by Elizabeth Duke, PsyD
As a therapist, I focus on self-care a lot because I think it’s a vital life skill that no one really teaches us to do for ourselves.
Self-care allows us to have emotional energy to respond thoughtfully to life’s bumps and obstacles instead of reacting without awareness. That reservoir of emotional energy gives us space to make lasting changes within ourselves. In my experience, self-care often needs to ebb and flow with stressors in your life. So if your daily self-care practice is exercise, and your stressors increase, you probably need to up your self-care game.
In my humble opinion self-care is a seriously big deal. As far as I know it’s not consistently or intentionally taught in pre-school, grade school, high school or at the university level. It’s rare that our care-givers show us how they care for themselves, much less talk to us about it.
For some, engaging in self-care feels self-indulgent, or like a waste of time. For others, it’s all too easy to label ten hours on the couch as self-care, when it might be called avoidance, if we were honest with ourselves. It’s complicated though, because sometimes a measure of avoidance is necessary and sometimes a dollop of distraction is what gets us through. Self-care is not an all-or-nothing process. It seems to requires insight, awareness and balance to thread this needle.
Sometimes self-care is hard because it’s just hard, and other times its’ hard because the thing you’re trying to do isn’t feeding you. For example, some people find volunteer work extremely rewarding, while others find it draining, and still others find it taxing but feel accomplished and happy about it at the end of the day. So, determining what self-care looks like for you can involve some trial and error.
As our good friend (I wish) Brene Brown would say, our culture often holds out exhaustion as a status symbol. We view busyness, packed schedules, and barely enough time to sleep as a sign of our achievement, effortfulness and hard work. Which, unfortunately means that many of us are socialized to fundamentally misunderstand the impact of, and need for self-care.
See how nuanced it is? It is different for everyone, so it’s tricky to prescribe and even harder to try to mimic self-care if you do have a rare sighting. Finding what works for you is not easy, and it requires trial and error along with introspection.
To get started, you can try journaling about the questions below:
What are you trying to get from self-care?
A more authentic you? Energy to field the stressors of tomorrow? Increased insight? Breathing room? A calmer sense of self? Your self-care should be in line with what you need.
What has worked for you in the past?
Even though self-care is fluid and dynamic, it might help to have a starting
place. What things did you enjoy as a child? Did you play sports? Enjoy
science, art or nature? What did those things give you, and what might they
look like now? What was helpful in the past when you encountered difficult
**If the first thing that comes to mind here has been self-destructive for you, take it a little further… for example, what did you get from excessive spending? A chance to create a new persona every day? Connection with strangers? Release from day to day worries? Unfettered engagement with passion? Look for the meaning of what’s worked for you, rather than the thing itself.
What drains you?
Do you enjoy time around people, or does it drain you? Do you feel invigorated by creating a meal or is it overwhelming?
**Sometimes self-care requires intentionality and that should not be mistaken for “draining” activity. It’s often difficult to motivate yourself to clean, but afterwards you feel much better. Think about this in terms of how you feel after you do something versus the energy it might take to get yourself to do it.
What makes you feel most alive?
This is my favorite question. It’s not always possible to do the thing that makes you feel most alive, but this is a helpful place to start. For some this might be the closing night of a show. Every day can’t be the closing night of a show – the excitement, the feeling of accomplishment, the camaraderie, and the closeness to those who helped make it happen. But you might be able to create or find elements of it – cultivating friendship by making a standing friends night each week, taking a moment to appreciate the small things you achieve and do each day, learning a new skill (knitting, guitar, woodworking), or going to more artistic events around the city. Try to take something that makes you feel alive and break it down, identify what it is you get from that experience and see if you can access that in some way on an ongoing basis.
When do you need self-care?
This is a tough one. Predicting what things are likely to suck your emotional energy is an ongoing process because stress is moving target. However, it’s worth noting the times of day you feel most energized and most tired. If you struggle with feelings of self-deprication/anxiety/loneliness/fill-in-the-blank, when does that feeling occur most often? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you spend a day surrounded by people and then need alone or quiet time to recover? If you work on your own all day, do you crave contact and interaction to re-charge your battery after work? Answers to these questions can provide hints about the self-care you may need or want.
Does your self-care fit into your day?
Make your self-care work for you. If you love dancing but you can’t find classes that fit your schedule, consider employing your headphones and an empty living room. If you compose music as your self-care, make sure you carve out time in your day for this priority.
What if my self-care becomes unhelpful?
Shout out to all my fellow perfectionists. Self-care becomes unhelpful when it begins taking on a life of its own. So, if you’re gardening as self-care and you start getting discouraged that your community plot isn’t as robust as the one next to yours. Be on the look out for self-care becoming something you have to tick off your to-do list, or creating comparison-itis. You’ll also want to be on the look out for self-care becoming isolating or the only thing you want to do.
Finally, what would you do if you were completely free to truly care for yourself in this moment? Do a little of that now and notice how you feel.
Remember, no one knows what feeds you better than you do. Creating and tending to the process of self-care is an ongoing process that requires you to check in honestly and see how things are going occasionally. If you find yourself overwhelmed, snapping at loved ones, engaging in black and white thinking, over-striving or whatever your personal red flag is… you probably want to do a self-care tune up.
Best of luck on the journey my friends.