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Self-Care: A Reminder to Come Back Home to Ourselves

8 key messages about self-care.

As we approach the end of a difficult year with more news of lockdowns, restrictions, health concerns, and distance from family and friends, I want my last post of 2020 to be a shout-out to self-care. The following eight key messages and illustrations about self-care can serve as a reminder to all of us that we are important and investing in ourselves through self-care is a worthwhile venture.

Source: Dr. Angelica Attard
Self-care Is Coming Back Home to Ourselves.
Source: Dr. Angelica Attard

1. The Meaning of Self-Care

Nowadays, we frequently hear the word "self-care" being used by organizations, influencers, news reports, and self-help books (#selfcare). But do we remember what self-care really means?

I like to think about self-care as coming back home to ourselves. It is easy to forget ourselves and our needs when we are caught up meeting other life demands that compete for our attention.

So self-care is also about remembering to find the road back to ourselves whereby we take care of our physical and psychological well-being. Self-care can have long-term, significant benefits to our physical and mental health, relationships, and quality of life.

Self-care can be associated with:

  • Nourishment
  • Restoration
  • Nurturing
  • Refueling
  • Recharging

It is fundamental for our well-being, just like oxygen and water are fundamental for our body to remain alive and function effectively.

Have you come home to yourself lately, or have you forgotten? Self-awareness is the first step to figuring out what you need to do to start to take care of yourself again.

Source: Dr. Angelica Attard
By Serving Ourselves First, We Can Serve Others.
Source: Dr. Angelica Attard

2. We Serve Ourselves So That We Can Serve Others

Remember the safety announcement on the airplane where they advise you to put your oxygen mask on first before putting a mask on other people? If we cannot breathe, we die. And, of course, if we die, there is no way we can help others. This is a great metaphor for our mental health too.

Many of us have some kind of role where we serve and offer something to another being: psychologists, teachers, parents, partners, siblings, friends, cleaners, shopkeepers, leaders, carers, hairdressers, builders, accountants, doctors, pet owners, architects, etc.

Serving others can give us a sense of purpose and fulfillment in our life. At the same time, we can unintentionally find ourselves giving too much to our work and families to the point that we have too little left for ourselves.

To serve others effectively, we have to serve ourselves first; otherwise, we will eventually run out of energy, capacity, and oxygen. Self-care can enable us to be our best self for ourselves and for others. Furthermore, modelling self-care to the adults, teens, and children in our life can be invaluable in encouraging them to engage in self-care too.

3. What Is Self-Care in Practice?

Self-care can be:

  • Different things for different people
  • Different things during different phases of our lives
  • Something big or something small
  • Related to different areas: physical, social, emotional, mental (psychological), financial, spiritual
Source: Dr. Angelica Attard
Examples of What Self-Care Is.
Source: Dr. Angelica Attard

Self-care is not just the stereotypical bubble bath and relaxing music (although this might be part of it, of course!). Self-care is not always meant to feel good or easy in the moment because it may include saying no, setting limits, and being vulnerable. Here are a few ideas of what self-care can look like in practice:

  • Resisting that fourth drink
  • Saying no to more work
  • Managing our spending
  • Asking for help
  • Checking in with how we are feeling
  • Being vulnerable with ourselves and others
  • Noticing self-criticism and responding with self-compassion instead
  • Being in nature and connecting with the sights, sounds, smells, textures
  • Talking with and spending time with family and friends
  • Exercising our body a few times a week
  • Treating ourselves to yummy food
  • Giving ourselves permission to rest and "be" and not "do"
  • Remembering to play and have fun
  • Limiting our time on social media
  • Having a mix of activities that are relaxing: going to a coffee shop, listening to music

4. What Self-Care Is Not

Clarifying what self-care is not can help us focus our attention and actions on doing things that are going to help us rather than make us feel worse.

There can be many myths about self-care that are influenced by cultural, societal, and family narratives, such as self-care is selfish, self-indulgence, egoistic, boasting, a sign of weakness. Noticing whether we have internalized any myths around self-care is important as these may hinder our attempts to put self-care into practice.

Source: Dr. Angelica Attard
Examples of What Self-Care Is Not.
Source: Dr. Angelica Attard

It is also helpful to think about what self-care is not in practice. This varies for each individual, though here are some examples:

  • Spending too much time in front of Netflix
  • Overindulging in chocolate
  • Not dedicating enough time to ourselves
  • Spending too much time indoors
  • Isolating ourselves from friends
  • Pushing ourselves to keep working even when we are overworked
  • Self-criticism and self-judgment
  • Comparing ourselves to others
  • Scrolling mindlessly on social media
  • Expecting ourselves to never make mistakes
  • Forcing ourselves to exercise when we are feeling unwell

What is your list of what self-care is and is not? Write this down on your phone, laptop, or on paper; seeing it in black and white, rather than just thinking about it, can help to clarify your thoughts more effectively.

