If you have sat in a therapist’s office before, chances are you may have been asked about your “self-care” practices.
Sitting here now, you may be wondering what that really means. For many, the concept of “self-care” is a foreign one. In answering the question, some feel inclined to refer to an upcoming vacation, hair appointment, or recent shopping spree. These are nice extras and are related to how you care for yourself, but how do you take care of yourself, really, in the day to day?
Self-care begins with one’s most basic needs and extends beyond that to the complexities of how we take care of our own psyche.
It may be helpful when thinking about self-care to imagine how you would treat and structure the life of someone or something else you loved, if you were in control. For example, ideally, what kind of meals would you provide for that loved person? What kind of enriching experiences would be made available? You would probably want to be sure they were getting enough exercise, outside time, socializing opportunities, rest, etc., and of course, love.
Self-care is something that requires flexibility within the context of our lives.
Depending on the circumstances, you may need more or less of it. It’s not as easy to pin down as just getting eight hours of sleep per night or repeating positive affirmations. It could at times seem contrary to your ordinary level of functioning. If you’re an overachiever who goes until the wee hours and runs marathons several times per year, your self-care may involve a day of eating ice cream in bed watching Game of Thrones from the very beginning again.
Self-care can be fun; it can be indulgent. And it can also serve to provide a healthy challenge: If you spend a lot of time alone, making sure you get out to that meet and greet may help you grow and expand your horizons. Studies have shown that social connections strengthen our reserve and promote better health. Call a friend, make a date.
“You can’t love someone else unless you truly love yourself”
Could that old saying have more to do with self-care than romantic love? One pointed analogy is the flight attendant instructing us to apply our own mask before helping someone else with theirs in the case of an emergency. Truly, as a caregiver and working professional, I know I will be unable to fully tend to the needs of others and demands of work unless I’ve given myself some of the pie. People who take care of themselves are more effectively able to help others. We have more clarity on challenges when our reserves are filled.
Another important component of self-care is honing in on the language we use in speaking to ourselves. What words do you murmur silently when you’re frustrated, scared, or feeling rejected? Pay close attention to these messages. Notice the tone there. Is it loving, caring, cruel? While many of our internal messages were not installed by ourselves alone, we must question their underlying meaning and take the responsibility and power to choose something different. It’s a step-by-step process. We can start small, giving the body rest and nourishment and then advancing to the complexities of human cognition. Some days the basics are all we can do and that’s fine.
Self-care should be adaptive to the times
There are and will be times of high stress, when it seems like there isn’t enough time for self-care; maybe it’s finals, a family crisis, the end of the fiscal year. Whatever the circumstance, self-care may become virtually non-existent, hard to grasp or make time for. There is always opportunity for self-care even if it’s a moment’s pause with a deep breath. Today’s technological advances may allow for a 2-minute meditation on an app.
For more ideas on how to implement self-care while actually practicing a form of it, see this list of Ted Talks on the subject. With our busy lives becoming busier by the day, know that the work will continue to be there, but your battery will be better charged for the distance by being more mindful about this important life task. That’s really what this is all about: building resources for yourself so you’re better equipped and prepared for the challenges ahead.
- A TED Talk playlist on self-care
- Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality
- The Story You Tell: Narrative Therapy in Practice
About the Author
Jennifer Machado is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) in San Francisco, who specializes in self-care.
In her words, “Finding the right fit and connection with a therapist is crucial, but once you do, the insights gained and thoughtful change initiated from the process are invaluable.”
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