This post is dedicated to my faboo Marnie, who needs a little TLC right now.
In the circles that I run in, self-care is big. On the other hand, in American society at large self-care is fairly frowned upon. Long work weeks are expected, frivolities are considered unnecessary, and it’s selfish to spend time or money on yourself. Self-care is HARD, particularly in a climate where it’s not supported. Most of us tend to believe that we shouldn’t need to pamper ourselves, or that we’re only allowed to when things are falling apart. The way that many people view “me time” is to work yourself to the bone and then take one gigantic vacation that completely recharges your battery. Generally this is a really inefficient and bad plan that simply doesn’t work, so I’d like to first advocate for the necessity of self-care in all lives, second try to promote a more integrated and continuous model of self-care, and finally offer some tips and tricks that I have found effective.
So first and foremost, self-care is not about being selfish. It’s not about being self-absorbed. It’s not about putting yourself before everybody else. Self-care is about making sure that you’re taking care of your body and your mind and your senses so that you can function well. At the end of the day, the best way to give to other people or to be effective at your job or to be a good parent is to practice some self-care because it makes you more in tune with what you need, it gives you resources, and it helps you to have enough energy to do what you need to do. It’s like emotional fuel: you wouldn’t ask yourself to do a workout without eating, so you shouldn’t expect yourself to make it through a long day without some emotional energy.
Now what I’m not advocating is that we always put ourselves first and never help others, or that we spend all of our money pampering and spoiling ourselves. What I am advocating is that we take some time each day to do things that make us feel calm, soothed, and energized. I am advocating that we always take a balanced approach when we’re trying to help others: only give out of what you have. If someone asks you to listen and you are on your last legs, you’re allowed to say no. However if someone is looking like they’re down and you’re feeling really strong and positive, it might be good to go over and ask how you can help. Self-care can help you get in touch with when you feel you can help and when you can’t, which overall will make you more effective. Practicing regular self-care will not take up too much time in your life, but it will likely leave you feeling better and more capable at work and in your relationships.
In many circumstances, I think we all assume that if each one of us just takes care of someone else, then somehow we’ll all end up taken care of. Unfortunately that doesn’t work; someone always gets missed, or things are uneven, or energy gets lost in the transfer. The best person to take care of you on a daily basis is yourself, because you are the only person who knows what you are experiencing and feeling, and you’re the only one who can figure out what you want or need. You are the only one who’s there all the time, and you’re the best judge of what needs to happen.
In addition, it’s important for us to be relatively self-sufficient in terms of our emotional health. Obviously there are times when we can’t do this, but most of us wouldn’t like it if we had to ask someone else to plan and cook all our meals, make up our workouts for us, and feed us our pills. There are some people who have to do this and it creates a lot of strain in their relationships and often makes them frustrated and unhappy (there absolutely isn’t anything wrong with you if you’re in this situation, but I don’t think it’s what anyone strives for and we generally aim for independence in our caretaking). However with our emotional health we often expect other people to take full responsibility for it. I think it’s time we learn to take care of ourselves. Self care is exactly this: it’s learning to identify what you need and how to get it.
Overall, the benefits of self care are that we all will feel better and function better with some self-care, we can take care of ourselves better than anyone else, and we can be more self-sufficient if we practice self-care.
So hopefully now that I’ve convinced you that self-care is useful, I want to talk a little more about the style of self-care that I’m advocating. Sometimes it can be useful to do something big for yourself. One of my future self-care plans is to get a tattoo of the eating disorder recovery symbol, and for me that’s a huge piece of self-care. Taking a vacation can be self-care. But for the most part we already know about these larger things and we know how to do them. We generally view that as what we’re supposed to do: feel miserable all week long and then party hard on the weekend. I’ve never particularly understood this model and I think it sucks. Instead of only focusing on these larger things, I think we need to shift our focus to the day to day, because one big action only leaves you feeling better for so long.
Many of us worry about our relationship or our job or the large things that affect our lives and generally strive to improve these things, but we don’t stop to think about the actual texture of each day. That day to day texture, more than the ability to rattle off our successes, is what makes us happier individuals who are capable of contributing and caring. Improving the day to day can be incredibly difficult. We may not get to choose what projects we’re working on, or if our partner is having a rough day. What we can change is our self-care routine. We can allow ourselves that mocha every morning if it significantly impacts our happiness. We can take five minutes during our lunch break to focus on our breath and come back to the present. We can find a few things that really make a difference to us and make sure we schedule some time each and every day to do them. No excuses. And it’s also handy to have a longer list of slightly larger things in your back pocket for the bad days, so that you can manage.
