Four Realistic Rules for Better Self-Care

If you think self-care is all about candles and yoga, think again.

Posted Sep 01, 2019

The idea of self-care gets a lot of attention, particularly in fields like health care and human services. Unfortunately, in spite of all the talk, many people still struggle to understand what it means and how to get enough of it. In this post, I’ll share four rules to make sure you are on track to living a self-caring life.

Rule #1: Self-care includes self-talk.

Many people protest when they hear about the idea of self-care because they believe they don’t have time to take a yoga class, don’t have money for a massage, or don’t have the energy to exercise. Although this all may be true, it misses the essential point that self-care is ultimately not about what you might do for an hour or two each week. Self-care is a way you live your life, and this includes how you relate to yourself each and every moment of the day.

Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

Self-talk does a lot to shape our mood, our stress levels, and whether we feel overwhelmed or in control. A busy day could be experienced as anxiety-provoking and burnout-producing, but it could also be seen as a challenge to rise and engage our many strengths in the world. The choice is yours.

We do ourselves a disservice by overlooking this critical component of self-care. In fact, no self-caring behaviors will be effective if you are in the habit of stressing yourself out over and over again in your own mind. You may get a massage, but you’ll be thinking about work the whole time. You may take a yoga class, but you’ll be too busy comparing yourself to others in the room.

So pay attention, and start chipping away at your own unique habits of unhelpful thinking; it is the most important and self-caring thing you can do.

Rule #2: Distraction can be helpful, but only for a while.

When I ask people what they do for self-care, most often they talk about ways they distract themselves from their stressors. Some common examples might be binge-watching television, reading a book, or going to a movie. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities on occasion. When emotions are running high or you are completely exhausted, the effort it might take to engage in more active pursuits or attempt to emotionally process what you are going through may prove to be too much. At such times, using distraction for self-care can be helpful.

Problems can arise if the only self-care activities you engage in are things that allow you to check out, numb out, avoid, distract, or ignore your stressors. If this goes on for too long, you may find that you have a backlog of unprocessed thoughts and feelings that could cause your stress or burnout to worsen instead of to improve.  

Rule #3: Find ways to emotionally process your experiences.

To balance out your favorite distractions, look for activities that help you process the experiences of your life. Self-care needs to involve time to think your way through your stressors and to feel the emotions that come with them.

For instance, if you are overwhelmed by several deadlines happening at once, no amount of distraction will help you in the long run. Instead, it may be better to engage in an activity that directly addresses your intense stress such as a guided relaxation exercise or a conversation with a colleague.

Tim Goedhart/Unsplash
Source: Tim Goedhart/Unsplash

Self-care means paying attention to your emotions and giving care and attention to them. The specific activities that help with emotional processing will vary between individuals but could include journaling, drawing, talking about your stress to a friend or therapist, prayer or spiritual practice, dancing, exercise, listening to music, or having a good cry.

You might engage in reading or even watching television, but instead of distraction, you can seek out content that will address the challenges you are facing. For instance, you might read poetry that touches on the emotions you are working through, or watch inspirational speakers online instead of a distracting romance or crime drama.

When considering self-care activities to fit this category, the most important question to ask yourself is: “Have I accessed my own thoughts and feelings, and do I have a somewhat better perspective, a sense of relief, or emotional release, after doing this activity?” If the answer is yes, then you’ve found something great.

Rule #4: Take care of your physical health.

In the pursuit of self-care, people often think they need to add something new and dramatic to their lives. It can be easy to waste time and money getting massages, signing up for meditation classes, and trying new hobbies hoping to find something that excites us. While all of these things can be part of self-care, don't overlook the simple daily routines that help maintain your physical health.

Since you need to eat, sleep, bathe, and dress routinely anyway, these can be good places to improve your self-care habits. What if you chose food that really nourished you? What if you changed your bedtime, or finally bought that new pillow, to help you sleep better? All of these little things can turn your daily routines into opportunities for self-care.

Engaging in self-care is a way of signaling to ourselves that we matter in our own lives. You do not need a lot of time, money, or exotic new activities to improve your self-care. By starting with your self-talk, taking care of your health, and achieving a better balance of distraction and emotional processing, you will be well on your way to living a truly self-caring life.

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