If you’ve been with me for the last year you might already know this but I define self-care in a special way:
self-care is the action you take to prepare yourself to keep going
After living in survival mode [as a new mom working the opening shift at Starbucks while my husband worked side jobs + started his business] I came to realize that the urge I felt for a break…that itching sensation that felt like it would only be satisfied by a whole day of silence…was my body and mind calling for a change in habits. Fast forward 4 years later and while we’re no longer a family of ships passing in the night, life is still pretty full. And self-care has evolved into a philosophy.
If you’re anything like me you’re not a huge fan of the damsel in distress storyline. But often our habits as women who are constantly pouring out is to run ourselves so deep into the ground we need someone to reach down and save us. We need someone else to recognize our desperate state – to look past our crabby face and unwashed hair – and give us permission to sign out for a day [or 10].
The problem is that getting to that point – where you can’t speak a kind word and all you can think about is how badly you need a break – is a lagging indicator. Meaning it’s one of the last symptoms of your overstressed system. Like a heart attack or arthritis, we’ve missed the opportunities to avert disaster and the compounding effects of our behavior (and systemic failures) have chosen our course.
I can’t tell you for certain what your first symptoms are – I’m not sure I even know mine yet. But I know that [for me] a symptom that is somewhere in the middle is looking at my phone at any moment of silence. Or when I can’t imagine picking up a nonfiction book to read. If I get to the point where I can’t laugh at my kids’ antics I’ve gone too far and immediate action must be taken.
Our jobs as mothers, project managers, bosses, teachers, employees, caregivers, sisters, friends, etc is three-fold:
Bring awareness to the earlier signs burnout
I wrote a post on signs of burnout a while back to get you started. Awareness builds with questions – asking why we might be doing something and getting curious about the chain of events. Taking the opportunity to look into ourselves in order to understand our truest motivations can tune our attention to notice when things are out of sorts. The sooner we can detect stress, the easier it will be to give our minds and bodies the care they need. It will also become more apparent what behaviors need to find their way into your everyday life.
For example: Play is an essential part of my daily life. Not necessarily getting down and playing whatever pretend game my kids think up but getting out of my head and into my body is extremely therapeutic. So much so I’ve ceased to see it as optional. Similarly, morning yoga + journaling is a habit I’ve been working on re-establishing for the last month as I’ve seen the positive effects in externalizing my thoughts on a topic and letting it guide a personal exploration (and the negative of not doing it).
Choose to break the cycle – developing a plan of action for recovering so we can keep going
It is not enough to be aware of your symptoms. You have to choose to take action. But here’s the thing – even ugly habits like rage, lethargy, or workaholism came to be for a reason…they feel good on a chemical level. Really, in terms of biology, there isn’t much difference between anger, sadness, or joy. They each raise your heart rate, narrow your focus, increase your breathing rate, etc. It’s the fixation that tends to be different. You must learn to change how you think about these states of being so you can take action even when, in the moment, you don’t really feel like it.
The best strategy I’ve encountered in regard to disrupting the habit pathway for these habits that perpetuate fatigue, negative affect, lack of motivation, self-doubt, etc. on a daily basis can be found in my free guide on reclaiming your evenings. I wrote it specifically for recovering from a long day at work (and avoiding the slippery slope of throwing away your time on habits that don’t serve you like mindless scrolling, crappy food, and netflix bingeing) but the strategies can be implemented at any point in a day to break you out of autopilot and use your time more mindfully for recovery and satisfaction.
Keep a weather-eye on the horizon for the emotional and mental struggles that can short-circuit our efforts and put us right over the edge (think shame triggers, loneliness, deadlines, etc)
In the past few weeks my family and I have enjoyed a bit of vacation. My entire family got together at my parents house for around 5 days then we were in Brainerd for the 4th living the lake life for a few days. Finally, we had my sister + her kids at my house for 4 days. It was a wonderful time. But as it came to a close I knew I had to be on the lookout for the kind of hangover that can come after an extended amount of time with extra people – lethargy, loneliness, and the mind-body confusion of being out of routines.
Think of the various things that put extra stress on your system – events that may sneak in some emotional disruptions (like swimsuit season? Seeing vacation pictures on social media? Spending a lot of time with family? Or heck, your monthly cycle?).
When you can predict these additional stressors and either side-step them (because you don’t have to look through 300 pictures from her Hawaii vacation, right?) or mindfully move through them (celebrating the time you spent with family while also experiencing the grief of saying goodbye), you are keeping things like burnout from sneaking up on you.
Looking into the future and simulating how various life events that are coming and not necessarily within your control is some serious self-care. We have the foresight function, so use it. You don’t need to be thrown into survival mode every time your mother-in-law comes to stay. Predict the stress, determine a plan for coping effectively, and practice mindfulness all the way through.
Finally, what’s makes an action “self-care”? Let’s look at some examples…
- House cleaning:
→ Using it to stay rooted in your body, focusing entirely on your breath and your movement.
→ Using it to zone out and let your mind recover while you think about nothing in particular and scrub the dishes/fold laundry.
→ Using it to direct your attention to gratitude, compassion, or introspection (how am I feeling? Why might that be?).
→ Rooting yourself in your body (as above), focusing your attention on muscle contraction and lengthening, your breath, etc.
→ Practicing mental toughness as you push through the cardiac and muscular distress.
→ Using movement to release false stories and bring in truth.
→ Zoning out (as above) and just enjoying the feeling and sounds of a pounding heart.
- Time outside:
→ Use a hike, a run, a walk, or a bike ride to either zone out or contemplate a new perspective.
→ Play a sport with friends, connecting over movement and experiencing a lighter side of life together.
→ Just sit and watch the birds go about their work.
- Intentional, engaged conversation with friends
- Cooking good food and staying present throughout entire meal
- Journaling through issues + searching for the information you’re missing as you try to find a solution.
- Reading a good book (trips to the library are my favorite).
- Trying something new with a friend (get out of a rut, initiate some forward momentum).
What is NOT self-care?
- Using any of the above as opportunities to ruminate on disatisfaction, comparisons, past hurts, regrets, etc.
- Going through the motions without engaging your mind + body — journaling to externalize your heart + mind while also checking your phone every couple of minutes is not gonna do the work you claim to be looking for.
- Disengaging from the moment to numb out the stress of the day (eating past satiety, making a movie or show about pretending the day didn’t happen, drinking in excess)
- Using time with friends/loved ones to dump your stress on them in an effort to relieve the building tension in your heart + mind.
- Turning play into over-the-top competition (your worth is not in proving you are better than someone else)
- Avoiding vulnerability as you spend time by yourself or with others
- Avoiding time with other people because you don’t want to have to practice compassion for them when they are struggling too.
- Trying to escape your real life instead of engaging problems head on.
Only you can determine if you are cleaning your house out of a perfectionist mindset or one of calm gratitude and autonomy. A good rule of thumb is to look at how you feel afterward – ready to engage or still clamouring for relief from negative emotions? Finally, one question you might consider is: what is your first reaction when negative emotions arise? That is most likely what your brain has habituated for escaping uncertainty/vulnerability. This doesn’t mean that if house cleaning has long been an escape you now ditch it entirely, but practice going into it mindfully and choose to not run immediately for the duster when you see negative emotions come up. Leave space for the cortisol to ebb and flow, then make an intentional decision about what is actually going to help. Cleaning can come at a different time.
Wrap up questions for you:
- Which of the 3 responsibilities is the most difficult for you to embrace?
- Have you encountered any tell-tale signs that you’re trying to get relief through numbing or withdrawing techniques?
- What forms of self-care have been most effective in helping you step deeper into your life?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!