It seems appropriate to put self care front and centre at the beginning of a bank holiday weekend.
Judging by the comments on social media, most people argue self-care should be a priority. I don’t see anyone say otherwise. Yet people still feel stressed, experience burnout, suffer depression and anxiety. Some struggle to concentrate and feel angry and exhausted. What’s going on? If self-care is the panacea, why is it so difficult to put it first?
I certainly haven’t got it cracked. It’s a work in progress and probably always will be, but it’s worth it. The important relationships in my life are better. The underlying feeling of being taken for granted and the associated resentment has dissipated, and the regular bouts of rage are history. But it’s not easy.
What’s changed? Perhaps the most important step has been to understand my role. I have been the person neglecting me. I might have felt I had no choice. I might have felt under intense pressure to work hard or take care of everyone, but there were different choices. Of course, there would have been consequences to those choices. Relationships and my career, for example, would have been different. But as soon as I really accepted, I was making a choice, alternatives became possible.
Real self care is about putting yourself first. That sounds selfish … and we all know it’s not okay to be selfish. Selfishness implies a total disregard for other people. It implies doing something at the cost of someone else. For example, someone has a deadline of 5pm and they need help to meet it. It’s 4pm now, there is about another two hours of work to do and they ask for your help. You help. The job is done in time and they’re finished at 5pm. That’s when you start on your work that was displaced, making you late. Is it selfish or self-care to say no? It depends, I hear you say. You’re probably right but my point is if something is not okay for you, it’s okay to say no. It’s not your job to make things okay for everyone else at a cost to yourself.
Self-care also gets confused with self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is the gratification of whims. It can be excessive and disproportionate and of course it can be wonderful in moderation. I absolutely love an indulgent session in a spa, having a massage, a manicure and a pedicure. I love ice cream. It’s my all-time favourite food. Sometimes all I want is to sit down and have a big bowl in front of a movie. Is a spa day or a big bowl of ice cream self-indulgent or self-care? It seems to me there is a continuum and where we sit on it is, perhaps, a good indicator of the value we place on self-care.
“I’m fine” is perhaps the biggest obstacle for me. I have some sort of inner narrative that tells me I can survive whatever comes my way. Looking at it one way, it suggests real resilience and the truth is I do generally cope without making much overt fuss. That is until I hit the buffers and explode or melt down. My blind determination to survive whatever comes my way, then proves to be incredibly destructive. Those close to me move away and I’m left feeling exhausted, unnoticed, resentful and alone. It’s not fulfilling or uplifting. For me, admitting I’m not okay is scary. It’s been a long process to find a way to say I’m not fine. Perhaps the biggest shift has been finding people I feel safe enough with to share the truth of my experience. It has given me space to, slowly but surely, prioritise my self-care.
Self-care is a way of being in day-to-day life whereby you understand and accept your physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs and act in a way that will get those needs met. I emphasise needs because that’s what it’s about – needs, not wants, wishes or desires. Prioritise it and self-care will boost your well-being, true resilience, the quality of your relationships and your physical and mental health. It’s no wonder we all advocate it so much.
If you want to focus on your self-care, here are a few steps you can take to get started.
Engage in self-compassion. You’re bound to get it wrong – you’re human afterall, so be gentle and kind to yourself.
Put a good night’s sleep at the top of your agenda. Begin by getting into a routine. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, with space in between for seven or eight hours.
Eat a balanced diet. I’m not talking about anything extreme, just one that includes fruit and veg. Remember the self-compassion!
Move more. We all know exercise is good for us, but if you’re anything like me an exercise class or going to the gym might not be the solution. Instead, walk a little further. Stand up and move around regularly.
Go outside. It can reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, and improve concentration, your energy and even your pain thresholds.
Say no. It’s not easy but saying no to others when you need to really matters.
I made a mistake recently. It was pretty bad.
I know the mantra … a mistake is simply an opportunity to learn. I broadly agree with the philosophy and encourage others to see it this way but as is so often the case, it’s easier said than done.
Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years and I’ve said to myself, even out loud, it’s okay. Adapt, adjust and it won’t happen again. The truth, though, is my stomach has always churned. I’ve had a sense of impending catastrophe and a brutal internal dialogue has kicked in. Engaging with an opportunity to learn with all that going on in my brain is almost impossible. There are plenty of reasons for the sense of disaster and destructive internal dialogue. Some are obvious and others are tucked away under layers of defences. Either way, I’ve worked hard to address them.
Back to this mistake. I might not have attacked myself quite so obviously, but a part of me definitely wanted to tell everyone about it – I’m blogging about it now after all! I suspect my desire to explain every tiny detail is really a form self-punishment so I’m going to refrain from doing that. At the same time my brain kept spotting extenuating circumstances. I had lots of work on, which means there are plenty of conflicting demands. I was feeling stressed because I was developing a new project that really mattered to me! To cap it all, circumstances beyond my control, including the weather, meant I was under more pressure that day. Perhaps, with all that in mind, I should simply forgive myself and move on. But that feels too simple. It feels like ducking responsibility.
A few years ago, I remember driving in Coventry listening to a podcast. What I heard made such an impact I can picture the exact moment, as I pulled off at the traffic lights, that I heard the words. The speaker said every psychotherapist will make mistakes. Anyone who thinks they won’t is kidding themselves and probably lacks the necessary self-reflection. But a good therapist will forgive themselves and so give themselves the space to learn.
The podcast made such an impact because it felt like I was suddenly being released from a deep-seated process of shame. There’s no need to savage myself for making a mistake, however big it is. It was a mistake after all and I’m human, so I’m bound to make plenty of them! The important point is to reflect and learn. Allowed out from under the threat of a brutal retribution I can acknowledge my responsibility and give myself the space to reflect and reach a deeper understanding of what happened and why. Who knows what I’ll learn in the process!
At the heart of this reflexive process is a real sense of psychological safety. By this I mean I need to feel I’ll be okay during and at the end of the process, that it’ll okay to be me. If I don’t feel safe my defences kick in and, it might sound weird, but the brutal savaging I have traditionally given myself is one of those defences. I have a go at myself before anyone else can! So, to reflect on and learn from my mistake, I take it somewhere I feel completely safe. That’s with people who know and accept me as I am, the whole me. They have no condemnatory judgement, just acceptance, understanding, compassion and insight. It’s there I feel secure enough to be curious about what happened and my contribution. With compassion for myself, any others who’ve played a part and those impacted, I can reflect fully and recognise and accept the lessons there are to learn.
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash