I bet you think that I’m going to tell you precisely what you need to do to practice self-care. Well, I am; but this is not your typical trendy list of prescriptive self-care tasks. The way I look at it, true self-care comes from a way of thinking more than a list of doing (especially if it’s someone else’s list of doing).
The root of the word self-care is “self” – both literally and figuratively. Since you are the person who knows you the best, I think it’s vital that you get a say in determining your self-care practices. I have crafted this list of self-care strategies in a way that will integrate self-exploration techniques and help you hone to hone in on what works for you.
1. Give yourself some credit.
My clients will often start a session saying that they wish they could do more self-care because they currently aren’t doing anything to take care of themselves. The first thing I tell them is, “Give yourself some credit; yes, you are.” Being in a room with a counselor talking about self-care is self-care. Reading a blog post titled “Top 10 Self-Care Strategies” is self-care. Sure, it might not be what we imagine self-care to look like, but I think it’s time to shatter the idea that self-care has to be some grand expensive and intensive ordeal.
You take care of yourself every day. If you brush your teeth, then by definition, you are practicing self-care. Sometimes we have to step back and remind ourselves of the little things we do; we tend to overlook the self-care elements in our daily mundane routines. I often recommend that my clients try to identify all of the self-care things that they already do regularly and say to themselves, either out loud or in their head, “This is self-care.” It makes a world of difference.
2. Name what you need.
If your self-care strategies aren’t matching your current needs, then you can end up feeling like you are beating your head against a wall. You can sign up for all of the expensive exercise classes in town in the name of self-care, but if what you need is to get your finances in order, you may end up fit and relaxed, but ultimately deeper in debt. You have to know what you need before you can determine what kind of self-care you should practice.
Our needs change on a very fluid basis, and we need to take inventory of where we are on a day to day basis. When working with my clients, I like to have them identify their social, emotional, and physical needs. Then we can go from there in deciding what self-care strategy will serve them best. It’s great to do this as a journaling activity. So grab your favorite journal and pen and start naming your needs right now.
3. List what you love.
Once you know what you need, it’s time to figure out how to get those needs met. The key to finding the right self-care is in building on the things that you already enjoy. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here. If you already have an idea of the kinds of things that work for you, that’s half the battle. It sounds so simple, but sometimes we need a little nudge. Writing out what you like will help you to design the most effective and efficient self-care plan possible. I mean, self-care shouldn’t be boring. It should be something that energizes you and sits well with your true spirit. Take out that pretty journal where you listed your needs, and now jot down the things you love- anything that brings you joy. Concepts, colors, ideas, activities, quotes, memories, places- whatever floats your boat.
4. Don’t do things you hate.
Going along with the whole “self-care shouldn’t be boring” thing, it’s important to remember that there isn’t anything that you have to do for self-care. On a personal note, I recently realized that I had spent the last 30 years of my life believing that the only way to be a healthy and functional woman is to get up every day at 5 am and go running. I’m pretty sure I got this from seeing a lot of the women in my life do this. I’m not saying that it’s not a healthy self-care practice, because it certainly is; for many women, this is the key to their self-care success.
But after years of beating myself up because I couldn’t do it, I realized that in an attempt to practice self-care, I was practicing the art of self-shame. I don’t like running, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t want to do it at 5 am. So I decided to get back to basics and list what I love. I’m a comfy-pants-and-coffee-reflective-journaling kind of girl. So now that’s what I do for self-care, usually in the PM hours, and I couldn’t be happier. When it comes to self-care, stop doing (or trying miserably to do) the things you hate.
5. If it’s helpful, do it; If it’s not, don’t.
I know that when I search for self-care strategies, I often come across tons of lists of things that I should be doing. Trying to sort through all of it can be overwhelming and often leads me to feel defeated. There are a lot of good ideas out there; the reason people write popular articles about specific self-care strategies is that they often work for a lot of people. A lot of it may work for you. But not everyone is going to jive with everything, and that’s okay.
When someone gives me advice on what I should do, I ask myself, “Is that helpful or not?” If it’s helpful, I’ll try it. If it’s not, then I just let it float by as something that may be helpful for someone else. I’ve stopped psychoanalyzing it so much. I’m done assessing self-care through the lens of “shoulds.” I am no longer placing value on myself based on my ability to do what others suggest. I suggest you do the same.
