2016. Another new year, another new beginning. With the end of each year, much of our focus turns to the next’s set of resolutions. Merrium-Webster defines resolution as the act of finding an answer or solution to a conflict (2015). For some the problem is health. For others the problem might be money, a struggle with faith, or being more adventurous. For me, this year’s resolution involves improving upon my own self-care. A concept that is very personal and individualized, self-care is something that many people have a hard time figuring out.
So what in the world IS self-care? For one, it’s hard to define. Self-care can look very different from one person to the next because it centers around behavior; behaviors that help to balance out the adverse effects of stress. Stress is also very different from one person to the next because we all have very different tolerance levels, so the balancing out behavior becomes the key component to self-care. More simply, self-care is stress management. Management is the key here. When our stress is managed, we will find ourselves becoming more resilient and better equipped to handle future stressful situations. Managed stress also means that we have demonstrated the ability to self-soothe.
Meinecke (2010) defines self-soothing as the ability to calm our emotional and physical distress. I know, you’re probably thinking, “Right. I engage in self-care practices all the time. I have a standing 60 minute massage appointment every week, followed my by weekly pedicure.” Wrong. That is self-indulgence. Now, I am by no means criticizing self-indulgence, I am simply saying that self-indulgence IS NOT self-care. Self-care takes some work. It takes some practice, and the practice certainly needs to be consistent. Self-indulgence behaviors are “temporary and largely symbolic fixes” that don’t really eliminate the stress (Meinecke, 2010). This distinction was my very own Oprah “aha” moment.
I was the queen of mistaking self-indulgence for self-care. Working nearly 70 hours a week was the most perfect reason to eat dinner out 3-5 days a week. I mean, I was working my tail off, so I absolutely deserved it, right? Working in a terribly stressful environment and encountering the stress it came with daily was a fantastic reason to never leave my house, on days off, unless it was absolutely necessary. I was never home, so obviously I needed to catch up on things there. Except that mostly included catching up on the newest Netflix series and the latest flavor of Ben & Jerry’s. Frustration quickly sat in because what I discovered was the stress never got better. Sure the ice cream tasted great, “Making a Murderer” was one of the most riveting series I had ever seen, and I definitely enjoyed the dinners out with my husband, but none of those things eliminated my stress. In fact, I would have to admit that in the end those things probably exacerbated it. Spending money needlessly, my growing waist line, and continuing to fall behind on household tasks were three more things that were added to the already existing stress I was experiencing. I wasn’t putting any work into the management of the stress, so I wasn’t able to calm myself, emotionally.
We already know that self-care is individualized, so I’ll focus on how I approached self-care. The first thing I had to do is figure out why I needed to re-focus, so I started a journal. This in itself can be very therapeutic and enlightening. What I discovered were basic elements and approaches to thinking about where to start with self-care. I asked myself 5 questions.
Q#1. What do I know to be true about needing self-care?
A#1. Time absolutely passes no matter what. Stress is toxic. Negativity, even in the smallest amount, spreads like wildfire. It absolutely matters what I put into my body. Sleep – good quality sleep – is so important. If I don’t value my own time and health, no one else will.
Q#2. Am I doing things to help alleviate or improve upon the answer(s) to Question #1?
A#2. I can’t, no matter how hard I try, get my time back. My strategies (indulgences) have only elicited very temporary alleviation of the stress, but has also contributed to it, and I have done nothing to improve the quality of sleep I get.
Q#3. What do I want more of?
A#3. Better sleep. More time for myself to do things I enjoy with those I care about. An overall sense of well-being.
Q#4. What are the steps I can take to be actively engaged in self-care?
- Establish a morning routine that focuses on my physical health.
- Establish an evening routine that focuses on my sleep hygiene.
- Set boundaries at work.
- Read and answer email first thing in morning, at lunch, and before leaving for the day.
- Check voicemail and return calls first thing in the morning, at lunch, and before leaving for the day.
- Maintain set office hours and take time off when appropriate (utilizing time built up into personal time when certain weeks are slow or overly stressful) .
- Avoid unnecessary negativity (settings where gossip might take place, individuals who are overly negative, etc)
- Focus on my role and responsibilities. Anything extra is unnecessary.
- Work off a task list each day. Get what’s to be done that day. If there is time to complete extra tasks, bonus.
- Utilize my lunch time. Unless I need to leave early, this time will be free of work-related tasks, and away from my office.
- Days off are days off. No email. No voicemail. No work, period.
- Take time to be grateful. Whether it is a simple reflection or a daily journal entry, I will think of at least 5 things I am grateful for that day.
Q#5. How can I monitor my progress/success?
A#5. Keep a journal to log and/or rate stress level, overall sense of well-being, etc each day/week (Am I arriving and leaving work in a positive mood? Do I feel satisfied with the quality of my work?). Keep track of productivity (Am I getting more done?) and social or family time. Log workouts and sleep quality.
For those of us who have a difficult time with self-care, following through with the answers to Question #5 will be important. Getting into the routine of being actively engaged in self-care will take practice. Once the positive effects are realized, self-care will become automatic and apart of our daily lives.
Benefits to Self-Care
The benefits to self-care are great. When we feel good, we do good. Good self-care practices will lead to living longer healthier lives, improved work, and more (or improved) meaningful relationships. Tartakovsky (2015) noted,
“We forget this but our relationship with ourselves is the foundation for all relationships. Treating ourselves with compassion helps us treat others with compassion, too. Whether you’re feeling self-compassionate or not, taking good care of yourself is always a good place to start.”
I couldn’t agree more because you know what? I am important too.
Merrium-Webster Dictionary (2015). http://www.merriam-webster.com/
Meinecke, C (2010, June 4). Self-Care in a Toxic World: Self-care may not be what you think it is. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/everybody-marries-the-wrong-person/201006/self-care-in-toxic-world
Tartakovsky, M (2015, March 15). What Self-Care Looks Like. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/03/15/what-self-care-looks-like/