The discussion of self-care has become so commonplace. We hear it in casual conversation, are encouraged to do it in social media, and are told consistently to choose ourselves. I love that is has become a topic within pop-culture, but with all of this comes so many definitions of what self-care really is. When I talk about self-care with clients, I often hear the leap right to the big three: exercise, yoga, and meditation. Don’t get me wrong, those can be wonderful forms of self-care but often are just one more thing added to the master to-do list.
What is self-care?
For the purpose of my work with clients, I define self-care as something planned and intentional, that brings even a bit of joy while doing it, and leaves you feeling even slightly rejuvenated when complete. It should be done daily in smaller ways and at least weekly in bigger ways. When clients hear this, I can understand how initially that can bring more stress. The thought is often, “How am I going to fit in self-care daily when I can barely manage the tasks already on my list?!” Well, let’s chat about it…
First let me explain why that big three – exercise, meditation, and yoga – are not always the self-care we want them to be. If we use exercise as the example, let’s say you have a plan to tackle that workout as part of your routine, 5 days a week at 5:30 in the morning before work. Great… but if you’re like most people I know, before you go to bed, you’re dreading that alarm. Maybe you didn’t sleep well, maybe the kids had you up with their bad dreams, or maybe you wake up feeling a bit sore. You forge on regardless, knowing it will set your day off right. You talk yourself into going because of the guilt that will show if you don’t. You tell yourself that you’ll be happy you went later. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s not self-care. It’s a healthy wonderful treat for your body, a great physical start to your day, and the list of benefits to exercise are seemingly endless… but not what I’m talking about here.
That plan makes what could be self-care a chore. It doesn’t take inventory of your needs and puts exercise as one more thing on that to-do list. Let me be clear. Exercise is wonderful and can be self-care, but in this example it was a chore. So go ahead and go to the gym, but when you’re done, maybe take an extra five minutes in the shower to think about the pride and gratitude; or go shopping for that fancy workout attire you’ve been wanting; or call a friend to join you the next day…. Those could be self-care. Or maybe if you are that person with dread, see if exercise at a different time of day or doing a different activity would bring you more joy…. That could be self-care.
Bear with me here, but have you ever heard of the new car phenomenon? You buy a new car and then all of a sudden you are seeing it as if everyone else just went out and bought one also. Well, they didn’t. Your focus shifted. You were researching, test driving, talking to friends about it… the car was in the conscious forefront of your mind. This is why the planned intentional part of the definition is important. When you plan to do something, you frame it in a particular way. When you intend to make an activity self-care, that becomes your focus. So how many things are you already doing that could count as self-care if you reframed the way you’re thinking about it?
Where do I start?
There are so many realms of self-care that it can feel overwhelming… social, emotional, physical, sensory, spiritual, professional, financial, environmental, and the list goes on. So, where do you start? One way to consider what would work best for you is to take inventory of your needs. Start with basic needs… Are you tired? Hungry? Meet those needs first. I encourage my clients to go head to toe first and then check your feelings.
Our physical self can point us in the direction of our needs, but so can our feelings. Are you feeling sad? Maybe something productive would be a good form of self-care? Are you feeling lonely? Calling a friend to meet for lunch could be a great option. Overwhelmed? Finding five minutes to sit and take a deep breath of your coffee while you plan your day can also be self-care. I know it’s my favorite!
We don’t have to make grandiose plans to take care of ourselves. Something small every day to speak to our needs and desires can do the trick. The point is, self-care can look however you want it to, as long as there is a plan, intent, joy, and rejuvenation.
Why is self-care so important?
Ever heard that old Buddhist saying ‘everyone should mediate for 20 minutes a day, unless you don’t have time, and then you should meditate for an hour’? Well, it hits the nail on the head. When we need it the most we often allow it to take a back seat. As adults we put the needs of others first, and if you’re in a care-giving role as well… forget about it!
We are often taught that paying attention to ourselves is a selfish act, but learning to shift that perspective will make all the difference. When we give to others, whether it be at work, listening to a friend, or caring for a child, we are giving of ourselves. Sometimes it’s reciprocated, with a paycheck, in a relationship, or with general feelings of altruism; but other times we give at the expense of ourselves, or that give and receive aspect isn’t so immediate. There is a reason flight attendants tell you to put your mask on before helping others. If we don’t help ourselves, we won’t have enough to give.
Self-care is the antithesis of selfish. When you take care of you, you have more to give. If you giving to yourself is not at the expense or detriment to someone else, there is nothing to feel but joy. I get it though. It’s a tough concept because so many times self-care can be attached to guilt. Maybe self-care means time away from a child or from the expectations of the office, and you’re thinking ‘how is that not a detriment’? It’s all about perspective. What is that child then gaining in your absence or upon your return? Or what is your office going to get from you in attention and productivity for taking a mental health day?
Self-care is important for everyone, but as a client it becomes that much more important. When you’re facing hard conversations, challenging times, and big emotions, it increases your baseline of resiliency. When you are feeling an overwhelming struggle, the fastest way to recover is to focus on your own well-being. You want to be sure you’re finding moments in your day where you are caring about yourself as much as you care about others. So, where in your day, could you steal some time? How are you going to choose you today?