The Fundamentals of Self-Care

Stressed out by the election? Consider Tracey Cleantis’ tips for nurturing yourself.

Self-care is, to a large extent, a framework for seeking happiness.

— Tracey Cleantis, An Invitation to Self-Care

Walking into Tracey Cleantis’ home office in Pasadena’s San Rafael district, one encounters all the elements of a relaxing spa — soft lighting; the aroma of a scented candle in the air; plush, inviting couches and chairs. It’s an appropriately welcoming, stress-free place. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, Cleantis, a gracious and elegant woman who greets a visitor with a big smile and an easy laugh, makes her living helping folks dealing with a variety of difficult issues. In her new book, An Invitation to Self-Care: Why Learning to Nurture Yourself Is the Key to the Life You’ve Always Wanted, 7 Principles for Abundant Living (Hazelden Publishing), she aims to enlighten readers about the importance of “treating yourself like the person you respect and care about the most.”

The concept of self-care has been having its moment in the spotlight lately, with numerous books and articles written on the subject. “As a Google search term,” Cleantis says, “‘self-care’ hit its pinnacle the weekend after the presidential election.” Indeed, anxiety since last Nov. 8 is so common, mental health professionals have given it an unofficial diagnosis: post-election stress disorder. (On that subject, she offers coping advice: “Set limits for yourself, when and how much you’re allowing yourself exposure to Twitter feeds and news media. It’s still going to be there at the end of the day.”)

Why another book on self-care? Cleantis argues that most self-care advice is superficial. Most people assume it is “what you do when you’re burned out, when you have nothing left,” she says. “It’s what you do on Saturday and Sunday after you’ve ignored yourself all week — going to the spa or getting your nails done or treating yourself in some way.” Cleantis adds that true self-care is something that should be done every day, in every aspect of one’s life: psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually — in relationships both personal and professional, at work and play; in dealing with one’s finances; even in relation to physical belongings. “It’s essentially about being in a relationship with you, listening to yourself, being an adult,” she says.

In An Invitation to Self-Care, Cleantis points to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with basic human necessities at the bottom and self-actualization at the top, and how certain needs have to be fulfilled along the way before you can reach the peak. She says Maslow was a self-care expert before the term was coined. Inspired by his writings, Cleantis developed her own ideas, focusing on seven principles she reinforces throughout the book: Self-care is a daily, lifelong practice; it is self-love; it requires taking personal responsibility; it means noticing what matters to us; it requires attention and responsiveness; it must be realistic to be effective; and it precedes self-fulfillment.

To help understand these concepts, Cleantis categorizes self-care in different hues of “magic” — white, gray and black — which, she is quick to point out, has nothing to do with the occult, but rather is used as shorthand. “A wonderful, surprising and almost miraculous method of change,” she says. “White magic” encompasses the ideals of self-care that we all pursue (or should pursue) as a matter of course — things like going to the dentist twice a year, getting an annual mammogram, participating in regular exercise, sleeping eight hours a night. “Black magic” is the opposite: drinking too much, sex addiction, compulsive shopping or overeating — in other words, activities that can bring harm, bodily or otherwise.

“All of those things, in some ways, are an attempt at self-care,” Cleantis says of black magic, “to change how you feel and to take some difficult stressor and make it tolerable, but that’s never okay. What I’m particularly interested in is shining a light on the ‘gray magic’ self-care — things like watching too much television or eating ice cream for dinner or going to Sephora to buy another lipstick. Sometimes you need that and it’s okay to give space for things like that; there’s value in it.” It’s when eating ice cream for dinner happens regularly that it might suggest there’s a need for something more, something deeper, in one’s life.

Filled with personal anecdotes, real-life stories, quizzes and self-assessments to help readers along the way, An Invitation to Self-Care is aimed at both women and men, dispelling the myth that self-care is just for mothers, health-care professionals and other caregivers, Cleantis says. In reality, “all of us are in the self-care business, even if we aren’t doing a very good job at it.” She says, in fact, that men tend to be better at self-care than women. In interviewing men for the book, she found that they tended to have “an absolute commitment to certain aspects of their self-care [anything from a standing date with a golf club to ritually going to Starbucks]. I didn’t hear that as loudly from women. Things were a little more negotiable for them,” she says. “I found myself admiring the male attitude of ‘This thing is for me and I’ve got to do it.’”

In fact, there was a time when Cleantis wasn’t very good at her own self-care. “I hate to admit it, but I’ve been lousy at it at times, coming as I do from a family that neither modeled self-care nor taught me its value,” she writes. “I’ve always tended to neglect my needs, even well into adulthood. Once, during a period of exceptionally bad self-care, a friend suggested that if I were treating a child the way I was treating myself, I would lose custody.”

She changed her approach after going through a particularly difficult period in her 30s. At the time, Cleantis desperately wanted to have a baby and spent more than $100,000 in her attempt to have a biological child, undergoing four rounds of in vitro fertilization and 21 of artificial insemination. Even a later attempt at adoption didn’t work out. “I became addicted to the dream,” she recalls. “I believed that the only way I could be happy was to have a child of my own. There were tons of books telling me I could do it, in all sorts of genres: if you believe it, you can see it; if you make a vision board for it; if you see this right doctor or if you do this right thing — but there was nothing saying how to deal with the death of a dream.”

From this pain emerged Cleantis’ first book, The Next Happy: Let Go of the Life You Planned and Find a New Way Forward (Hazeldon Publishing; 2015). “I wanted to normalize for people that sometimes no matter what you do and how hard you work, dreams don’t work out. So it became a guidebook to surrender. I found out that a lot of therapists were giving The Next Happy to their patients who weren’t dealing with infertility but who needed to learn to do self-care.”

That knowledge was the inspiration for An Invitation to Self-Care. “In a way, by writing this book, I’m getting to do what I wanted to do with having a child — I’m helping people come to take better care of themselves. It has certainly helped me. I am kinder to myself and have a more responsive, tending internal voice just by being with those seven principles.”

Before she became a licensed marriage and family therapist in 2008, Cleantis worked as a newspaper journalist and later wrote the “Freudian Sip” blog for Psychology Today. She says she has always been fascinated by people’s motivations and the why of things. She doesn’t see much difference between her two professions. “In some ways, they’re not so different. It’s all about, ‘Tell me your story. What made you do this? Why are you doing it? Where does this stem from?’

“In my work as a therapist, I always feel like I’m just a couple of feet ahead, shining a light on the process and helping people come to their own answers,” she continues. “I don’t want to tell you how to do self-care and I don’t believe there’s just one answer. What I hope people walk away with is the ability to ask themselves better questions so that they can continue to check in [with themselves] every day.”