As I tend to write about things at great length, I have decided that from now on, I will do short summaries of my blogs. In the beginning of them.
I believe I have some great things to say but I know all about lacking the concentration to read lenghty stuff. And I want to make my writing as accessible as possible to as many as possible. So here is the short version of Self-Care Rules:
I see self-care is an important part of life and it is not something we are taught much about. We are told to look after ourselves but what does it really mean?
I think we need to figure that out for ourselves. We need to decide what we want to achieve by looking after ourselves. Do we want to comfort ourselves, do we want more energy, do we want to feel loved and happy, do we want to find peace and calm or excitement?
I don’t think there are any rules when it comes to self-care; I think we have to create our own guidelines and draw from our wisdom about ourselves. I find it helpful to check in with myself using body work but other people may have found things that work for them – like going for a run, having a chat with a friend, cleaning or cooking and so on. Once we are able to check in with ourselves and find out how we are doing and what we need in the moment we can decide what to do. What kind of care to give ourselves. Sometimes self-care may be to stay in bed all day and sometimes it may be to commit to doing a marathon. It will be different for each of us at different times.
I like lists but mainly as inspiration for those times when I am fuzzy headed and can’t think of things that might be helpful. A list can help me remember and spark my creativity.
The last thing I want to say is that I think it is important to be at the receiving end of the self-care you give yourself. I find this part difficult because I have to be in two modes at once. I have to be responsible, caring and giving as well as receptive and open.
The long version
I am a passionate fan of self-care – of looking after ourslves.
Two things have happened recently that made me think of writing a blog post about this passion of mine.
First of all I came across a post on facebook where a woman expressed her frustration with being told to look after herself. She recognised that people who said this to her were well-meaning but it made her really frustrated. She explained how it made her feel isolated and that people were really saying that she had to look after herself beause no one else would. In a society that is rapidly becoming more and more individualistic we can’t expect others to have the time or energy to care for us or support us anymore. And often people who do do the caring – either in work life or personal life – may find that nobody is caring for them.
Being a big believer in taking care of ourselves reading her post threw me a bit. I started worrying about how people might receive it when I say “take care” or “look after yourself”. Whether my friends might find it too imposing or holier than thou. I could also feel myself getting a bit defensive and wanting to respond to the post. But after I let the uncomfortable feelings settle, I started to see this womans point. And it got me re-examining my stance on self-care.
The other thing that happened was getting an email from Healthy Minds asking if any of their volunteers were interested in coming in and talk about self-care for the radio show. As I was already spending some time thinking about the issue, I thought doing an interview might help me structure my thinking a bit and maybe also write something.
And here I am.
So what does it mean?
What is self-care? Well the obvious answer would be “to care for yourself”; so I guess it then depends on how we understand the word to care. It could mean to support, to take an interest in, to empower, to look after basic needs, to comfort or to keep an eye on. It could mean to love. When I care about somebody else it is almost always because I feel some level of love for them; I want them to be okay and to feel loved.
But we all have differerent associations with words. Caring might mean something very different to somebody else.
When I was first introduced to the idea of looking after myself I was in my early twenties and it was all to do with my mental health, learning to manage my illness, revolving around stress and symptoms. And that was great – becoming aware of how being stress felt and how it affected me was very needed at the time. But it took years for me to figure out what to do about it.
Stress and anxiety had been my main mode since early childhood and I hadn’t a clue how to look after myself. I hadn’t had any clear rolemodels to learn from either and I am sure I am not alone in that.
In a post industrial society, we grow up with this pressure to produce, achieve, contribute, earn a living and prove our worth. And looking after ourselves becomes about having fun, having loads of exciting experiences like travelling or about being fit and eating healthily. Nobody talks about what it really means to look after oneself – what it looks like under all the generalisations and health guidelines.
So I struggled for years with how to look after myself – and what it meant. My head was overloaded with all these rules and input I got from my surroundings telling me what self-care was.
Self-care had become all about what I “should” do – what was “right” and what I was supposed to do to feel better. But even this idea of “feeling better” seemed vague to me. Self-care was like an empty mantra and even though I tried to do the right things it didn’t make much difference to my general state of being. I was caught in this language of right and wrong and feeling guilt and shame when I didn’t do what I should or didn’t do enough. Even though I was trying to look after myself, my language and attitude towards myself hadn’t changed. I was pushing myself and blaming myself for things not getting better. The same vicious circles which I had been caught in in my teenage years – now they just had a different theme.
Today I believe that there are no rules to self-care. No right or wrong. It is something deeply individual and even within the individual it may need to be something very flexible as well.
But how did this way of thinking come about?
I started meeting people who cared about me – without having to. People who weren’t family or friends, people who just seemed to like and value me with no strings attached. These were people working in mental health and they really didn’t have to like me. They could have done their work without liking me. And I did meet health care professionals who kept the so-called proffesional distance and clearly neither liked or disliked me – but also didn’t connect with me in a meaningful way.
Defining self-care for ourselves
The people who did connect with me, taught me something immensely valuable – that it was possible for me to feel safe and calm with others and eventually within myself. They showed me a lot of trust and as my trust in them grew I found myself beginning to trust myself. It felt like a circular thing that happened in the relationship – I trusted them and they trusted me and somehow the emotional experience grew to the point where the rational realisation came: that if they found me trustworthy and I trusted their judgement it had to mean that I could trust myself.
Trusting myself I slowly began to take my own inner wisdom more seriously.
So I started to think about why I would care for myself, what I wanted, what I wanted to achieve by self-caring. What I wanted it to do for me.
I thought about times when life had felt worth living, when I had enjoyed being me. These times seemed to be about feeling connected, feeling close to others or to myself or to nature. Also it was about things feeling meaningful – not in a rational way but on non-verbal level. Moments of feeling alive.
I think this will be different for each of us. For some it might be about feeling at peace or feeling happy or content, for others it might be about feeling safe, nurtured or comfortable. It could be that you want to feel excited, to feel able or full of energy.
But for me looking after myself means to support myself to feel connected with the things that makes life meaningful to me. Like having deep and authentic conversations with other people. Or being able to walk in nature and enjoy the sounds, sights and smells. Or to lose myself in a piece of music or forget time as I am painting or writing.
These things doesn’t just happen by themselves. I have to look after myself, create the spaces where they can come along.
What do I actually do?
If there are no rules, how do we know what to do? If we don’t have a manual or a list to follow, how do we get started?
Don’t get me wrong – lists and guidelines are good. I have them. But I have made them up myself and I see them as inspiration rather than rules. When my head is fuzzy and I am low on energy remembering what I can do to support myself can be hard. Having a list to look at can help remind me what has been useful at other times. And maybe it can help me come up with something that is relevant for me now.
For me things are very changeable. I will have different needs at different times. Sometimes I will have more than one need and I will have to prioritise – and quite often I will have opposing needs which is when it gets tricky. Chosing to do one thing can feel like a betrayal to other needs that parts of me might have.
The pathways to getting what we want out of caring for ourselves, may look very different at different times and in differents situations.
For me the key is to tune into myself, into my body and my soul-feeling. I find it helps me to do physical grounding exercises like body-scan, tension-release, bouncing or swinging arms. It helps me get into my body. And then I can ask myself something like: How am I really right now? How do I feel? How is my soul? How is my body? What do I need? What am I longing for right now?
But I imagine there are loads of other ways to check in with yourself e.g. go somewhere you feel safe, listen to music you like, do mindfulness or meditation, go for a run, clean or have a chat with a friend.
Sometimes I can’t connect with myself and I might have to just do something that I find normally works and then see what happens. Hence having a list of things to do.
But when I do manage to connect with myself I will listen inward and get a sense of what might be a helpful way forward. Checking in is something I try and do in the mornings in order to create a day that feels balanced. Some days I will have to re-assess my needs and maybe do something different than what I had hoped or planned.
My need in the morning may be to spend time with my plants sometimes during the day – but if I get into a conflict with my partner I may need to do something more physical to channel my agitation. Staying flexible and aware takes some practice and I am still learning.
And to bring it back to the Facebook post I mentioned in the beginning I have a growing belief that self-care does not exclude receiving care from others. Rather the opposite. It is not either/or but both/and.
We care for ourselves by inviting and allowing others to care for us too. And caring for others can sometimes be like caring for ourselves. Giving love and support and feeling needed, are some of our most essential emotional needs as humans. So allowing ourselves to give and receive care is part of self-care in too, I think.
My (not so) secret ingredient to self-care
When I was nearing my thirties this is how far I’d come in my self-care journey. I knew what I was hoping for and I knew I needed to tune in, be aware and stay flexible and creative.
Sometimes I felt I was doing well but a lot of the time I still felt like something was missing. That I wasn’t really good at this self-care thing and that it was too much hard work with not much effect.
One of my main priorities in my self-care regime had been (and still is) regular massages. Getting a massage does a lot of things for me – and it had taken me years to learn to recieve a massage, to feel okay with being touched and to relax into it.
Knowing what it is like to not feel safe with physical touch, I continue to treasure massages as if each one is a little miracle. But finding a good massage therapist is key – it is more about the person than the actual technique they use, I think.
Anyway – back to the secret ingedient.
If possible at least once a month I would go have a therapeutic massage with a woman who I felt very safe with. And one day while I was lying there, I thought about why in the massage, I found it so easy to get to the place I was looking for when self-caring.
A lot of my ideas around self-care had come from receiving different forms of massages and doing bodywork – it seemed like the portal and the foundation.
How I felt when receiving massages was the measure which I would compare other things against. Did I feel as safe, as connected, as peaceful, as blissful, as loved, as gentle?
So what was it that was happening when I received massages, that didn’t seem to be happening when I was looking after mysef in other ways? What am I doing here that is different?
And then I had a lovely, simple epiphany; I was on the receiving end. I was just lying there and all I had to do was be open, relaxed and receptive.
I thought back to the things I would do to look after myself and how I was always in giving mode, in caring mode, responsible mode. Somehow I wasn’t able to be in giving and receiving mode at once. And so my self-caring efforts would often be a bit wasted. They’d be good for me, no doubt, but they didn’t go very deep or have any lasting effect.
I keep getting massages and I keep practicing being open and receptive, so that maybe I can do it in other situations too.
I keep working on my self-trust because I think that it is the key to being more receptive to my own self-care. If I can trust that what I am doing is okay, then I may relax with myself and slowly become more open.
I readily admit that I am still not very good at being on the receiving end of my own self-care.
I have to keep reminding myself.
And be gentle with myself – accepting that more often than not, I just can’t.
Underneath the frustrations with my own inability to trust and receive, there is a sense of sadness.
Feeling the sadness helps me move away from judging and pushing myself.
And I know that looking after myself is going to be a life long journey.