5. Self-Care Is About Making a Decision

Self-care is about making a deliberate decision to take care of ourselves. It is a choice that we take based on our values and what matters to us; it is not just a feeling that will come to us over time or something that shows up out of the blue. It is our responsibility to decide to take care of ourselves, just like we decide to show care, kindness, and support to others because this is the type of person we want to be.

Remember that not doing anything to take care of ourselves is a decision in itself, even though it might not be a conscious decision. Furthermore, we may find ourselves choosing to put our needs last; again, this is our choice, though simultaneously we have to accept and deal with the consequences.

Deciding to take care of ourselves can then enable us to take action. From an idea, we move towards actually doing it and living it. It can feel empowering to know that we can shape our present moment based on the decisions that we take. This is within our control.

We can start with an act of self-care that is simple, realistic, and achievable. If it feels too hard, just break it down. Start with a 1-minute act of self-care. Once you achieve it, do it again and then move to 2 minutes, etc. Even the smallest act counts.

6. Self-Care Is About Commitment and Perseverance

Self-care is a commitment and way of being. It takes practice and perseverance. If we commit to self-care, it can contribute to our quality of life and well-being in the long term.

Many of us know that self-care is really important. Yet, we forget, become complacent, and get caught up in the demands of life.

If we stop committing to self-care, we may feel OK for a while, especially if we have energy reserves that can keep us going for longer.

However, what happens if we keep driving a car, and we never stop to refuel? It will run out of gas, and it will stop no matter how much we press the gas. If we stop caring for ourselves, we will eventually run out of gas too. We are depleted and need attending to.

7. Forgetting Self-Care Can Happen and Can Motivate Us

It may help to be prepared that we may lose sight of self-care so that we can make space for the disappointment, frustration, sadness, and fear that can re-emerge when we realize that it happened (yet again). We sometimes need to feel this pain to wake up and acknowledge that we cannot keep pushing ourselves and living the life we live.

While it is OK to slip up, it is important to take responsibility and look out for the warning signs of poor self-care so that we can intervene sooner rather than later. There may be different signs that indicate that we have run out of gas. We may:

Source: Dr. Angelica Attard
Looking Out for Warning Signs When We Forget Self-Care.
Source: Dr. Angelica Attard
  • Shut down and enter a depressive state
  • Lose motivation and satisfaction in life
  • Withdraw from others
  • Feel more anxious and on edge
  • Push ourselves to work harder and not be able to stop or slow down
  • Lose empathy
  • Be more critical of others and ourselves
  • Be more self-focused to the detriment of others
  • Feel more irritated with small things
  • Have disrupted sleep patterns
  • Not eat or turn to food and substances (alcohol/drugs) to cope or escape

We can use these signs as an indicator that it is time to pause and refuel. By intervening sooner, we can prevent things from getting worse for ourselves and those around us. Leaving it too long may render usual self-care strategies insufficient, and we may need more time and help to recover.

Remember that even if we have stopped practicing self-care, it does not mean that we necessarily have to start from scratch. We may still have a foundation of knowledge and skills that we can draw on to get the balance right again.

8. We Take Care of Ourselves Because We Matter

A final key message is to check what is driving our action to take care of ourselves.

Source: Dr. Angelica Attard
We Take Care of Ourselves Because We Matter
Source: Dr. Angelica Attard

Is it something that feels like a chore or another item on our to-do list? Are we doing it because we are negatively comparing ourselves to others? Are we doing it as a form of punishment or because we feel ashamed about who we are deep down?

If this is the case, then self-care may be turning into a rigid and restrictive rule associated with what we "should" do and who we "should" be. This can trigger negative feelings and beliefs about ourselves that drive us to engage in self-care because there is something flawed and broken with us that needs to be fixed. For example: "I must go exercise because I need to pay for pigging out on the weekend," or "I have to socialize because people have to like me."

If we feel obliged to follow the rule, this increases the risk that we do not remain attuned to what we need and what would be most helpful to us in the moment. Furthermore, if we do not manage to engage in our self-care activities, there is a risk that it reinforces self-critical and punishing narratives that we are bad, shameful, undeserving, and failing.

It can help to shift from investing in self-care because there is "something fundamentally damaged or broken with me that needs to be fixed" to investing in self-care because "even with all my strengths and limitations, I matter and investing in my mind and body matters."

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