- The word "soul," in a psychological context, can be used to refers to each individual's unique, nuanced, and highly complex way of being.
- Our legitimate needs are often ignored because we focus instead on caring for and pleasing others.
- Pain, discomfort, and chronic stress are often signals of our "soul's" unmet needs.
- Each of us has the capacity to learn our needs, listen to our "soul signals," and care consistently and generously for our whole being.
There is only one you. You have been entrusted with the marvelous (yet frequently arduous) privilege of caring well for your whole being. You can do this through what I call "stewarding your soul" and learning to recognize its signals.
"Soul" may seem an incongruous term in a science-based context. However, I don't mean it in a religious sense. The roots of the word "psychology" are derived from the Greek word psyche, translated variously as "life," "self," and "soul"—making psychology literally the "study of the soul." Soul, in this context, thus refers to your unique, nuanced, and highly complex way of being.
What, then, does it mean to be a steward of your soul? A steward is “a person whose responsibility it is to take care of something,” per the Oxford Dictionary definition. You, in other words, are entrusted to care for your being.
Initially, it may feel overwhelming to realize that you're solely responsible for your health, your mindset, and your needs. And in some ways, it is—it’s an arduous privilege to care well for your whole being. As a complex, multitude-containing person with biological, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and relational needs, there is effort required in existing well. But with gentleness and with self-respect, you can learn to care for all of who you are and entrust yourself with your care.
As a child, you were dependent on others for physical survival and their interpretation of your meta-needs. Even with the best of parents and caregivers, there were likely some bumbling attempts to provide for your whole being. Perhaps your parent saw your need for affection as weak, and your emotional need was disregarded and buried as a result. With abusive or neglectful caregivers, it's likely that even more needs went unmet.
Yet regardless of your past, today your needs can be met by you. With intentional time and practice as a curious and capable adult, you can learn how to understand yourself and take ownership of your care. In other words, you can "steward your soul."
Why We Disregard Our Own Needs
As a practicing therapist and introspective examiner of my nature, I am aware of how easy it is to disregard your own wellbeing. Often, our legitimate needs are ignored thanks to faulty logic that tells us to care for and please others first.
I, for example, have learned that I need frequent movement. My physical body has limits on how long it can sit, yet I often bargain with or neglect that need: “Do I really need a lunch break?” Or “Should I give my lunch break to this client who seems to be struggling?” Pain, discomfort, and chronic stress are often signals of this unmet need.
On other occasions, I find myself annoyed at being entrapped in several lengthy and unproductive conversations with colleagues. My frustration in those moments was a signal: How am I denying and neglecting my own needs? Upon reflection, I realized that I had minimized my own emotional or spiritual needs that week. My prayer and meditation times were skipped. To counter an I’m-so-behind-at-work feeling, I canceled a coffee break with a trusted friend. To appear caring to others, I neglected my "soul."
Research supports this conclusion. Studies have affirmed that boundary setting in work-life demands increases overall psychological wellbeing, whereas poor work boundaries correlate with poorer mental health.
How You Can Guard Your Well-Being
To "steward your soul," you need time in your day to listen to and become acquainted with your needs—specific, protected time set aside for gentle self-curiosity of your hopes and desires as well as a tender-hearted exploration about the pains and discomforts you suffered throughout the day.
To do this, start by exploring (perhaps by writing your answers in a journal) questions like, “Why did that statement hurt me?” or “Why was my irritation so strong when she made that comment?” A quick daily check-in with the moments of peace and joy, along with the twinges of pain or fear, will reveal much about your deepest needs. This ritual of a "daily examen" is a part of some faith traditions, but it need not be connected to a particular religious faith. Rather, this daily "soul examination" gives you permission to learn what your needs are, as well as a method to do so.
Next, it takes time to restructure your world to care well for yourself and the needs that you may have overlooked. To begin, start by setting small, flexible goals and boundaries to progressively build a life that supports your well-being needs.
In my own life, for example, I've identified some personal, regular needs that may be unique to me but that are necessary for my wellbeing. Things like spiritual solitude, regular exercise, and even giving myself permission to run five minutes late to a client session if I need to use the bathroom are components of my own "soul stewardship." (As one therapist joked in the stalls, “Potty breaks are self-care.” Humorous, but revealing.) My needs will not be met without my recognition and ownership of these needs.
When establishing new boundaries, it can be helpful to establish an affirmation or mantra, like “My needs matter.” Then, when enacting the new boundary, internally rehearse the affirmation and visualize enacting the boundary. Research supports this: A 24-year meta-analysis concluded that mentally visualizing a new task increases the desired gain (although success rates vary by individual).
When I committed to caring for my physical being by allowing myself to sometimes run a few minutes late to a client session, for example, I experienced tension. I had to internally verbalize my affirmation: “My needs matter too.” Within a short period, this mental rehearsal and consistent practice built acceptance of this need, and I experienced greater wellbeing throughout my therapy days.
You can learn your needs, listen to your "soul signals," and care consistently and generously for your whole being. Future articles in this blog will discuss more specifically how to understand your unique needs and steward your time, body, energy, and emotions. In the meantime, affirm the importance of taking care of yourself and your unique needs. Give yourself space and time to learn from your "soul signals" on how to identify unmet needs. And lastly, commit to caring for yourself well.
Begin today stewarding yourself as if you matter.