When I get together with my therapist colleagues, our conversations turn, inevitably, to one thing: self-care. No matter how the conversation began—troubles in our own lives, frustration with insurance companies, concern for a client—someone will eventually ask, “And what are you doing for self-care?”
Different people have different answers. One person knits, another gets a regular massage. One person schedules romantic dates with his partner. Another person kickboxes. I like to run. We like to suggest our favorite methods of self-care to each other, but we know there is no one-size-fits-all choice. We know that our own self-care practices change over time as our needs, preferences, and life circumstances evolve and change. In this demanding profession, self-care is not a luxury; it is a necessity.
It is for you, too.
You have probably seen the instructions for airplane passengers: In the case of emergency, secure your own mask before assisting others. It makes sense to ensure you will have the life support you need so that you are able to help others. And when you put the mask on first, you model to other passengers (children, for example) that this act is necessary for survival, and that they must do it, too.
Self-care works the same way. In our busy lives, we have many responsibilities, and we are tempted to take care of everyone and everything else before we take care of ourselves. But I’d like to gently persuade you that you will do better to take care of yourself first. What seems selfish is actually self-evident: We do a better job with our responsibilities when we have the strength, energy, and emotional wherewithal to attend to them.
If you haven’t been in the habit of practicing self-care, or if you’ve been told you need to and are not sure what that means, here is a guide to get started. You’ll need to learn three things: what tells you that self-care is needed, maybe desperately (warning lights); what gives you energy and strength (fills you up); and what depletes your reserves (runs you dry).
Checking the Gauge
Some things in our lives drain our emotional, physical, and mental resources, while other things help restore those resources to us. Just as it’s helpful to have a fuel gauge in your car that lets you know when it’s time to fill up, it is crucial to have some way to know when you need a self-care fill-up—before you run out of gas. Unfortunately, we don’t come with an amber warning light that lets us know when we’re running on fumes.
A critical part of self-care, then, is developing an awareness of when you are running low. Our “warning lights” might come in the form of physical, mood, or cognitive symptoms. For example, headaches, tight muscles, and a sore jaw (from grinding your teeth) are among some of the more common physical warning signs. Forgetfulness, trouble making decisions, and difficulty with communication are common cognitive indicators. And I frequently see (and experience) easy frustration, snappish temper, and increased sensitivity to sadness and anxiety as mood symptoms.
Your warning signs may be any or all of these, or perhaps something similar. I want to point out that these warning signs don’t always point directly to what is running low—you may feel tired when you’re emotionally exhausted, for example, or irritable when you are physically depleted. As you practice noticing what your warning signs are and experimenting with different kinds of self-care, you will become more skillful at interpreting the distress signals your body and mind send you.
Everyone has his or her “best” or favorite practices of self-care, but there is enough commonality among methods that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in your quest to discover what works best for you. I have found that most people need fuel from three main sources: physical activities, cognitive activities, and emotional/relational activities. Though we all gravitate toward one or two of these at times, we benefit from making sure that we replenish ourselves with “fuel” from each of these sources from time to time:
- Physical: Physical fuel involves using the body. This may be incorporating something active, like running or walking; something soothing, like yoga or massage; or even something passive, like sleep. Physical self-care can mean eating more healthfully, sleeping more, or avoiding substances such as alcohol that depress the body’s optimal functioning. Let your curiosity and intuition guide you as you experiment with these ideas and your own, making note of which ones help your “warning light” go away.
- Cognitive: Cognitive fuel involves using the mind. This might be making time to read or play games, or taking a class or resuming practice on an instrument you used to play. Smart phones offer a multitude of brain-challenging games and activities that may encourage your mind to stretch and exercise in ways it doesn’t get to in your everyday life. Even better, games and conversations with people fill both a cognitive need and provide a social, relational refueling.
- Emotional/relational: Emotional/relational fuel comes from experiencing emotion (both good and bad!) and from fostering the “fuel pipeline” of social connection. It can involve finding an opportunity to enjoy a pleasurable emotion—watching a funny movie, say, or reading a heartwarming story. Sometimes emotional refueling requires letting yourself really feel a “bad” or troublesome emotion. We spend so much energy repressing the emotions we don’t like to feel, and it can be a relief to shed some honest tears about something that saddens us, or admit to ourselves that we feel frustrated or stuck and want support. Relational refueling often comes hand-in-hand with this work, as it is doubly soothing to share these experiences—pleasurable and painful—with a caring, compassionate person. It helps, and is enormously restorative, to know we are not alone in our experience.
Be Mindful of Mileage
Equally important to knowing what fills you up is identifying those things that drain you. Ideally, self-care involves eliminating, or limiting as much as possible, those things that deplete you of your reserves. Real life is seldom so simple, however, and so we must figure out how much control we have over the draining things in our lives.
Work, for example, is one of the most-cited sources of personal drain. If you win the lottery, you might be able to quit working, but for most of us that won’t become an option. Instead, we must become savvy investigators, discovering what parts of work are most draining and what parts we might be able to change. If it is the commute, can I take public transportation to work (and maybe get in some brain-refreshing games of KenKen on the way). If there’s a colleague who is taxing, is there a way I can configure my office or workspace to have less contact with him or her? Can I speak to my boss about new or different opportunities? Can I let myself wonder, fantasize, and consider career change?
Other draining circumstances arise unexpectedly. The death of a parent, problems with a child, the loss of a job; unanticipated events or crises become huge drains of our physical, cognitive, and emotional energy. While we can’t always prevent these things, it’s important to recognize what a significant demand they make on our personal resources. If possible, when we know these events are coming, we can take steps to make time for increased self-care before and during the crisis. When surprised by hardship, we must recall the instruction to “put our air masks on first” and make sure we keep an eye on our internal fuel gauge as we do our best to navigate through a difficult time.
Some of the things we like to do are fuel drains if done in excess, or if we do them in times when our resources are running low. For example, many people enjoy drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and like the pleasurable feeling and gustatory enjoyment of indulging in a glass of wine. However, alcohol is a depressant, and its effects can be deleterious when used in excess or when your mood is already a little low. Good self-care might require becoming aware of how and when you consume alcohol, and making a conscious decision to limit drinking when you notice your warning light is on.
Other innocuous habits or hobbies can also be a source of drain. For example, I know many people who enjoy being well-informed about the world, yet find they must take a “news vacation” when their emotional wherewithal is running low. Being well-informed is a potentially nice thing; feeling bombarded by the injustices and tragedies that make up so much of the daily news, on the other hand, can be harmful.
We must be flexible and alert as we hone our processes of self-care, for what is fulfilling at one time may become a drain (for example, the person who plays online games to activate his or her mind, then finds real-life relationships are suffering from neglect). And your experience of what is fulfilling and what is draining may be very similar or different from the examples I have outlined. So, I encourage you to take up these basic tools and begin experimenting. Self-care works best when it is approached with a sense of curiosity, awareness, and open-mindedness. As we do this, we become better and better at keeping our lives and selves running smoothly; we become skilled mechanics in the workings of our own well-being.
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