Self-Care: Understanding It & 4 Steps To Getting Started
We often hear the term "self-care" and may have an idea about it, but our perception of this term may not always be accurate or we may not know how to practice it.
Many of us may have been feeling the burden of trying to balance everyday life demands and have been experiencing increased work stress, financial, and health anxieties, especially in the past two years of Covid. There has also been a general sense of doom and gloom when tuning in to the external world, may it be environmental, political, or social issues around us. Because of this, now more than ever, the practice of self-care is crucial. It has also attracted lots of attention from the media and has become a hot topic. But what is it exactly? How do you do it? Who needs to do it - and why should they bother? This article will answer all these questions, as well as give 4 steps on how to get started.
What Does Self-care REALLY Mean?
Well the name is self-explanatory: “caring for the self”! But what is this concept and what does it look like in action? Let's start with what comes to mind when you hear “self-care”. I bet images of bubbles baths, candle lights, or a spa pop up. Self-care is one those terms that is thrown around in various contexts and may mean different states of mind or activities for different people. Unfortunately, however, thanks to popular culture, the wellness industry, and many cosmetic product advertisements, the concept has become synonymous with spending money on self-pampering products and activities. But there is much more to it.
There are many definitions for “self-care”. In fact, a 2011 study in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare identified 139 different ways that self-care has been defined. However, at its core self-care refers to any activity that you do for yourself that nourishes and nurtures you. These can include any behaviours and actions that promote general sense of wellbeing that you engage in either independently or with others in a social setting. This can be anything from taking a walk in nature, talking to a friend, doing a mani pedi, to going to the dentist and getting that checkup that you’ve been putting off for months. The idea is that you are mindful of your wellbeing and dedicating time and effort to achieving and maintaining it.
Any activity that you do for yourself that nourishes and nurtures you and gives you the opportunity to 'check-in' with yourself.
The concept of self-care does not cross many people’s mind until they start feeling the pressure of chronic stress or have been given the advice by their friend, family, or healthcare provider after observing their declining state of wellbeing. Many keep on pushing and grappling with their day-to-day responsibilities and postponing their own wellbeing and needs to “later” when they have “time”. Others routinely avoid or don’t realize that the symptoms that their body and mind is trying to tell them are warning signs: sleep disturbances, headaches, high blood pressure, digestive issues, mood swings, anger, etc. It also doesn't help that many of us have never been taught the importance of self-love or been "modeled" on healthy ways to to take care of ourselves on an ongoing basis. We're just not that familiar with the idea. In addition, on the societal level, where burning the candle on both ends is glorified and praised, the idea self-care tends to take on a negative and selfish image.
But the reality is that we need to tend to our selves and our needs because we are not designed to be indestructible. I use the analogy of a car: Imagine two cars. One has been maintained and taken good care of, all oils changed on time, tuned up and tires checked, etc. And the other has been driven for years through bumpy roads and whenever any lights went up on the dashboard they were ignored until the car broke down and had to be taken to the shop where much time and money was spent figuring out what the problem was and how to fix it (I'm not a care person, but you get it). The way we take care of our self and the importance we give to our own wellbeing is similar. No one wants to end up in the 'shop' trying to figure out what is wrong with them. Self-care is the attention and the ongoing maintenance that is given over the years and is important in dealing with the 'wear & tear' that we so often experience. But it can take some work, dedication, and figuring out. Below I discuss 4 steps in creating a self-care plan that works for you and that you are able to stick to.
#1 - Look Inward
What does self-care mean to you? Answering this question undoubtably is the most important and crucial point in starting your self-care journey. It is really hard to engage in an activity (and a lifestyle) that you don’t really understand, believe in, nor see the reason for. The same goes for self-care. If your understanding and view of self-care is negative or that you see it as inconsequential, then chances are you won't engage in it or you’ll give up on it after some time. Our internal beliefs, perceptions, and ideologies shape and impact how we behave. So it is very important to pay attention to your internal dialogue and attitude towards the idea of loving yourself and taking care of yourself. There may be negative presumptions or perceptions that you hold (consciously or unconsciously) that can get in the way. For example, if you view self-care as a ‘reward’, then you connect accomplishments with care for yourself and will only engage in it once you've achieved a sense of 'accomplishment'. If you have always viewed self-care activities as a waste of time, a selfish idea, or an act of entitlement or indulgence, then most likely it'll illicit a sense of guilt or shame and you will not want to engage in them. If you connect self-care with consumerism or see it as a superficial act then there is a high chance you'll dismiss it if your belief system does not align with this perception. So when thinking about self-care, spend some time looking inward to gain awareness toward how you feel about it and pay attention to what is potentially holding you back. Also consider the cultural and familial influences that have contributed to the way you feel and think towards taking care of yourself. If you are held back by negative beliefs about self-care, no matter how much you try, they will get in the way.
