Updated: May 3
In recent years, the term self-care has gone from being a serious and important concept related to physical and mental health, to becoming a catch-all term adopted by researchers, journalists and marketers alike to push projects, products and experiences. If we get back to the bones of what self-care actually is, it’s a crucial part of looking after yourself, but it can often feel like just another thing to do. Self-care? Yeah, yeah…!
Self-care fundamentally means taking care of yourself. That is, doing things that maintain or enhance your physical and mental health. Ideally they may also contribute to your growth and development. It sounds so obvious, but it’s often the first thing to fall off the radar when we are under stress and pressure. We prioritise the work deadlines, the unwell parents, the crisis-ridden friends, the children’s homework, the laundry, the food shop, the housework, the bills, and then, and only then, do we pay ourselves some attention…if we have time.
The problem with this approach to life? We cannot take care of everything else in our lives well if we don’t take care of ourselves, too. Think of the jug analogy: a jug full of water can only fill a certain number of cups before it runs out of water itself. Does your jug runneth full or empty? If you are running on empty, how long can you keep looking after everything and everyone else in your life before you hit the wall?
There’s a reason airlines tell you to sort out your own oxygen mask first before attending to your child. You are no good to anyone if you cannot breathe yourself!
So, how to fill your jug?
Remember, self-care means doing things that maintain or enhance your physical and mental health. It is purposeful activity that works best when it is designed to help you to rest, relax or rejuvenate. You want to feel refreshed and renewed afterwards, and that maybe you have developed or grown in some capacity. Knowing this, we can start to pick apart what does and doesn’t count. Painting your nails isn’t really self-care – it’s nice to do, of course, but it doesn’t really make a significant contribution to your wellbeing or help you to grow as a person. Having a shower certainly doesn’t cut it – this is basic hygiene. A once-a-year or so spa day is great, but not enough. Self-care needs to be regular, so try to schedule it in on a weekly basis: you cannot put off looking after yourself.
The good news is that, contrary to what some adverts try to suggest, self-care doesn’t have to cost much (or any) money. Think about what you need at the moment – rest or rejuvenation – and see if any of the following ideas appeal.
For rest and relaxation, try:
A bath with a good book, magazine or podcast (if you are prone to rumination having something to occupy your mind is crucial)
Walk around the block listening to relaxing music
Yoga (you could try using music to help ensure you are breathing deeply while moving)
For rejuvenation, try:
Working on a skill, be it painting, learning a language, bricklaying… it can of course be dance but if dancing is tied very closely to your studies or work, try a different genre so that it feels sufficiently separate from the pressures and demands of your daily life
Going for a brisk walk in nature, ideally to somewhere that fills you with awe (water, mountains, beautiful flowers)
A meet-up with your closest friends
Doing some work on yourself – practicing thought diaries, for example, or listening to a podcast focused on wellbeing
Exercise that you enjoy (i.e. that you do because it feels good, not because you feel like you should exercise, or that has the main purpose of losing weight or toning up)
Think you don’t have time? These ideas only need 5 minutes and minimal set-up:
Do a page of an adult colouring book (keep the book and some colouring pencils or crayons together in a place where you will easily remember and find them)
Write a quick gratitude list: what 3 positive things have happened today?
Listen to a 5-minute guided meditation
Write a text or email to a friend, partner or family member explaining why they are important to you
Read a section of a book, magazine or text you are interested in – for instance it might inspire you, or give you new perspectives
Progressive muscle relaxation
Is there a dark side to self-care? When self-care becomes self-sabotage!
At the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, there are three instances when self-care can potentially become self-sabotage. Firstly, like with the nail painting example, when it’s something banal that won’t help you to either rest or grow or develop, it doesn’t work. Similarly, if it feels like just another thing on your to-do list, it stops being self-care and turns into pressure on yourself. You won’t enjoy it or feel good afterwards if it becomes a hassle.
Second, when you use it as an excuse to not do something that would be good for you. For example, if you are prone to anxiety or depression, during low periods you may have a tendency to avoid activities like social meetings or hobbies that in reality would probably make you feel better. Saying to others or telling yourself that you are “doing self-care” is the perfect excuse not to meet up with people or engage in a hobby, but it can exacerbate the cycle of inactivity, withdrawal and isolation.
Finally, when it is used to attempt to ‘treat’ issues and difficulties that would be better addressed through coaching or therapy. No amount of massage is going to do the job if you need to work on habitual intrusive negative thoughts. In this instance, consider self-care an important ongoing strategy to address your overall wellbeing, but be realistic about what forms of help you may need in relation to a specific issue or issues.
If you are struggling to make time for self-care, you might find my Re-thinking Work-life Balance course useful.