Taking the full measure of life

Self-Control Vs. Self-Care

September 10th, 2008 · 22 Comments

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I was reading a book in the steamy, hot bathtub this morning when my mind wandered off the page and into my life history.  Particularly, for some reason, I remembered the winter several years ago that I never turned on the gas to get heat in the apartment I was renting.  That was the winter after my first fiance and I had broken up.  I was in terrible financial shape, still reeling from the cancer bills and from general ineptitude with money.  In addition to my own car and its payments, I was left with the payments on my fiance’s truck, which I had—deliciously stupidly—put in my name at the bank because his credit wasn’t good enough. (Note: If someone can’t get financing at the bank, you generally shouldn’t offer it, either, unless you’re willing to just kiss that money goodbye.) I had the truck, but I couldn’t get it to sell for a long while.  I avoided retrieving and opening my bill-ful mail from my mailbox until the postman began leaving me messages requiring me to retrieve it.  My finances every month were enough to make anyone panic, so I did—I stayed under a cloud of nearly constant, heart-racing anxiety, and I experienced full-blown panic attacks occasionally.  I didn’t even try to get the gas turned on in my apartment for two reasons:  1) In my drafty, too-large, ancient apartment, I felt sure that the cost of maintaining even moderate heat would blow through what was left of my finances after other bills (and I wasn’t even paying all those bills). 2) My credit was bad enough that I wasn’t sure whether the gas company would even approve me, and if they had, I felt sure it would have been with a hefty deposit.  I was at such a low point emotionally that I couldn’t even imagine going through that denial, so I simply avoided it.  I bought a couple of space heaters, which I floated from room to room as I moved about the apartment.  When I was home, I tended to be tucked under the down comforter in my bedroom, trying to stay warm. Many days in my apartment, I could see my breath; at night, I would sometimes awake with my nose frigid from being exposed to the air or with an exposed hand crunchy from the cold.  Everything in my life wasn’t miserable, but I wandered through life with a deep sense of shame at my inability to do something as simple as warm my apartment in winter.

I’ve had quite a few comments and emails from readers of this blog lately extolling my self-control, willpower, and discipline.  But the truth is, I doubt I possess any of those things in any greater amount than any of you.  What I have these days that I used to lack—and which some of you may lack, as well—is the understanding that the decisions I make in this life need to be consistently based in self-care.  That’s not the same as self-control.  Self-control means you are whipping yourself into shape and forcing yourself to do what’s good/right/best/admirable; self-care means you are taking care of yourself by doing what will be good for you.  It may sound like a subtle difference, but in practice, it’s been huge for me.  Self-control is forceful; self-care is nurturing.  Self-control is the parental figure inside you who will punish you for doing something wrong; self-care is the parental figure inside you who wants you to have a meaningful, successful life and encourages you to take steps to get there.  Understanding the difference in those concepts, and turning my focus from self-control to self-care, has been one of the most pivotal shifts of my life; it’s changed nearly everything in my life.

These days, I save a fourth to a third of my income, every paycheck, despite working in the non-lucrative nonprofit field.  I have over a year’s income in savings.  I have a good 401k and Roth IRAs working on my retirement. The only debt my husband and I have left is student loans, which we’ll begin to pay off more aggressively after my husband finishes his Ph.D. next spring.  Every month, I know there is enough money to go around to bills and allow us to save—except for the months that something requires using a bit of savings, and that’s okay, too, since we have enough saved that it’s not a pinch.  Getting to this point, and maintaining it, means we sacrifice in some ways.  For example, we share one car, which is a ’91 Volvo with torn seats (it does run well, even after nearly 300,000 miles), and we live in an under-market-rate apartment, where the landlord isn’t great about upkeep and which requires us to go down multiple flights of stairs to the one shared washer and dryer for the building.

We don’t skimp on everything, not by any means:  my monthly grocery bill is average for my group of friends, which is to say it isn’t low.  I make it a point to take a vacation with my husband at least once a year, even if it requires that I go with him on a work trip.  We both get massages once every couple of months.  But we don’t do anything that blows up our budget entirely or forces us back into debt.