#2 - Figure Out What To Put In Your Self-care Plan
What do you do for self-care? There are many ways to engage in self-care and to take steps to tend to your general wellbeing. These can be at the Micro level, such as doing little things throughout your day, like drinking your favourite tea or listening to music on your way home from work, or they could be at the Macro level. These are larger and more grand activities, such as saving up time and money to go on a vacation. It is important to slot in both Micro and Macro level self-care activities, as each serve a different purpose and are both necessary in the overall wellness.
But when it comes to your Micro daily/weekly self-care routine, what do you actually do? It may be hard to think of different activities that can be considered both nourishing AND interesting (because lets face it, if you have no interest in it, then you won't do it). When the topic arises with my clients, the initial thought usually goes to pampering activities like facials, spas, and manicures, which is perfectly fine. However, while these are a few excellent examples, there is more to self-care. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has categorized self-care activities into 6 categories that address different domains of our wellness. These include:
1. Physical (eg. exercising, eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep)
2. Mental/Emotional (eg. work/life balance, mindfulness)
3. Spiritual (eg. spending time in nature, personal beliefs, creativity)
4. Intellectual (eg. Learning something new, improving skills)
5. Social (eg. spending time with a friend, nurturing relationships)
6. Practical (eg. decluttering, cleaning, gardening)
These six categories refer to different aspects that create balance in our wellbeing and highlight that there may be areas or parts that we tend to overlook. When creating your routine, it is important to consider incorporating something from each (or most) of these areas in order to create a balanced care plan. You can start with picking a few categories and then working your way up. These can be different individual acts (like exercising), or engaging in activities that check off a few of the boxes at the same time. An example of this in my personal life is gardening: I spend time in nature (spiritual), focusing and maintaining beautiful plants (mental), while up-keeping the garden (practical), which brings feelings of calm and relaxation to me (emotional). However, for others the idea of gardening can send shivers down their spine, in which case this would not be a good self-care act. It is also helpful to include activities that are different in nature with respect to them being either relaxing, energizing, or grounding. When trying to come up with an individualized list of activities that interest you CMHA has a few questions you can ask yourself that may be helpful:
- What calms you?
- What motivates you?
- What comforts you?
- What makes you feel fulfilled?
- How do you like to express yourself?
- What makes you feel connected?
#3 - Find The Time
How do you integrated self-care in your life (if at all)? Carving out “me time” is never easy. There is always something more pressing that pops up or you think is worth your time. However, your ‘me time’ does not need to take a big chunk out of your day. It is a space that you intentionally create to “touch base” with yourself and can take as long or as little as you need. This may look like taking 10 minutes during your lunch hour to do some breathing exercises, going for a 30 minute run after you get home from work, or taking an hour long bath right before bed. It can be helpful to intentionally create pockets in your daily schedule and set reminders in advance when you plan out your week ahead with your self-care time and activities in mind. No matter how long your self-care routine takes, the important thing is to make sure you are truly spending that time on YOU and that it feels nourishing to you.
Sometimes you may notice that when you attempt to schedule your self-care time, you get side-tracked or interrupted. Pay attention to what is getting in the way and take note. If there are practical challenges, such as childcare, work schedule, housework, etc., it may be helpful to find practical solutions ahead of time so that they do not get in the way of you spending quality time with yourself. Other times you may find that you feel stressed or guilty because in the back of your head there is a to do list and you’re thinking “why am I sitting here doing 'nothing' when I have tones of things to do?” If you find yourself thinking this way, I encourage you to revisit step #1 and think about your underlying beliefs and perceptions that are feeding into this thought. It also helps to remind yourself of the reason(s) that you have made the decision to engage in your self-care and where it stands on your priority list compare to the ‘do to’ list.
#4 - Assess, Adjust, & Readjust
How do you know if your self-care plan is working and doing what it is meant to do? What is the point of creating an award-winning plan if you don’t actually get to implement it or it is not a good fit with what you need? As it is true with any plan of action, the outcome is very important. It is crucial to be mindful of whether your overall goal of nurturing and nourishing yourself is being met. A few factors to be mindful when assessing your plan are:
- are you able to routinely and continuously engage in the plan that you have created?
- are the activities meeting your needs in a balanced way?
- are the activities maintaining your interest?
- are there any barriers that you have noticed getting in the way and what are they?
- how are you feeling when it comes to overall sense of balance and wellbeing?
If you notice that there are obstacles or difficulties or that your plan is not working well, spend some time adjusting the plan and giving it another go and then reassessing it again. You may need to readjust as needed until you find the formula that works for you. It is also worth mentioning that as human beings, we are always in a state of changeability, which means that your self-care plan also needs to keep up, adjust, and update depending on what your needs are in different stages of your life. It will be an ongoing working plan.
Unfortunately, many put off looking after themselves until they can no longer afford to, and that is when they start to pay attention to their wellbeing. But why wait until this point? Why not start early before hitting any issues? It is never too late to prioritize caring for yourself. You don't have to be a certain age or in a certain situation to practice self-care. It doesn’t matter if you're retired and living the life of luxury or struggling to get by, you deserve to love yourself and to take care of yourself. And as the saying goes: "if you don't make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness."