As the New Year begins (and the holidays behind us) how have you been faring? Have you been inundated with virtual learning, school projects for your children, ramped up job responsibilities, overwhelmed by news of inflation, supply chain shortages and the Great Resignation? Have you been engaging in self-care? Over the past year, especially with the pandemic, I noticed that this concept has been everywhere, seeping into the mainstream, with many “solutions” and products being marketed to us to encourage us to take care of ourselves. From a therapist’s perspective, I appreciate that greater attention is being given to our mental health, but I find that these solutions are somewhat superficial. I feel like most of the self-care advice that is given are things like, “get a massage”, “buy wonderfully scented soaps”, “step back from work”, “stop checking your email after hours” are somewhat hollow and seemingly unrealistic. All of those suggestions are wonderful and I suspect well-intentioned but they don’t address the real question of “why have we not been taking care of ourselves up until this point?” and “what the heck are we doing in our lives that we need to be reminded to take care of ourselves?” How is a massage and wonderful soaps going to change the fact that you’ve got to get 3 kids set up virtually, get them to 3 different activities, meet your project deadline at work and do laundry? Many would argue that we are taking on too much stuff, doing too many things, trying to keep up with the Jones’ and get ahead in life.
And while there may be some truth to that, there are bigger questions like “WHY do we feel the need to have and do all of this stuff”? “WHY do we feel the need to get ahead and get it all done”? “What are we fearing will happen if we don’t have it all, get it all done and get all of it done PERFECTLY”? Especially in the advent of social media, perfect means it will be TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat worthy and we will get likes and followers. And that’s all great, but that then perpetuates the cycle, keeping self-care at bay and elusive. I submit that part of the issue is this attachment we have to the idea that we have to do and have all of these things, in order to be…you name it…happy, successful, important? Or maybe even deeper still, you live with an underlying belief that you are not good enough and you have to prove yourself. Maybe you live with underlying beliefs that you are not deserving and there are underlying thoughts of shame and being selfish associated with self-care. Until you can recognize why you are NOT engaging in self-care, you can begin the true journey of self-care.
I would argue that self-care begins when we really start to look at our mindset, our underlying values and beliefs and work to set boundaries. Boundaries are often encouraged, but they are often perceived negatively. Many people struggle with setting boundaries because it makes us and others uncomfortable. Setting boundaries often means recognizing what you need and want, communicating those needs and wants to others and having those needs and wants impact someone else. Imagine if you said no to being in charge of the afternoon snack at your child’s school because you were going to get a pedicure. I can see the horror on some of your faces. Or, saying no to your mother’s famous peach pie because you are trying to get healthy and sugar gives you digestive upset. Saying no seems undoable even when we know it is in our best interest. In my opinion, one of the bigger problems with the self-care movement is that in all of this encouragement it doesn’t address the fact that self-care means saying “NO” and dealing with the repercussions/guilt/bullying/coaxing/eye rolling/whining that takes place. And we give in, because we don’t want to be seen as difficult/not a team player or selfish (God forbid). And we have to learn to recognize, acknowledge and deal with those perceived repercussions. While there may be a struggle to deal with the discomfort and the reality that our life as we are living it doesn’t align with our needs and wants, you can begin small, changing your mindset and starting to see yourself as someone worthy of care. Below are some suggestions. These should be reflected upon on a weekly, if not daily basis, to help you become more comfortable with the idea of self-care.
1. Sit with yourself and ask yourself how it feels in your body to put yourself first. Do you cringe, do you internally shout to yourself “I don’t have TIME for this” “You are being ridiculous…selfish…” Fill in the blank about what thoughts and feelings arise when you visualize or imagine what your life would look like if you had 15 minutes to half an hour for yourself to read, have tea, get a massage, do nothing, whatever. Notice the thoughts and sensations. If you are cringing, this is something to explore deeper and understand the messages you may have gotten growing up (i.e. lazy people sit around…you should be doing something productive, etc.). If you are finding yourself exhaling and leaning into that possibility hold on to it and promise yourself to be better.
