All my life I’ve been living in the fast lane
Can’t slow down, I’m a rolling freight train
One more time, gotta start all over
Can’t slow down I’m a lone red rover
Oh how did it come to this?
~Lyrics from “Polaroid” by Imagine Dragons
From an early age many of us learn the importance of independence, hard work, and “measuring up” to expectations. We push ourselves to excel, do more, and be better than our peers. But few people end up living a life they enjoy by striving full-tilt all the time.
Can we work and live well without burning ourselves out?
Self-care is central to living a life that’s productive, fulfilling, and that you feel good about. Yet too few of us know how to honor our deep needs and cravings to slow down, rebalance and ask for the help we need.
Self-care is just as important as hard work to foster a healthy, meaningful life — and you deserve the peace and personal satisfaction that it brings.
What Is Good Self-Care?
Self-care means adopting a mindset that makes your physical and mental health a priority. It shows in behavior like getting enough sleep and eating well, and in many other aspects of life.
- Saying “no” to extra obligations without guilt
- Liking yourself, and liking how you do things
- Setting boundaries with family or friends who demand too much energy
- Standing up for yourself
- Giving yourself the gift of mindfulness (through meditation or yoga, for example)
- Making a healthy diet, regular exercise and adequate rest your personal priorities
- Asking for help without hesitation or shame
- Treating yourself with kindness and compassion as you work toward your goals
Why Is Self-Care So Easily Devalued?
In our culture, self-care often takes a backseat to drive and ambition. There’s an assumed obligation to say yes… to work extra hours, because we don’t want to risk disapproval… to attend or say yes to every PTA meeting because we don’t want to be that ”bad” or “lazy” parent.
At the same time, we want to look like we have it all together – like we can handle it all, all the time.
The problem with this is that it’s unrealistic. None of us can handle it all no matter how hard we try. You know the signs that you need to take better care of yourself when:
- You feel mentally or physically exhausted, overwhelmed or stretched too thin
- Friends and family tell you you’re working too hard, or have to remind you to take a break
- You’ve worked 70- or 80-hour weeks
- You missed out on something important you wanted to do
- You get recurring colds or a chronic or serious illness
- You shortchange sleep, regular meals or exercise to get more into your day
Why are Kindness and Compassion Important in Self-Care?
The biggest challenges to our mental and emotional well-being happen when we are struggling. Learning to respond with compassion, rather than self-criticism, is key to taking good care of yourself emotionally.
“Self-compassion steps in precisely when you need it most, and that’s when you fail,” says Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. “Self-compassion is not a valuation of self-worth. It’s just a way of treating yourself kindly whether things are good or things are bad…. You can motivate yourself not out of fear of being inadequate, but because you care about yourself.”
Instead of condemning yourself, ask what you’re learning and what you can do to reach your goals, while taking care of you.
How Self-Care Is Not Selfish
Some people grow up with the idea that self-care is selfish. But taking care of yourself first is important, especially if you are dedicated to taking care of others. Just as airplane passengers are told to put their own oxygen masks on first in an emergency, taking care of your own well-being first enables you to help yourself and others.
Healthy Ways to Use a Support System
Building a network of friends helps you take care of yourself very well.
- Instead of worrying and keeping a problem internalized, ask a supportive friend if they are available to let you rant about something: “Hey, girlfriend, I just need to vent for five minutes – is that okay?”
- You may suggest to a friend that you trade off childcare: “I’ll watch your kids today, you’ll watch my kids tomorrow.“ You may be able to run six errands in the time it would take to run two with a carful of kids.
Professionals need to be part of your support system.
- Going to the doctor and the dentist is a necessary part of good self-care.
- Getting your annual physical is an example of self-care that many of us dismiss.
Trauma survivors especially struggle with the idea that professional care and attention is something they deserve. Looking after your own well-being is your birthright. You deserve good self-care!
It may be time to talk to a therapist, counselor or therapy group when you feel you are leaning on your friends too much, or when venting isn’t enough. Professional guidance can make all the difference when you are finding it hard to make a change.
Counseling may be the answer when you feel you can’t say no, or you feel guilty or ashamed when you do it. If you feel you are drinking too much, misusing food or drugs, or spending too much time online, it may be time to ask for help. Counseling can help you find out what you are looking for, how you are coping, and seek what you want in more beneficial ways.
Self-Care in Everyday life
Your decision to take good care of yourself isn’t something you fit into an already overscheduled life. It’s your chosen mindset, and it shapes the rest of your decisions. Being mindful this way helps you better handle daily stress, clarify choices, and nurture healthier relationships.
- For example, you can calm yourself whenever you need to by learning how to belly breathe – getting that breath all the way down by your stomach as opposed to just in your chest (where we breathe when we’re anxious).
- You could reprioritize everyday tasks to enable more relaxation. For instance, if housework seems overwhelming, hiring a cleaning person once or twice a month may take the edge off your stress. Don’t know if you can afford that? Consider reprioritizing your money, like cutting down on restaurant meals or that expensive barista coffee.
Making your quality of life a priority sometimes means letting go — knowing when relationships have become too toxic. Nobody is perfect; everybody comes with “baggage.” Respecting yourself allows you to look for a relationship where you and your partner can love each other and your baggage. The two of you can even help each other unpack it.
The Upside of Good Self Care
When you take good care of yourself, you feel better, and you function better.
Habits that prioritize rest, health and emotional support enable you to do more of what you set out to accomplish, and smell the roses along the way. If you think about it, being able to meet your own needs for love, respect and support makes you more able to offer these to others too.