Once in the midst of a dinner party conversation while I was describing my work, a smart and eccentric woman interjected with a thought I’ve considered ever since. “Exercise, good eating, lots of sleep—those are what keep me healthy. Self-care, on the other hand…” she explained leaning forward smiling and stabbing the air with her fork, “That’s what keeps me sane—the so-called extras. That’s what makes the good life.” There were several empathetic and enthusiastic nods around the table. I understood what she meant, but the concept got me thinking. What exactly is “self-care”? Beyond the requisite showers, teeth-brushing and nail-clipping, beyond the eating well, exercising, sleeping and sunning, what does this mean? Naps? Facials? As I’ve considered the idea over time, I’ve come to see it in less precious and gendered terms than I think is common. Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that self-care puts a name and value to self-attunement in action.
I think we all have known people who do everything they “should” and yet end up a frazzled mess. They may practice all the pieces, so to speak. They go to the gym 4-5 times a week. They eat a worthy diet—even by Primal standards. They go to bed by 10:30 every night and try to “manage” their stress. Yet, somehow they’ve missed something fundamental along the way. The sum of the parts ends up less than whole.
Even when we consider the added elements of The Primal Connection—the time in nature, the effort to do something creative, the prioritization of social relationships, the center isn’t quite there. I think the Habits of Highly Successful Hunter-Gatherers ventured the outlines of this idea, but perhaps there’s more to it still.
The fact is, science (and anthropology) inform us about what activities can serve our health, but the nuance of self—when we’re in tune with this—puts it together in a way that ultimately serves our individual well-being—based as it is on our particular temperaments and personalities (factors that have both psychological and physiological roots). This is what keeps vitality more than the product of a simple formula. Flourishing doesn’t just come from the sum of recommended dosages of anything—no matter how healthy, well thought out or extensive.
Instead, we find the deepest manifestation of vitality where health and self-care merge—at the back roads intersection of genuine self-knowledge and responsive self-investment. This can happen with the rare and revolutionary act of knowing yourself (and accepting that self) and letting this understanding determine not just your goals but much of your daily life.
Sounds subversive—and, yes, it can be. The difference is you’re not trying to run the world or anyone else in it—just yourself, which can be a bigger challenge than most people will ever be able to master in their lifetimes.
Truth be told, we can’t always control our circumstances, but we can continually gauge where we’re at physically and emotionally and choose to respond effectively—which means being genuinely aligned with our needs and intentions. Taking care of ourselves is about more than hygiene and health. If you can humor me for a minute, understand that I’m not talking about devoting ourselves to navel-gazing or placating anyone’s narcissistic tendencies.
I’m talking about equanimity.
How, for instance, do we take care of our emotions in a day? Do we know how to handle them, or do we let them spill out and become other people’s problems? How do we take care of and steward our energy? Do we apply it thoughtfully—or chronically give it away unnecessarily or unwisely and end each day totally spent? How does this serve our long-term vitality or experience of life?
There’s a personal balance based not on time management or multi-tasking but on inputs and outputs (what feeds us versus depletes us) that we can develop over time. The attention to this balance and the choices that exist in alignment with it constitute self-care.
Inherent to this self-commitment (no one can do this for us, by the way) is the release of every excuse. We can have needs. We can make mistakes and choose to redirect. We can tune into the physical and emotional stress that build up in the face of circumstances we don’t get to choose. But we cannot have excuses and simultaneously live this kind of self-commitment.
The loose model of the Primal Blueprint leaves room for this. In fact, I think it requires it to some degree. I’ve always said the Primal Blueprint lays out principles but leaves the particular execution and variation to each individual. What is heaven for one person is hell for another, yet we can all live a good Primal life. Whether we’d file it under play or healthy indulgence or self-development or personal exploration, I’d say self-care is another dimension of the “optional” not really being optional.
There are a thousand different choices that will nourish each of us under the umbrella of self-care, which is as much a male phenomenon as it is a female one.
For some, it means puttering around, hiding out in the garage working on a hobby. For others, it means taking a personal retreat away from everyone and everything or practicing a simple ritual before bed (even if it’s just filing our nails and reading for ten minutes). Maybe it’s meditating or running. Maybe it’s a raucous night out. It could mean five minutes of total quiet in a dark room or the enjoyment of human touch during a massage or a hug. It could mean finding ways to laugh every day or working in a long hot shower at night. Sometimes it’s just leaving the office for that fifteen-minute break to go put your face toward the sun or to sit in your car—the closest thing to truly private space some of us have for the majority of our days. Maybe it’s a few hours off on a rainy day, a good book or a certain meal or a hot rice sock around our necks while we lay on the couch after a long day. It’s flowers on our nightstand or favorite music in the morning. It’s walking the dog or sharing an hour with a good friend—sometimes talking, sometimes working on a project, and other times just being in the same room watching a game. In the midst of a work day, maybe it’s taking five minutes to decompress from a meeting, choosing to not absorb the stress of the people around you—or to release it if you already have.
It’s not always about what you do but choosing to do it differently.
Over time we all develop our own bag of tricks, and the list becomes very personal. The choices not only fit ourselves but our stages in life and current circumstances. Someone going through a crisis might fill this well very differently than he/she would’ve just a few months earlier.
When we commit to self-care, we begin to intuit what that means for us. What do I really need in a day? It can be a transformative question.
Self-care, as I see it anyway, may be less a list of behaviors and more a mindset that you’re going to do what serves you rather than uphold the monolith of the typical routine and others’ infinite expectations. If that sounds selfish, I’d offer you the seeming irony that when we let go of the obligation to react to others’ expectations, we can actually be more present to their needs as well as our own. We’re off the manic carousel and standing on solid ground. It’s a much better vantage point from which to perceive, act, and relate in life. When we take care of ourselves we slough off less stress and projection onto other people. The impact is easy to underestimate.
Maybe it’s as good a time as any to think about what self-attunement in action means to us individually. What do we need space for in our lives today to feel vital and rested? Let me know your thoughts on this.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. Have a great end to your week.
Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.