2. Think about how self-care could make your life better. Would you be nicer, have more energy, stress less? Choosing to see the benefits of self-care could push you to actually incorporate a consistent and regular routine.
3. Attach self-care to your identity. Do you want to be a writer? A runner? A contestant on Top Chef? If you see yourself as something, ask yourself if you are doing the things to support that identity? Are you finding 10 minutes to write every day? Can you go for a run while the kids are at basketball practice? Can you look up a recipe every week and try it for your family, with the dream of one day being on Top Chef. When you say to yourself, and the world “I am a….” you foster this idea of self-care and you may feel less guilty about doing things that make you feel good. I would also argue that you have probably spent way too much time on social media, taking the “perfect” picture or envying other people’s lives, when you could be spending that time becoming the person you really want to be. Let me be clear. This step is difficult and one of the hardest to navigate. So much of what we do and how we act is related to our identity (formed by others and ourselves). To try and take on a new identity is uncomfortable and could have consequences. The work is in exploring who you want to be or changing the definition of what it means to be the person you want to be. If you have decided that being a good parent means making snacks for kids (even though you hate it), maybe you have to redefine what it means to be a good parent. If you decide that being a good daughter means eating your mom’s special desserts, maybe you have to reframe what it means to be a good daughter. Can you be a good daughter by spending time with your mom instead of eating her desserts? Can you be a good parent by taking charge of the carpool instead of snacks? Exploration of who you want to be can be tweaked to align more with who you are.
4. Set boundaries under the guise of self-care. While it may be uncomfortable to say no to something or someone that does not serve you, when you say, “oh, I’m engaging in self-care”, most people will be receptive to that idea. Better yet, attach that self-care to your identity. “Oh, I would love to be in charge of the kids’ snacks for school but I am preparing for Top Chef and I have to test out some recipes”. “Mom, I would love to have a piece of your pie, but I’m going for a run later to prep for my marathon and I don’t want to get a cramp…I’m almost making my best time”. It’s not being dishonest, but rather it’s truth if you say no to others and actually do for yourself. If you choose to violate your boundaries, you have to answer to yourself why you haven’t yet become a runner, a writer, or a contestant on Top Chef.
5. Change your focus from one of deserving to one of “this is a part of life”. Do you ask yourself “am I deserving of a daily shower or brushing my teeth twice a day? Is it selfish to take a shower? No…you think, this is a part of life…showering is hygienic and part of upkeep. So is brushing your teeth. How about you apply that same thinking to self-care. Putting yourself first, getting a massage, saying no…is all maintenance…part of upkeep. Both allow you to feel better and better perform in life. Now you may argue…“Eddie, a shower is different than a massage. A massage costs money, is on the other side of town and can only be scheduled in the middle of the day”. Or perhaps you say, I don’t have time to put myself first when so many other people need me. All valid points but I could argue that a daily shower, which costs money via a water bill, with fancy body washes and soaps and sponges, and shampoos, are comparable to a once a quarter massage. And a few minutes of “you” time everyday is negligible to the cost of getting sick and being out of commission because you’ve had a heart attack or had a mental break. The point is, you should be looking to value yourself and make yourself a priority in various and unconventional ways as a part of overall maintenance.
Consistency is key to making self-care a regular part of your life. Don’t negotiate with yourself and others. Remind yourself, one a daily basis, that you only have one life and you cannot spend it only living for others. There is room in this life for both you and others. As a therapist, I am always a proponent of using therapy to help you navigate these changes. While it can be done on your own, having the objective eye of someone else to help mirror or challenge your beliefs and behaviors can help you actually take those steps towards actually including self-care, without guilt or shame. May we all get to the place where self-care no longer becomes a goal that we are striving for, but rather an ingrained part of our lives and a part of our journey towards a more fulfilled and self-cared for life.