I was talking about financial health with a friend yesterday, and I told her, “I now know that there’s nothing I could buy that feels as good as the security of making good financial decisions.”  In my previous life, before the big switch to self-care, I had tried to self-control my way into making good financial decisions.  Like bouts of food dieting as well, I had tried to force myself to make what I perceived as the right choices and if it worked for a while (which it usually did), the part of me that’s a petulant child eventually rebelled against that, and I bought what I wanted to buy when I wanted to buy it.  Then I beat myself up over my lack of willpower and self-control at my failure, and I gave up until the next round.  It was cycles of self-flagellation at their finest, and I unwittingly set myself up for them each time.

These days, I recognize that it’s not that I need to make myself do what’s right; I need to understand what is good and healthy for me long-term and do it out of love for myself.  With my life stretching out before me, I need to make the decisions that will create sustenance, health, and peace to get me through what may come.  When I’m tempted to spend on something random, I ask myself why I want it.  If there’s a legitimate reason, maybe I’ll buy it. (I’ve certainly bought more clothes in celebration of weight loss this year than in the previous two years combined.) But if my reason is just emotional (especially having to do with coping with negative emotions), I ask myself whether the purchase will bring more happiness into my life than the peace of not having the stress that that purchase—combined with other, similar purchases especially—would bring me.  The answer usually reverts me, emotionally and mentally, back to the understanding that there’s nothing I can buy that feels as good as the security of making good financial decisions.

It’s not just fiscal health, of course, though that’s something many of us struggle with.  Self-care can mean making good job choices, creating a better life balance, eating more healthfully, exercising, resting more, picking a worthy spouse, breaking off a relationship.  There are many elements to self-care, and all of them are important.  As I told another friend recently, You are the only you that you have.  You don’t get another you if you don’t take care of this one. You are worth that nurturing care; you have it within you to develop the skills to offer that care, and to let it revolutionize your life.

Tags: non-scale victories · on the soapbox

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Christie i. // Sep 10, 2008 at 8:54 am

    great post!

  • 2 Lizzie // Sep 10, 2008 at 11:31 am

    I really enjoyed that Sally.

    Self-care: I have to work on that.

  • 3 meg wolff // Sep 10, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Pearls of wisdom Sally … “You are the only you that you have. You don’t get another you if you don’t take care of this one. You are worth that nurturing care; you have it within you to develop the skills to offer that care, and to let it revolutionize your life.” Love that you wrote this!!

  • 4 Dad To Two // Sep 10, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    That is a very nice way to look at things. I like it. Thanks for sharing it

  • 5 Ricki // Sep 10, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Terrific sentiments. And a year’s salary saved?? How fabulous. I’m just barely there now, almost double your age!

  • 6 Hänni // Sep 10, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    interesting post that exemplifies something i just read about recently, behavioral finance. the gist of the article is, we get in these habits of spending. We are fine buying $15 dollar shirts until one day we buy a $90 shirt. After that, buying a $60 shirt seems CHEAP because $90 is our new limit. And then we just continue in these habits, as you did in your “petulant child” phase (which i have also been through). The way to change these bad spending habits is to break them, which i think you’ve done really well. The article suggested doing just what you have–modify your thoughts, ask is it worth it.

    great post.

  • 7 Kimberly // Sep 10, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    This post is really neat and impeccable timing! As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, self-care is a hard thing to grasp. I have been on a little downward spiral and this post along with a few other reminders are helping me get back to caring for my body the way I should. I am also really looking at my job. I clean other people’s homes two days a week and it is very taxing on my body. Anyway, thanks for sharing your life:)

  • 8 Hannah Celeste // Sep 10, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Wow…I think I need to read this to my husband (especially the financial part). We’ve been REALLY struggling financially lately and it’s hard to see an end in sight…

  • 9 Kristin // Sep 10, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Absolutely fabulous post – thanks for taking the time to share that one. It really hit home.

