force for a lot of life, we are not capable of being a positive force in other’s lives if we are not taking care of ourselves first. But what does it mean to “take care of yourself”? There are some nearly universal things that come to mind.
- Taking care of our physical health (diet, exercise, medical treatments)
- Taking care of our emotional health (finding purpose/meaning, addressing stressors, coping skills)
- Taking care of ourselves financially (healthy spending habits, avoiding scams)
- Taking care of ourselves spiritually (practicing religion if we hold those beliefs, exploring different values and archetypes)
Taking care of yourself can sometimes be confused with doing what feels best in the moment. In fact, mindfulness practices which are found to be extremely beneficial to self-care are based around living in the moment and focusing on only what is currently happening around you and inside of you. A person may incorrectly conclude that mindfulness is a practice of ignoring the future. There is true benefit to grounding oneself back in the present moment when our minds are running wild thinking about the past or future, but we make our decisions based on information about the past, present and future. So how do we practice self-care? Do we focus on the present moment only, or do we look forward and behind us when deciding how best to take care of ourselves?
The Value of the Past
Self-care cannot be applied to the past version of you. This is simply a fact of our lack of ability to time travel…as of yet. Past you does not benefit from anything you do now, because past you no longer exists. The value of looking to our past is mostly centered around gathering information to learn and recognize patterns. A form of self-care could include reflecting on lessons learned in the past or looking to see what decisions did not work out for us and not repeating those same mistakes. However, the relationship between self-care and the past is not nearly as strong as for the present and future. No matter what self-care you choose today, it will not make your past any better or worse, so try to keep what is behind you as a source of information to move forward and not look to fix things that have disappeared into time.
Self-Care in the Present
A quick google search of the term “Self-care” will show you that it has become a very popular industry. Everything from mental health, to physical health, to spiritual development, and even financial well-being has been put under the umbrella of self-care. Many people now sell programs based around improving one’s self-care. Counseling has long been involved in the idea that one must care for oneself as a necessity, before one can hope to do much good for anyone else around them. A deeper look into self-care practices, however, shows a peculiar fact that may make us wonder who exactly we are doing these things for.
A simple self-care practice is physical exercise. Everything from a leisurely stroll to a strenuous weightlifting routine are self-benefitting practices that have been identified as one of the best ways we can practice self-care. There is even a term for the positive feeling we get during cardiovascular exercise, “runner’s high”. Engaging in these activities will release endorphins (feel good chemicals), reduce anxiety, and put our brains in a state that is far more active than watching TV or doing something sedentary. So, one might conclude that you are exercising for present “you”. The “you” who starts the run at 9AM is who you are taking care of. You are making a decision that benefits “you” at 9AM because you feel that “you” is worth it. That’s great! That is a completely solid justification to practice self-care. But let’s take a look at another version of “you.”
There will be a version of “you” at 9PM on the same day that you ran at 9AM. That version does not exist yet. We might conclude, similar to the past versions of “you”, that since future “you” does not exist than self-care can’t benefit that version. But I believe we all can see that is not necessarily true. Suppose you didn’t go for your daily 9AM run due to no good reason except laziness. 9PM “you” can likely be expected to look back on the day and feel disappointed, or ashamed, or anxious. Does 9PM “you” deserve that? Do you want a future version of yourself to feel bad because of a decision you make in the present moment? We may be tempted to misapply those teachings of things like mindfulness and say that our desires in the present moment are all we should be concerned with. I believe that this is not just a misapplication of mindfulness, but more importantly it is a practice of actively ignoring something we all know to be true. Future “you” exists as a hypothetical in your mind right now! Another thought experiment may illustrate this even better:
The present “you” sits at a table. I put in front of you your absolute favorite dessert food. Let us say it is chocolate cake. It is a perfect portion, it will not make you sick from overeating, and it is prepared just how you like it. Present “you” would immediately benefit from eating this piece of cake. The taste would flood your brain with dopamine (another pleasure chemical), your memories of good times eating chocolate cake would flood to your mind, and you’d satiate any hunger you had. So why do you ever turn down chocolate cake? Why do we ever deny ourselves what will bring us the most satisfaction in the present? The answer is, because we are looking to take care of the future versions of ourselves as much as the present version. What is best for present “you” may not always line up with what is best for future “you”, so what do we do in these situations?
Self-Care for the Future You
It is not always easy to determine whether to do what is best for you in the present or you in the future. In fact, it is often one of the hardest parts about making any decision. I believe the answer can be found in how our minds work on a psychological level. Our brains are problem solving machines, meaning we get satisfaction from solving problems that we are faced with every day. Problem solving is by definition a future oriented process. We look forward to a resolution of a problem and take action to reach that resolution. Self-care is very similar to this process. We are taking present action that will benefit our future self, whether it is 5 minutes in the future or 5 years. Learning to properly budget our financial resources is another great method of self-care. But, the reason we may spend less now is to guarantee a more stable financial future. We are unconsciously promoting the idea that future “you” is worth sacrifice in the present. Self-care is not just about making the present moment better, which is not to say that improving the present moment isn’t a momentously positive thing, but it is also about setting up our future selves in the best possible position to feel good.
So how can we truly know when to choose caring for our future selves versus our present selves. Well, the easiest way is to simply imagine how we are going to feel later about our current decision. If the self-care action of now will likely make us feel miserable later, it is probably the wrong choice. If it feels miserable now but great later, compare just how bad it will be now versus the long period of the future where you can feel proud of yourself. Sometimes though, the payoff for later just isn’t worth the suffering of now. That is ok! Every once in awhile that 9AM run just isn’t in the cards. Future you will know that 95% of the time you put yourself in a position to feel good about the past, so missing it every so often won’t be nearly as painful. Take care of yourself in the now, but also keep the future self in mind.
If you want to learn more about how to self-care for your present and future self, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.