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Nonviolence: Self-Care vs. Soft Care

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We often think of self care as something we do only when we’re stressed, in grief, or otherwise hurting, but it’s really something we have to be doing every single day in order to honor the one relationship we’ll have until the day we die: our relationship with ourselves. Self care is the foundation of self love.

Nonviolence (ahimsa) is one of the fundamental principles of classical yoga. When we apply nonviolence to our relationship to ourselves, we have to consider the way we treat our bodies in terms of what we eat, how we exercise, how we spend our precious time, and even how we talk to ourselves when we look in the mirror. Nonviolent self care isn’t always as obvious as it might sound.

The danger with self care is that it’s easy to conflate with self-indulgence, selfishness, or what’s sometimes called “soft care.” Soft care is those actions we take that make us feel better in the moment but don’t actually serve our best good. When we’re under stress, for example, eating chocolate or going shopping might give us a little hit of feel-good chemicals, but then they cause a crash, making us feel even worse. Soft care is often a way to avoid our feelings, while self-care is an honest attempt to face those feelings. True nonviolent self care isn’t always comfortable, while soft care feels good but might cause violence to the relationship with the self over time.

Self-care can mean saying no to someone you really want to impress. It can mean taking a day off to feel all those uncomfortable feelings we don’t want to feel. It can mean eating healthy foods that give us sustainable energy rather than simply picking up a few doughnuts on the way to work. Self care helps us feel stronger and more connected in our lives, but, unlike soft care, it doesn’t always feel that great in the moment.

It’s also very easy to market self-care, to get us to buy stuff instead of doing the real work of self-reflection. Clever advertisements tell us we’d better buy the prettiest bath bombs or the highest thread count sheets if we want to practice self care. They tell us to take a day at the spa instead of sitting down and working out that fight we had with our spouse. There’s nothing wrong with a little self-indulgence and enjoying the products that make us feel good, but when these products are sold to us to make us forget our troubles when we actually need to deal with those troubles, that’s a problem. This can play further into the capitalist narrative in our culture that in order to be happy and fulfilled we need a lot of money—and to show it off. That’s not exactly nonviolent.

Sometimes self care and soft care can look the same from the outside. Are you getting a manicure because you need to step away from your work and allow someone to take care of you for an hour? Or because you’re procrastinating and spending the money makes you feel in control? The real verdict is in how you feel after the fact: do you feel relaxed, happy, more able to focus? That’s self care. Or do you feel guilty for spending the money and more stressed out about whatever you were avoiding? That’s soft care.

True self-care doesn’t cost much aside from the basic necessities of having a warm, safe place to be in and healthy food to nourish our bodies with. Prioritizing time to rest, nourish ourselves, and process our emotions helps us stay honest with ourselves so we know whether or not we’re in self care or soft care (and there’s nothing wrong with a little soft care when you need it!). Truly nonviolent self-care is a radical commitment to our own self love and thus the possibility for growth.

Julie Peters

Julie Peters is a staff writer for Spirituality & Health. She is also a yoga teacher (E-RYT 500, YACEP) and co-owner of Ocean and Crow Yoga studio in Vancouver, BC, with her mom, Jane. She is the author of Secrets of the Eternal Moon Phase Goddesses: Meditations on Desire, Relationships, and the Art of Being Broken (SkyLight Paths 2016) and WANT: 8 Steps to Recovering Desire, Passion, and Pleasure After Sexual Assault (Mango Media 2019). Learn more at Follow her at @juliejcp.

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