  • 10 BinikiMe // Sep 10, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this post — I am so glad to have read it. I am going through a pretty stressful time right now, and I’m really really trying to LEARN some important lessons — about fiscal responsibility, about living alone and relying on myself, about repairing some relationships and ending others, about eating right and exercising and getting to bed early so I can sleep deeply enough and long enough to feel refreshed — in short, I am really striving to do just what you’ve descirbed here: stop controlling and start caring.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • 11 Girlinga // Sep 10, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    A great post Sally. I need to work on self-care in many parts of my life. A different perspective can make such a difference. I waste so much time feeling guilty about things I feel I should have done better, or done at all and it’s such a negative waste of energy. It’s really hard to break this (and any) habit!

  • 12 erita // Sep 10, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    i’ve been struggling along a similar path and wondering why i continue to be frustrated and stalled in my progress. i think we all need more nurturing and less control, and i need to start with myself. thanks for this very timely, insightful post!

  • 13 Emily // Sep 11, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    I’m glad I found this site and look forward to reading more. Congrats on all your successes and thanks for sharing them as inspiration 😉 Self care is on my radar now that I am a mother of two and am feeling the affects of what happens when one DOESN’T care for oneself.

  • 14 Anniebeth // Sep 11, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    A wonderful post Sally and a much needed reminder for me regarding self care.

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • 15 Cheryl // Sep 11, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    this was so perfect for a day like today, a day when so many emotions are raw and close to the surface. It’s almost as though tragedy has given people permission to be real and to feel, to listen and care for each other and themselves.

  • 16 Brandi // Sep 12, 2008 at 8:03 am

    Thanks for stopping by my blog, it was really refreshing to see a new face!! And as for empathy … I’ve had the curse of empathy all my life, too. I joke when I call it a curse, for it is truly a blessing to be able to so closely relate to the people around me … but you aren’t wrong about the possibility of being overrun by the needs of others and leaving yourself behind. I frequently feel overwhelmed, and then realize that it’s my own fault for taking care of everyone around me to the exclusion of myself!

  • 17 Eden // Sep 12, 2008 at 9:15 am

    Hi Sally,
    You were nice enough to pop on over to my fledgling blog and leave me a nice encouraging note. Now that I’m back at work on it and a new one (http://edenglutenfree.blogspot.com and http://vixenrx.blogspot.com), I thought I’d pop over and check out yours and say hi.
    Wow! Very thought provoking and honest. I plan on following them and giving some of those GF recipes a try.
    Have a great weekend.

  • 18 Laura // Sep 13, 2008 at 5:19 am

    You put it perfectly. It is a fine but distinct line between self-control and self-care. Whether it’s food or finances, it all comes to down to nourishment. How do we care for ourselves? What kind of decisions do we make around what we actually need to be comfortable and to feel good? I come from a long line of women with eating disorders who would skimp on buying food rather than some kind of adornment for their image. Very, very well-written, Sally.

  • 19 Girl in Georgia » Food, Clutter // Sep 13, 2008 at 8:36 am

    […] you have a moment, go on over and read Sally’s post: Self care vs. Self control.  It really struck a chord with me.  I’ve been feeling “off” lately and guilty […]

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  • 20 Sophia // Sep 14, 2008 at 7:53 am

    I was recommended to read this post through a friend of mine, Girl from Georgia.

    I love this post, I think it hits the nail on the head in so many aspects of our life.

    Thank you for writing this.

  • 21 Uplifting: Learning from the Things I Do Right // Oct 20, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    […] the other two aspects of my fitness: aerobic exercise and food. In a way, Sally’s pursuit of self-care relies upon these […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP ( and so is spam.

  • 22 karen // Mar 7, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    great post!!! We are saving for a small homestead, our cars will be paid off in 18 months, the last 2 credit cards should be paid off in 12 months. I know how it feels to be so beat down with bills. I was there at one point myself after I had to close my small business. At one point before the close I was working it and another fulltime job just to make ends meet.

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