6. Put yourself on your calendar.
I don’t know how many times people have told me that they feel like they are selfish when they take time to practice self-care. It’s a prevalent feeling; I’m not sure anyone is immune to it. The best way to work through this is to remember that self-care is not selfish. It’s not even about putting yourself first. I think that we have adopted this idea that it has to be all or none. I either put myself first, or I put myself last. And then when I’m in either of those positions, I feel miserable and become adamant that I must strive for the opposite.
This societal narrative needs some serious self-care of its own. There is a middle ground. There is a way to add in time for yourself without being the only thing that matters in the world — I’m telling you to put yourself in your calendar, not to trash the whole thing. When you can bring down the self-shame a little and realize that it doesn’t have to be so all-or-none, you can start to make room for some small elements of self-care. Being selfish would be blocking off your entire calendar 24/7. We’re just trying to get in a few hours a week.
7. Let’s be real for a second.
Something is always telling us that we have to go above and beyond. Go big or go home; take a two-week expensive vacation or stay miserable. How have we gotten ourselves into thinking that self-care has to some all-consuming luxurious experience? Sure, it absolutely can be. I’m not knocking the self-care that will come out of a nice cruise. But it’s often not that extreme. When we shame ourselves into believing that we must do these elaborate things, it takes up time, energy, and resources that we may not even have to give. How is that self-care?
Self-care has to fit your lifestyle- your current lifestyle. If you have to pick up your kids and get dinner on the table, it might be kind of hard to commit to a 6 pm art or exercise class three evenings a week across town. Maybe a Saturday class once a week would be more doable. You don’t want to set yourself up for failure. Finding something that can be quickly done and will fit reasonably in your schedule will help you find the most success. Remember that journal? Take it back out and try writing out your calendar and then being real with yourself in terms of what self-care strategies will work.
8. Integration is key
An excellent way to help keep it real and make sure that your self-care fits into your lifestyle is to focus on integration. I can’t say this enough. Ask yourself what parts of your life lean most towards being able to incorporate self-care? I once had a client who wanted to lose weight and also wanted to spend more time with your young daughter. She was struggling with the pressure to be able to do both.
Together, we decided that she could try involving her daughter in healthy meal planning by introducing her to new healthy foods and letting her help with cooking as she was able. For exercise, she decided that they would either take a walk together or, and I love this, have regular mommy-daughter pajama dance parties.
It seems so simple. But my client had been taught to think that exercise has to be in the gym. She had learned that any attempts to lose weight have to be self-focused. She soon realized that she burned way more calories dancing to Disney songs with her daughter than she ever would in any fitness class in town. Self-care can and should be a part of our daily lives. It doesn’t have to be extra; integration is the key.
9. Squash the self-care self-shame
Yep, you’ve heard that word before; I’ve mentioned it several times already. The dreaded “self-shame.” We all do it; it happens. Being human allows us to think critically about ourselves. There is serious power in self-awareness, but if we aren’t careful, it can quickly become our very own tragic flaw. We are always trying to make sure that we measure up, that we do the best, and that we do it right. We are constantly trying to do what we “should.” Sometimes this works in our favor, but in the world of self-care it is usually ultimately self-sabotage
Because of the personalized nature of self-care, it can’t be something that we compare with others. It is apples to oranges. Our lifestyles are different; our resources are various, and, oh yeah, our needs and loves are different too. Therefore, trying to put self-care into some all-encompassing rigid box is just a massive prescription for shame and failure. Stop comparing yourself to others and worrying about what people say you “should” do. The only “shoulds” we ever need to follow are the ones that we have individually and thoughtfully designed for ourselves.
10. You do you.
Whatever you think that means. I cannot stress enough that while self-care is undoubtedly not selfish, we must attend to the root of the word- “self.” It’s about you- you are your only self. It doesn’t matter if what works for you is unconventional; it’s what works for you. Whatever energy you have towards self-care is enough. Your time is enough; your level of dedication is enough. You are enough.
Amanda Smith is a licensed clinical social worker who focuses on identifying and capitalizing on existing inner strengths and using them to help formulate a personalized plan for wellness. Amanda is a school social worker who primarily works with teens and adult who are experiencing anxiety, depression, and general life concerns. You can find out more about her in her bio .
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