Self-care; it starts with you!
Updated: May 21
Modern life is busy, right? There rarely seem to be enough hours in the day to get things done. Even when you get to bed you find thoughts racing around about things you didn’t get done today or need to get done tomorrow or the day after or next week. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.
One of the biggest learnings I had from my counselling training is the importance of taking time for myself but to quote BACP editor Sally Brown (Therapy Today, 2020: p.5), “self-care has become such an overused term it’s in danger of losing its impact.” That being said, it’s something I find I need to remind clients to do and truth be told, it is easier said than done. With so many demands on our time and attention, how can we squeeze in some self-care?
But before we do that, let’s make sure we know what it is.
What is it?
Self-care has several definitions; one refers to people learning to live with and manage long term health conditions e.g. someone with diabetes monitoring and adjusting their insulin levels; this one refers to “a minor condition which doesn’t normally need medical care” and a third is more focused on maintaining good health and fitness. Oxford Languages has one definition of self-care down as being “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during times of stress.” You’ll notice that each of these has some kind of context where something is less than optimum whether it be a chronic health condition, a short-term malady or during a difficult time.
While all of these meanings have their place, for the purposes of this article, let’s think of self-care as being something we can practice at all times regardless of health conditions and stress levels. We are all aware that prevention is always better than cure so what I like to remind people is that self-care is a great way to reduce the risk of things becoming unmanageable.
If we bear that in mind, it means that self-care is a useful tool no matter our current state of health or wellbeing and that we can benefit from practicing it not just when things are tough, but when life is going ok.
What does it look like for you?
What comes to mind when you hear or read the term self-care? Meditation? Green smoothies? Candle-lit bubble baths? While these are good examples and definitely count as self-care, they aren’t going to work for everyone. We are all individual and have our own needs so the first step to practicing self-care is working out what it looks like for you.
Firstly, ask yourself if you prefer something physical, something non-physical or a mix of both. Most people will benefit from a blended approach and will probably find one harder to do than the other. Some people find it easier to relax and have some down time whereas others prefer to go for a long walk, run or bike ride to clear their head. Whichever is your natural go-to, it is worth considering if you’d benefit from mixing things up trying to practice a little more of the one that is a little out of your comfort zone. People who lead active lifestyles may find it useful to try and fit in a bit more chill time whereas those who are well versed at relaxing, may discover benefits by doing something more active to foster some self-care.
But self-care doesn’t have to be about being active or inactive. It can be about the way we live our life through relationships, including with ourselves. Expressing how we feel is an underrated means of self-care. While we are always told that it’s important not to bottle things up, let out feelings is often easier said than done. We may feel embarrassed, not want to burden others or worry we are going to be judged. Whatever the reason, there are still ways to express ourselves even if we find it hard to do so with others.
Writing in a journal, thought & feeling diaries, creative activities such as drawing, painting, playing music, singing, dancing around your home can all help us let out any pent-up emotion and in doing so, we are looking after our wellbeing.
Even things like enjoying a cup of tea, reading a book, watching your favourite movie or show can be considered acts of self-care because they make us feel good. Providing the benefits outweigh the costs and our health is not too adversely affected, self-care can be practiced in a vast number of ways. Even watching nature documentaries counts as self-care as evidenced in this interesting article.
Sometimes it’s just about appreciating those little moments.
But how can I fit it in?
One of the things many of us struggle with is fitting self-care in. No matter how much evidence we see that looking after our wellbeing is important, our time is often taken up by work, family, keeping a home, managing finances… The list goes on. Life is busy so we need to find a way to shoe-horn in extra time for self-care.
Or do we?
When talking to clients I often ask what they are currently doing to manage their self-care and often they find it hard to give an answer. Time poverty is the most common barrier so we often explore if there is anything they are already doing that can be turned into a way of managing their wellbeing.
This simple reframing often makes quite a difference.
Take a moment to think about your typical week. Think about all the things on your to-do list. Right now they might look like jobs, tasks, chores; things that aren’t necessarily fun but that have to get done. The dinner needs making, the dog needs walking, the home needs hoovering, the grass needs cutting, I need to check in on that friend or family member who’s had it a bit rough lately. Argh! Where could I possibly fit self-care in this hectic schedule?
But have you considered what you are getting out of these menial tasks? Do you enjoy cooking delicious meals for others? Rather than exercising the dog, have you ever thought of it as you getting some fresh air and time to yourself outside? Is cleaning the home a bit therapeutic sometimes or have you tried putting on some headphones and reliving those iconic Freddie Mercury or Mrs Doubtfire moments? Mowing the lawn can be laborious but have you thought about the calories you burn while doing it? And when it comes to talking to that friend or relative, have you taken a moment to celebrate that by supporting someone else you are giving a little to yourself as well?
If we change the motivation behind seemingly mundane tasks, it can in turn change the way we feel about them and the benefits we get from them.
If you already have a busy routine, are you able to upgrade tasks and take little steps to make them more self-care orientated? Throw on a face pack when you’re doing the dishes, wear clothes that make you feel good about yourself, don’t underestimate the importance of making your bed as described by this Navy Seal Admiral in this short video.
But sometimes practicing self-care doesn’t mean adding to our list of things to do or reframing them. Sometimes it doesn’t mean doing anything. Sometimes it means stopping. It means booking leave, giving yourself a day off, accepting that today the most important thing to do is to look after yourself. Saying “no” can be a powerful act of self-care. It can also be the hardest one to practice.
Sometimes just being kind to yourself and showing some self-compassion is enough.
We all have limits and our own capacity which fluctuates every month, week, day, hour, minute. Recognising what is within our capacity and what lies beyond it is a challenging but important skill to hone. Often guilt and fear of being judged as lazy stop us from saying “no” to others. In these moments, we need to challenge our thinking. Ask yourself, “is saying “yes”, in my best interests?” or “by saying “yes” am I putting someone else’s needs before my own?”
Supporting others is a noble and generous thing to do but we always need to support ourselves first. Often you will find that by looking after yourself, others will benefit in the long run. Always remind yourself of this if you start to feel guilty. Similarly, the act of recognising your limits and seeking support from others is an example of practicing self-care.
There is nothing wrong with saying “I would benefit from another’s input right now.”
Tipping the scales
When any change occurs in life it is important not to go too far in the new direction even if the intention behind the change is good. Self-care is essential but it is important not to use it as an excuse to get out of doing things. To do so, could make your self-care a bit toxic and have negative repercussions.
Balance is key.
Let’s be clear; practicing self-care is not the same as being lazy. Ensuring we get enough rest and sleep is vital for good mental and physical health. Our bodies need sleep to function at optimum levels and without either, we tend to suffer. Good sleep hygiene and making sure we have some time to just chill, relax and exist are excellent ways to maintain good self-care. If we are introducing more physical exercise, it is important that we don’t take it too far and not allow enough rest for our muscles and bones to repair.
Respect your body and mind and it will pay dividends.
It is also important that we don’t use self-care as an excuse to reinforce bad habits. Enjoying a sweet treat or occasional glass of wine, pint of beer or cocktail is fine but doing so to excess under the guise of wellbeing is not practicing self-care. When it comes to having a naughty treat, practice moderation too.
Remember, the benefits must outweigh the cost.
When it comes to wellbeing, it is good to listen to what your body is telling you and, for me, the best classroom for learning this lesson in is my yoga mat. As well as the vigorous exercise and learning when to push and when to accept my mental, emotional and physical limits, there’s the discipline of quietening my mind by focusing solely on the union of breath and body in the moment. For me, it is grounding, challenging and a great form of exercise.
If you are interested in yoga or pilates either as a beginner or someone who has practiced before, I would recommend all the below practitioners. With studios being closed, practicing at home using youtube or attending virtual classes can be a great way into a new hobby that is wellbeing focused but also a lot of fun. It’s not all chanting and tree poses; we laugh in class too!
So self-care is an important way to manage our wellbeing, not only when things are difficult, but also when things are manageable. It can be active or inactive and most importantly, it is individual. While some self-care will involve making time, some may be more accessible than you think just by changing your mindset. Finally, when it comes to self-care, as with most things wellbeing, striking a balance is crucial.
In my next blog I will be exploring what stops us from putting our wellbeing first and how we can overcome these barriers. But in the meantime, stop for a minute or two and ask yourself;
When it comes to self-care what works for you?
Are there any tasks you can reframe to boost your wellbeing?
When was the last time you took a moment for you?
And when is the next one you’ve got planned?
Brown, S (2020) From the Editor Therapy Today 31 (10), 5.