Image via Pexels

Self-Care is Knowing Your Default Reaction

Self-care became a “thing” during the COVID pandemic. It isn’t that nobody thought about it or did anything about it before then. People have been working on developing “healthy habits” for decades. As mental health has come to the forefront in a more insistent way, self-help strategies have been discussed with frequency and openness. A lot of it is very surface level, whether talking about physical self-care or emotional self-care: Take Vitamin D. Zinc is essential. Go to yoga class. Give up sugar. Become a vegetarian. Give up red meat. As you wade through the deluge of advice about physical healthy living – please don’t forget to use sunscreen – you find what feels right works for you and what doesn’t. All good.

On the emotional/mental/spiritual front, there is also a lot of advice out there about what constitutes self-care. It is usually delivered in short nostrums intended to fix the problem quickly, without a lot of fuss. Now, in fairness, as far as a lot of this advice goes, most of it is fine – as far as it goes. For example, “Rewarding yourself for even small achievements is self-care.” Absolutely. Learning to honor ourselves and our accomplishments is an important life lesson. Why? Because we are recognizing what we accomplished though our diligence, discipline, and perseverance. However, the reward should be proportional to the success. You clean house all day and take yourself out to dinner, okay. You clean house all day and then go binge shopping online, not so much.

Another self-care idea I have come across is something along the lines of “playing dumb to protect your energy is self-care.” Um, no. Playing dumb is many things, but it is not self-care. I understand that acting like you don’t know anything about anything seems a way to keep yourself from getting drawn into gossip or drama and, in fact, there is truth to that. However, there are times in life when it is important to stand up and put your two cents in. First of all, when you refuse to speak the truth in a situation where someone could be negatively impacted if you don’t say something, the price you will pay is your self-esteem because of the lack of your forthright honesty. Secondly, it’ll piss you off to no end when someone else regards you as a complete numbnuts. The deeper truth here is that you are not so fragile that you must constantly protect your energy. Becoming spiritually tougher will serve you well as you are not a delicate flower and learning to stand in your own truth will help you develop self-confidence.

We could go on about some of the ideas about self-care out there, but I want to take it to a deeper level. An important aspect of self-care is about knowing and learning to manage your default reaction setting. We all set a pattern fairly early in life in how we react to the unexpected, both good and bad. These patterns become default settings. The self-care aspect here is learning which of these settings is yours in order to manage and, hopefully, heal it as these are not things you would want to give into.

My knee-jerk reaction to the unexpected was always fear. What would happen as a result of this occurrence? Had I done something wrong? Was this a sign that my life was about to fall apart? What did this portend for me?

I had to learn to put things in context. If Kroger was out of broccoli coleslaw for a couple of weeks, did that mean that I was being deprived and would need to alter my diet? Probably not. If someone misunderstood something I said, did I need to be fearful of being either judged or completely misunderstood and in that, somehow being subject to punishment? You see how silly and extreme it can get.

If your default is fear, how likely is it that what you fear will happen? How significant is this fear? Should this fear be realized, is it something that can easily be corrected or is it something that puts your well-being at risk? If, for example, you make a mistake at work, will you really be fired for it or is it okay to admit the mistake and correct it? If you are accidentally inconsiderate with your significant other, will they really leave you for someone more understanding or can you apologize and ask them for the chance to make it right?

Others get angry when the unexpected occurs. For some, getting angry helps them to feel powerful enough to cope. We all know people, often men, who walk around with an underlying anger that is just under the surface. A good friend, who has been an air traffic controller, had worked for years on his spiritual development to release his habit of being the “last angry man.” At heart, he was a kind, loving, and generous human, but his default reaction was anger. Most people don’t know how to process and release anger in a constructive way, so they stuff it in their shirt pocket and walk around with it. When he had a stroke, which he survived pretty much intact, he was furious with his body and with God because as a spiritual person, that wasn’t supposed to happen to him. He felt shocked and betrayed and angry as hell. Rather than deal with his anger, he turned that anger on himself, didn’t follow his doctor’s advice, and was dead in two years.

Others react aggressively in the face of anger. You just pissed me off and I immediately go into anger rather than trying to figure out what just happened and why. In my aggression spurred on by my anger, I can ruin relationships or opportunities by doing and saying something destructive. Anger can be a healthy emotion, but part of self-care is learning how to deal with it – recognize it, process it, and release it appropriately. And not everything that makes you angry rises to the level of importance that it is worth going to Defcon 3. If I forget to stop and buy milk on the way home, is it worth a huge angry blowup? Just knowing you are headed into anger can help you walk yourself back from the immediate reaction edge, calm down, and make an informed decision as to how you would like to respond.

Hurt hurts. When someone or something hurts us, it can tear at our self-esteem. And hurt takes time to heal. With that in mind, not everything that surprises us or that we don’t like is really hurtful. Yet for some of us, we have become habituated in our thinking and in our expectations that we are going to get hurt. Once those paths of least resistance get laid out in our brain structure, that is where we go. So, the first question one would ask oneself is, “Is this really hurtful?” Or is it just disappointing, challenging, or unwelcome? If you still feel it is, then you want to look at why. Why is this hurtful? Or are you flirting with playing the victim?

This is not the column to delve into the process of healing hurt but to make you aware, if it is your default setting, of your patterns and begin breaking them up and lightening your load. The world is not out to hurt you. Life will have its challenges, but you can heal and make your life easier.

Knowing your knee-jerk reaction and being able to work with it can be an immensely important step toward authenticity and is a critical part of self-care. To be authentic you need to know who you are and to tell yourself the truth about all of who you are. As you can begin to work with and mitigate the damage that inappropriate but habitual reactions can cause, you set yourself on a path of being more powerful, more authentic, having more self-esteem, and discovering more of your self-value.

Living Skills offers positive psychology counseling, spiritual counseling, and life coaching services in Atlanta, and online. We are sensitive to the needs of the LGBTQ community. Sessions available by Skype. Please email us at or visit Podcast: “The Problem with Humans” now available on Apple Podcasts, Buzzsprout, Google Podcast, Amazon Music, and Spotify, Overcast, Castro, Castbox, and Podfriend, as well as on my site. Follow us on Twitter – @livingskillsinc