Reckoning with Self-Care

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I used to have a bad relationship with self-care. In fact, I usually found myself operating in the extremes when it came to it. On one end of the spectrum I would use it as a tool to procrastinate or to give myself permission to eat something I probably shouldn’t (Ben, Jerry, good to see you.)

On the other, I would deprive myself of it completely, because I want to be a mover and a shaker in the world, and doesn’t that mean I need to do more, work harder, be better, and have more self-discipline? If I couldn’t do all that, I often did not believe I was worthy of self-care. Living in these extremes had predictably bad results-I would either sit around like a sloth all day eating ice cream, or I would crash, burn, and have a spectacular breakdown.

My thinking has changed since I developed my own definition of self-care. I knew self-care must be more than doing something basic like taking a shower or brushing your teeth. Self-care can be physical, but it occurs on a deeper level or for a bigger purpose.

I define self-care as taking action to nourish one’s body, mind, and spirit. The specific action is up to you, based on what you need. If you are wondering how to know what you need, you are not alone. Figuring out your needs and satisfying them can be challenging in a world of plentiful stressors and distractions that make self-care seem less important.

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I think many of us can all too easily pick up our needs, cram them into a box, and place them neatly at the back of the line, behind the needs of our children, spouses, parents, friends, colleagues, clients…..the list goes on. You will always be the easiest thing to cut from your schedule. And this makes sense-it is easy to think you can take care of yourself “later” after you’ve finished taking care of everyone and everything else.

The problem with this thinking is threefold:

(1) Stretching yourself too thin and trying to meet everyone’s needs except your own lowers the quality of care you can give to others.

(2) Stretching yourself too thin may mean you don’t even know the type of self-care that would serve your needs.

(3) When self-care is the last thing on our list, it is often the thing for which we have the least amount of energy. Ever come home after a long day promising yourself a night to read a good book instead of staying up late answering work emails, then when you get home, you are too exhausted to do anything but listen to the television and stare at your phone? Yeah, me too.

So how do we fix this, so we can understand the kind of self-care we need and implement it regularly?

The first step is to examine the different types of self-care. Any number of these may be areas you want to work on. Catherine Beard of The Blissful Mind has an excellent article on this that inspired my post.

Mental Self-Care

Mental self-care is taking care of your brain. Whether that is by promoting neuro-plasticity by learning a new language, picking up knitting, or making a “Brain Dump” list to trap your thoughts on paper, anything that helps you stay mindful and grow counts.

Emotional Self-Care

We naturally develop coping skills to help us approach setbacks or challenges. But we can go a step further and consciously care for our emotional state by practicing universal human compassion (which includes compassion for yourself) and developing practices to process emotion. These practices may include scheduling alone time (I do this), journaling, talking with a friend, or listening to music that moves you.

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A mindfulness practice is an incredibly powerful way to regulate your emotions. Psychology Today calls mindfulness a state of active, open attention to the present, when we neutrally observe our thoughts and emotions, without judging them as being good or bad. It is calming and helps us not overreact or be controlled by our emotions.

Physical Self-Care

Invest in yourself by eating nutritious food, drinking water, meditating, exercising, reading, and sleeping. Each of these can build up our resistance to burnout. If we neglect our physical care we risk losing everything. Once our bodies break down it is hard to rebuild them.

Breathing is also underrated. Simple things like paying attention to inhaling and exhaling can quite literally strengthen your brain. Most of us breathe shallowly without realizing it, but our lungs are built to take in deep breaths of air to provide oxygen to all our organs, including the brain, which uses 20% of the body’s oxygen supply. According to Emotional Intelligence 2.0, this means that any time you do not take a full breath (a full breath makes your stomach stick out), you are not giving your body sufficient oxygen. You are sabotaging your brain and the rest of your organs, and why would you want to do that?

Spiritual Self-Care

Catherine Beard of The Blissful Mind says it best- “spiritual self-care involves taking care of your soul through activities or practices that provide a sense of purpose, direction, or meaning to your life.” I don’t know why we are all here, but I do know that we make our own meaning in life. For you, maybe that comes from creating new things, or helping other people by volunteering your time.

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The second step is to start thinking about self-care as we think about medicine. I started to see it this way when I noticed how good I felt holistically when I made the time for true self-care. An hour of self-care positively impacted my entire week. When I skipped self-care, I noticed it in my feelings (irritable, anxious), thoughts (negative, not productive), actions (regrettable), and in my body (pain).

Self-care really is a form of medicine for our souls and it keeps our mind, heart, and thoughts in order. Take it daily, weekly, or as needed.

I hope this post helps you up your self-care game. Leave me a comment if you enjoyed it.!

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