Self Care: Is it Just About Having a Full Cup?

February 14, 2022 by Sarah Earles, Clinical Supervisor/Child & Family Therapist

“You can’t pour from an empty cup.” It’s the old adage about self-care that continues to circulate. But is that all there is to self-care and other’s care? Having a full cup? I would argue not. Caring for self and others is a bit more complicated.

“You cannot pour from an empty cup.” This much is true. You need good stuff in your life if you are going to be able to serve and meet the needs of others. You need food and water to fuel your body and brain. You need spiritual and emotional connections that make life feel meaningful. You need relationships that provide encouragement and affirmation of your skills and gifting. You need all the good stuff you can get.

To be able to serve others, you also need to be able to protect your cup. Sometimes it seems like no matter how much good stuff you get, there is never any left. That either means too many people are taking from the cup, or there is a hole in the cup. Either one needs proactive attention. The taken from cup needs protection. The cup with a hole needs patching, and then protection so the patching seals. The cup needs to be able to hold water if it is going to be able to pour out.

Full cups are not always good, however. Sometimes cups can be full of negative emotions, stress, and negative experiences. These cups are like the full coffee cup that overflows when you add cream or sugar. Just a little of anything causes an explosion, and a mess. A cup too full of “bad” stuff needs attention to reduce capacity so that there is room for the inevitable social, emotional, and relational stressors that come with everyday living. It might also require preventative strategies to keep it from getting so full in the first place, like a lid that presses down, covering the liquid that is there so there is room for addition when it is taken off. Or maybe it needs a fill line at which pouring in stops. Whichever way, the cup needs less.

How does all of this apply to self-care? Well, it shows that self-care is nuanced. It requires action, protection, and prevention. That might look like making time for self-care practices like writing, journaling, or meditation. It might look like removing expectations to do practices that might have become laborious. It might look like exercise, or rest. It might look like therapy, of many kinds. It might look like saying, “No.” It might look like saying, “Yes” to help. Self-care is not just as simple as filling the cup. Sometimes it requires emptying, too.