So all of you are onboard, right? You’re all clamoring to start your self-care right this exact minute, but you’re sitting out there just like I was with no clue of what it means to soothe yourself or what will actually be effective in making yourself calmer. Partially you have to discover for yourself. Everybody’s a little different in what floats their boat, so I can’t tell you what exactly will work for you. Try some experimentation. For a few weeks try to incorporate something a little different each day. To get you started, here are some suggestions of things that work for me or that have worked for others. There are also lists galore on The Google, so if none of these things strike your fancy, you can venture out into the wide world of the internet. One thing to keep in mind is that many of these things might sound silly or trite at first. Keep an open mind. Some of the things that I dismissed most quickly the first few times around have been proving to be the most helpful.
Without further ado: Self-Care Tips
- The first thing I always suggest to people who are looking for ways to self-care is to start with the senses. I never realized before how closely emotions and physicality are tied together, but it’s amazing how quickly your emotions calm if you can calm down your body. So try to be good to your senses: they’re how you perceive the world. This can come in any number of forms, and will be very personal. You could buy something incredibly tasty once a week, and really take the time to savor it. I personally am a texture person, which means that I have a couple of very fuzzy blankets and a pair of footie pajamas so that if I’m having a rough day I can immediately sooth myself by touching something soft. Lighting a scented candle might be your thing. Taking a hot bath. Wearing comfortable clothes. Taking some time to look at cute kittens online in the middle of your day. Listening to music. Anything that engages your senses and brings you into the present moment, while also being calming.
- Moving your body can be GREAT, especially if you work a desk job. If you can get out and go for a short walk, your body can feel a lot better.
- Reading a book for pleasure.
- If you’re a fidgeter, get some silly putty or something similar. You can likely have it with you at work, and just use it if things start to get stressful.
- Giving yourself permission to say no, or to skip something if it won’t make you happy and if you don’t have the energy. Particularly if you’re someone who has an overloaded schedule and some of the things on it are supposed to be fun, don’t go if it won’t make you happy.
- Do yourself the favor of trying to take care of your body. Get enough sleep (THIS IS SO IMPORTANT I CAN’T EVEN SAY IT ENOUGH), eat regularly and try to be fairly healthy (that doesn’t mean cutting out delicious things), try to exercise some, take whatever meds you’re on but don’t take non-prescription things. It is amazing what doing these basic things can mean for your emotional well-being.
- Spend time with people you like. Talk to them.
- Art can be really helpful, in whatever form this means to you. Exercising your creative drive feels GREAT. Painting, playing music, writing, going to a play…let yourself experience art. I can no longer go a day without writing, and if I tried I would go CRAZY.
- For a little extra, added pampering, something like a massage is wonderful. For the menfolks out there, I know that this might damage your manpride, but pedicures are also fantastic. You get a little foot massage and you feel lovely afterwards. Related to this, getting a new haircut or something to make yourself feel extra spiff are great.
- Dress up. Or dress down. This one really is about personal preference. If it makes you feel a little more springy to put on a cute dress, then GO FOR IT. If, on the other hand, you’re sick of having to wear clothes that are uncomfortable, then wear sweatpants for a day (as you are capable). Particularly when it comes to dressing up, don’t let anyone shame you for how you dress. If you’re overdressed, then OWN IT. It doesn’t matter. Just smile and tell anyone who asks that you wanted to dress up for yourself.
- Let yourself watch shitty TV with no guilt. Every Friday is bride night on TLC, which means Say Yes to the Dress. Guess where you can find me every Friday night? Guess how much shame I feel over that? Exactly 0. Now sometimes parking in front of the TV can leave you feeling pretty shitty, but consciously choosing to watch something you enjoy is different from just falling into the routine of sitting in front of the TV and channel surfing.
- For those who may be on the higher anxiety side, or have diagnoses, or even just those who have a tendency to get lost in their own heads, it can be good to pull yourself back to reality. This isn’t exactly self-care, but it is a practice of regularly taking care of your emotions. There are a number of suggestions as alternatives for cutting, and I think they can be fairly effective for anyone who feels anxiety or who wants to use negative coping techniques. They include things like holding on to an ice cube, drawing on yourself, flicking your wrist with a rubber band, or take a cold shower.
- Mindfulness! Meditation! This was one of those things that I was skeptical of at first. It seems very woo woo, I know. But there are evidence-based mindfulness techniques, and you could join a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction group, or simply look up some of those techniques online. These are great ways to recharge a little, or simply calm your mind.