As a young boy growing up in the 1960’s I don’t recall the topic of self-care, particularly with respect to men, ever being openly discussed in the manner it is today. There is greater awareness within society today of the need for men to take care of their health. So much so that there are not only such things as health supplements and skin care products specifically designed to support the male body, also men are encouraged to reach out for help if they feel themselves struggling emotionally or mentally with the demands of daily life.
When I was growing up it was common for boys to be told to toughen up if they hurt or injured themselves in some way and not to cry as ‘boys don’t cry’. While I may have become more resilient as a result of being told such things, I now feel that what really happened was that I hardened so as not to feel my sensitivity and buried any emotional hurt or pain rather than dealing with it at the time. The expectations around the behaviour of men served to cement in me the reluctance to be seen by friends as unable to cope with life or to be vulnerable in any way and with that the reluctance to reach out to family or friends if I was in fact struggling with the pressures of growing up.
As I got older, the self-care I incorporated into my life centred around trying to maintain a healthy diet, drinking alcohol in moderation, going to the gym on a regular basis and having a hobby or sport for time out and relaxation. While these things had some positive impact on my health and well-being I did them in a very ‘prescriptive’ manner in that I would base what I did, such as dietary changes or fitness regimes, on the opinion of ‘experts’ or what my friends were doing, rather than what actually felt good for my body to be doing at that time.
Over the years I continued with various self-care strategies but I have come to realise that true self-care is more than focusing on the physical things that support me; things such as eating nourishing food that doesn’t leave me feeling bloated, giving up alcohol, resting when required, going to bed when tired, not pushing myself with exercise if I feel tired, etc.
Self-care for me now is about ensuring the quality I do things in is supportive for my body and that I do things in a loving manner.
It has been about reconnecting to what feels true for me in my body and living in a manner that is not only honouring of this but supports the ongoing deepening of this relationship. It has also been about looking beyond the ideals and beliefs I had grown up with regarding men and allowing myself to feel and express the tenderness, sensitivity and vulnerability that I naturally am.
Having grown up strongly influenced by such beliefs, however, I found it quite challenging at first with doing something that (while supportive for me) was different to what those around me were doing. The most obvious example relates to drinking alcohol and the difficulty some people had with accepting my choice to select an alcohol free alternative when out socially.
I sometimes found myself trying to hide such differences or making excuses for eating different food or not drinking alcohol rather than being honest (with them and with myself) and claiming the choices I had made that I actually found to be more supportive for me.
Self-care includes choices made relating to one’s personal health and we as men seem to have a reluctance with not only seeking medical advice when we are unwell, but also with being proactive with having regular health checks. I feel that unless the pain or discomfort is not ongoing then there can be a tendency amongst men just to carry on as normal. I was one who would over-ride any pain or discomfort I was feeling and saw going to the doctor as a last resort. I learnt how risky this can be when one day I experienced chest pain and a tingling feeling down one arm. As this discomfort soon passed, I proceeded to carry on with my day as normal but was made to seek medical advice upon my wife’s insistence. It was fortunate that I did as it was discovered that I had a major block in one of the arteries in my heart and required a cardiac stent inserted.
I now have regular health checks and don’t view any pain or discomfort as an inconvenience but as an opportunity to listen to my body and reflect on how I have been living that may have led to that point and to make any appropriate changes.
Since taking greater responsibility for how I live, I now make choices that are more self-loving and I have noticed an improved level of health and well-being. I have more vitality (even though I am getting older) and a greater ability to cope with the stress and challenges of daily life (without holding onto issues as I once did). My personal relationships have more depth and intimacy than in the past.
Men today are still expected to have a strong mental and physical fortitude even though society has become more accepting of men expressing their feelings. I found that it was by developing a better relationship with myself that my health and wellbeing, as well as my relationships with others, improved immensely.
Peter C., New Zealand
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