Self-Care as Responsibility

Photo by Jessica Felicio

Did you know emotions are contagious? What you are feeling spreads to those you come in contact with and ripples out into your social network and beyond. Research by sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Yale University demonstrated that one person’s happiness increases the likelihood of a nearby friend’s happiness by 25%. This is true for face to face interactions and also through social media and the contagion isn’t limited to happiness, but also kindness, generosity, cruelty, anger and sadness.

It has also been suggested that around 40% of our well-being is under our personal influence (Lyubomirsky, 2008). Cultivating beneficial attitudes (such as trust, optimism and generosity), engaging in prosocial behavior, living according to one’s highest values, and having strong social connections are all associated with greater health and happiness.

Taken together, this suggests that self-care is something we must prioritize and attend to, not only for our own wellbeing, but also for the benefit of those we love. This may be especially true for people who are charged with taking care of others. If you are a caregiver, you are the precious instrument of your calling – a tool for compassion. When you neglect your tools, they degrade and become less useful. Indeed, research tells us caregivers who fail to take care of themselves are less likely to be competent providers.

In this externally focused culture of rugged individualism and bootstrap mentality, it’s not easy to adopt a self-compassionate paradigm. I recently read an article describing self-care as a subversive act. The author advocated becoming a “healthy deviant” in an unhealthy world. I really liked this idea because the most giving among us might be more motivated to include ourselves in the circle of service if we were to reframe self-care as setting an example of radical transformation toward health, balance, and well-being.

We work on ourselves in order to help others and we help others as a vehicle for working on ourselves. – Ram Dass

Mushim Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher, author, mentor, and community activist, speaks of “transformative well-being” – a new paradigm in which “the exchange of self for other is re-envisioned as the care of self in service to the community”. This is a refreshing reversal of roles in which the well-being of the provider is seen as paramount. After all, what happens on the inside tends to ripple out into the world, creating a kind of parallel process. In response to this need for greater resilience and sustainability, Mushim formulated her Great Vow for Mindful Activists:

Aware of suffering and injustice, I, _________, am working to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. I promise, for the benefit of all, to practice self-care, mindfulness, healing, and joy. I vow to not burn out.

In my psychology practice, I encounter many souls who are feeling burned out by the political climate in our country. Their compassion has been overtaken by despair or anger in a process that is commonly coined, “compassion fatigue”. My teachings have taught me that true compassion is boundless, so the idea that it can become fatigued was confusing to me. If our capacity for caring is limitless, how can it become fatigued? When I saw this concept reframed by self-compassion experts Christopher Germer & Kristen Neff as empathy fatigue – or better yet, what we might call attachment fatigue – it made much more sense to me. What wears us out is the continual disappointment of having our expectations for certain outcomes that we are strongly attached to unmet.

When we practice mindful self-care, over time we see that we are playing the “long game” and that there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between our efforts and how and when things unfold. We realize that this is also true for our caring for others – the benefits are incremental, interconnected with other various factors, and take time to build – sometimes only coming to fruition after we are long gone. This realization builds the patience, trust and confidence we need to sustain our practice of compassion for self and others, over the long term and against the odds, so it can truly make a difference.

Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life
and wait there patiently,
until the song that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know how to give yourself
to this world
so worthy of rescue.

– Martha Postlewaite, Clearing


Cheng, J. et. al. (2017). Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions. CSCW ’17, Portland, Oregon, USA — February 25 – March 01.

Christakis, N.A. & Fowler, J.H. (2013). Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior. Statistics in Medicine, 32(4): 556-577.

Christakis, N.A. & Fowler, J.H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, New York: Little Brown.

Germer, C. & Neff, K. (2015). Cultivating Self-Compassion in Trauma Survivors. Chapter 3 of Transforming Trauma: Integrating contemplative and Western psychological approaches. New York: Guilford Press..

Hancock, JT (2008). I’m Sad You’re Sad: Emotional Contagion in CMC. Information Science Department of Communication Cornell University

Kramer, ADI, Guillory, JE, & Hancock, JT (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. PNAS; 111 (24) 8788-8790.

Nelson, SK, Layous, K, Cole, SW, & Lyubomirsky, S (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, Sep; 16(6):850-61.

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