‘Learning self-care is like building your own lifeboat, plank by plank. Once you’ve got your boat, you’ll still be rocked by the waves of life, but you’ll have a feeling of safety, and a stability that means you can pick other people up on your way.’Quote from ‘Self -care for the Real World’ by Nadia Narain & Katia Narain Phillips
One of the most common things that comes up in conversations I have about self-care is the idea of selfishness. That spending a portion of our most precious resource: our time, to nurture ourselves somehow means that we are neglecting other’s and our responsibilities to them. The second most common theme that seems to come up is time (and a supreme lack of it) to spend on self-care.
I used to feel this way too. I used to feel self-indulgent and guilty if I sat in the garden reading or daydreaming. In busier seasons of my life I perpetually ‘prioritised’ other’s needs before my own and rarely had time for myself by the end of the day. Then I would wonder why I felt burnt out, emotional and anxious.
The truth is that to invest in our own self-care can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. For me, when I stopped distracting myself with other people’s well being (and making it my responsibility) I found that in lots of ways I didn’t actually know what I needed.
I believe that self-care is something we need to relearn in adulthood. Often somewhere in the metamorphosis between child and adult our needs and wants get mixed up and confused. Our burdens become heavier, our worlds carry increased responsibility and overwhelm.
A metaphor for self-care that has really stuck with me is that of the airplane oxygen masks. Printed on those laminated sheets tucked in our seats when we fly we are told that we need to secure our own oxygen mask before we can put on anyone else’s (even our own children’s). This is because you won’t be able to help anyone at all if you don’t first help yourself. In fact you might become the person that needs recusing. Self-care is like an everyday oxygen mask. It’s one of the least selfish things you can do. Self-care means that you are taking responsibility for your health and well being so you can truly help and support those around you.
To me, self-care starts with a simple distinguishing between what I want, and what I need. Self-care is a need. Learning how to look after yourself is one of the bravest and most courageous things a person can do in my book. It also requires a willingness to notice ourselves and to listen.
A simple and easy way to get started is by creating two lists. One is a list of things that you might want to do but actually don’t help. And then a list of things that you have noticed leave you feeling nourished, lighter or softer.
For example my lists might look like this:
Stuff that doesn’t help:
– Too much junk food
– Staying up too late
– Buying or shopping on impulse
– Sitting in one position for too long
– Lots of social media
– Comparing myself to others
– Not going outside
– Not taking time off when I need to
When I look at the examples above I now see the millions of pounds of advertising and social conditioning that portrays ‘binge watching’ as relaxing, regular fast food takeaways as easy stress solving solutions and a culture of comparison on social media platforms that can leave us feeling drained and depleted of worth.
A lot of the things above I do enjoy. I love a movie night with an Indian Takeaway as much as the next person. I find a lot of worth in learning from others insights on social media. Yet I’ve had to learn that for me personally this is in the ‘I want’ category of self-care, not the ‘I need’ category.
Stuff that makes me feel lighter, nourished and are things I need, include:
– Regular exercise
– A cup of tea
– Time away from screens
– Time by the sea
– Getting enough sleep
– Investing in friends and family
– Writing in my journal
– Time in nature
– Time in quiet
– Saying no, so I can say yes to something else.
In contrast, this list is harder to protect. It’s harder to keep as part of my routine and as a consistent feature in my life . Yet I know I need it. These are the things that will help when my lifeboat is being buffeted; when things get tough. These things also aren’t glamorous. They aren’t easily branded or advertised. They are simple joys that cannot be turned into products that can be sold to me.
It’s this reason that I believe self-care can become confusing. In recent years I have noticed how an entire wellness industry is built upon making self-care into a ‘trend’; into something you need to put your cash behind to demonstrate that you’re ‘investing’ in yourself. In reality, for many of us our own self-care lists will be unique to us. They cannot be dreamt up in an advertising board rooms or sold via an Instagram feed. It probably won’t cost lots of money. Self care is born from you, shaped by your experiences and your individuality.
Another truth that I have learnt about self-care is that when you need it most, is the time it is hardest to implement.
It’s hard to do self-care when you’re feeling rubbish. To combat this I created a ‘self-care menu’ for those tough days. This menu is a list of activities that I have noticed and noted down as having helped soften my anxiety or lighten my mood. When things get rocky, I return to the list and pick one of them to try. Creating a list like this is a self-care activity in itself as it’s showing compassion to your future tender self and not layering on the expectation that you should know what to do when things get bumpy.
Go gentle with yourself when developing your own self-care routines and practices. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to get started. I have found that creating lists was a good way for me to get started. For you it may look different, perhaps you could create a mood board of self-care quotes that inspire you. You may wish to make notes in your phone to videos that make you laugh, or start as small as your favourite tea in your favourite mug. There is no end goal here, just small movements to greater self-awareness.