You Can’t Pour From an Empty Cup: A New Way to Think About Self-Care

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By Erica Carulli
April 20, 2022

It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, says Michigan mental health expert Erica Carulli.

If you’re anything like me, taking time for yourself away from your family and your children just seems really hard to do. As caregivers, we are often the last to think of ourselves—and that’s especially true for primary caregivers.

When you think of self-care, what comes to mind? What does the word self-care mean to you? What do you picture happening when you are engaging in self-care? How do you take care of yourself now and how would that differ if you had a self-care practice that felt improved or improved upon? Do you even consider the idea of being compassionate to yourself at all?

Typically when I ask these questions, especially to a room full of primary caregivers, I hear things related to external sources of care like bubble baths, spa days, and manicures/pedicures. Space and time requests come up as well, such as shopping alone, being without children, help with household tasks, and more personal space. (Have you ever felt “touched out?)

READ MORE: Getting Mental Health Care Is Tough Nowadays. Here Are Five Suggestions to Help You Find Support.

There are many ways self-care can happen for an individual, and there are no wrong answers.

The ways in which I try to take care of myself is a little different from what you might typically hear: nourishing my body with a beautiful meal, walking outside on a gorgeous day, saving money for retirement, sitting intentionally in my happiness or joy, reaching out to friends on the phone, speaking regularly to a therapist, volunteering my time to causes that are meaningful to me.

The list keeps going, but they’re all hard to do. Nevertheless, people look at me like I have three heads when they hear that list. 

Often, we view self-care monolithically. What I mean here is that there is only one thing, or idea, that can help us feel better. Or only one thing or idea that can work to improve our “self-care.”

If we consider the vast categories of ways we can tend to our care, we notice that in no way could we accomplish this by only doing one thing.

Here are some examples of the different categories of self-care recognized by the therapeutic community: emotional, spiritual, psychological, physical, financial, practical and social.

Okay, so that could feel overwhelming. These don’t have to happen all at once. Or even every day. I remind my clients (and myself—hey, I’m a human being, too!) that these are the framework and they are here to give us structure, but they are not an ultimatum. 

So often, when I discuss the concept of “self-care” I start by encouraging one to consider the term “care” as it relates to the idea of compassion. By having compassion for yourself, you can shift the focus of the care task. For example, you may ask yourself: “Does this care task that I am doing support my goal to be compassionate to myself, fulfill my desires and needs as a human being, and allow me to refuel and rejuvenate my energy supply to better engage with my partner/friends/kids/etc.?”

I also like to approach self-compassion from an empowerment standpoint. I often describe to the caregivers that I work with that, “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” or “In order to take care of your children and others you must take care of yourself first.” We know that we do better (at literally everything) when we feel well.

Here’s how to empower self-compassion:

  1. Decide and really understand your needs and desires and what will help you feel full, rejuvenated, and refueled.
  1. Decide and really understand what system(s) work best for you and your family and your budget, and stick to it.
  1. Implement and engage in whatever self-compassionate activities you’ve chosen that fully support your needs and desires.
  1. Remember, self-compassion typically contains a multitude of different approaches that you use depending on how you feel on a particular day to help you feel better. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Human beings are multifaceted, multidimensional, complex, and layered. 
  1. As a gentle reminder, every self-compassionate strategy won’t always do what you need/want it to do, and that’s okay. Allow yourself to be able to ebb and flow and move on to different self-compassionate strategies. What works one day may not work the next. There is no one-way and there is no right way, and that’s okay.

Self-compassion is not something that we put on a to-do list to get to someday. It is something that we need to tend to regularly in order to feel well. It’s a journey, a new way of viewing our lives, in order to be happy and healthy. Because remember, mental health is health.

READ MORE: 300,000 People Rely on Michigan’s Public Mental Health System. Republicans Want to Privatize It.


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