Nurturing a better self-care: Introducing the concepts of ”topography/form” and ”function”

Most of us know that taking care of ourselves generally is a pretty good thing to do. Feeling well and helping yourself to feel well makes intuitive sense.

In therapy, when we as psychologists bring the issue of self-care up, a lot of clients look at us and burst out: “Oh, you mean I should go to a spa or something?”. Or they quickly say that they have been to the spa several times, but it didn’t make them calmer at all, on the contrary it made them even more stressed.

It seems as if taking care of oneself is not always as easy as it seems, and that taking care of oneself is a concept that has a lot of misconceptions and notions tied to it. Like the one of self-care equaling going to the spa, or getting a facial.

Not surprisingly though, what’s nurturing for one person might not be so for another. While going to the spa might make me calm, going for a run, to a sports game or even watching some TV might do the trick for my friends. So how do we know what works for us, and if we don’t, how can we start to find that out?

In order to nurture a better self-care we can start by getting acquainted with two concepts from the behavioral psychology: form/topography and function.

When we start to look at different behaviors we can describe them in various ways. We can do it by looking at their topography or form, namely what they look like from the outside (for example “watching TV”, “eating an orange”, “taking a bath”). The topography of a behavior is comparable to drawing a map of the behavior, of what we can observe from the outside.

But if we want to get closer to learning about what is a nurturing and self-caring behavior we shouldn’t be too blinded by what we see from the outside, but rather start looking at what functions our behaviors have, what motivates us to do something. If I do something, say, go for a run, it will make a difference whether I do it because I’m scared of gaining weight or because I genuinely love being outside and feeling my body move. Even though the run will look exactly the same from the outside it will in these two examples serve different functions. If I call a friend due to not wanting to feel alone it will serve a different function than if I call him due to wanting to speak to him and hear about his ongoing life. Behaviors that look exactly the same from the outside can serve us in very different ways, varying between people or even between different times for the same person (one time looking at TV might serve the function of distracting me from negative thoughts, whereas the next time my motivation might be that I’m interested in the show that’s broadcasted).

So this is the reason why going to the spa not necessarily equals self-care for everyone (note: to make it a little bit more complex, one behavior can of course serve more than one function, but there is usually a primary motivation behind it). If we want to nurture a better self-care we need to look deeper into our behaviors than their topography, and try to peel away our conceptions of what taking care of oneself should look like. And instead try to get to know what taking care of ourselves feels like, so that we can start looking for behaviors that nurture that self-caring feeling.

We will get back to this subject several times, digging deeper into it with the main purpose of better nurturing our own self-care. But as of today you can start by noticing and observing, not only what you’re doing (the topography), but also what your primary motivation behind doing something is; what function the behavior serves.