Self-care. We all talk about it. We all try and do some form of it. We all say how important it is. And it’s one of the first things to go when we are stressed and overwhelmed. Every-other-thing care will often take precedence over taking care of ourselves. I will often find myself saying, “If I can get this done (and this, and that) then I can . . .” rest, read a book, watch a show, whatever. There have been many days when it seems I never get to that last part, as if it was a reward I still have yet to earn. That type of thinking is part of the problem, self-care isn’t a reward. It isn’t something we earn after checking all the boxes. It’s a necessity, like food or sleeping. It’s not about deserving or earning or recognition. The first hurdle in engaging in healthy self-care is to shift the way we think to recognize we need to take care of ourselves not earn the right to do it.
The next question, inevitably, is – What is self-care? To which I say, that depends. As a mental health provider, I say this a lot, much to my clients’ irritation. However, it’s the best answer I have. What is self-care for one person is highly unpleasant for another and vice versa. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is to figure out what works for me. I have some friends who love taking baths. I am not one of those people. You would think as I am writing this for a bath bomb company, I would say baths are the best things ever, but alas no. I do, however, love things that smell good and things that feel good on my skin. I keep essential oils, candles and incense in my office and home; I own a ridiculous collection of soft and comforting wraps/shawls; varieties of body lotion, soaps, bath gels; several sets of soft sheets; a collection of blankets and pillows; and a furry, slightly neurotic dog. I recently ordered soaps and shower steamers from Mermaid Soaps, and while I was probably supposed to keep the unused portion in the boxes to preserve their yummy smells, they currently live in a basket in my closet. It makes me happy to walk into my closet or my bathroom and smell my new products. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that when I’m busy I can stop for 30 seconds, just breathe and enjoy.
The other thing I’ve learned was to be adaptable. As life changes, what constitutes self-care has changed as well. For example, reading has been one of my favorite pastimes and a distraction for me. Given the increase in video sessions I find that at the end of the day my eyes are extremely tired and I am unable to read. So, I’ve started listening to a lot more audio books. This has allowed me the benefit of escaping into a story without the strain. Circumstances also change. I used to live by the beach and loved going down and sitting by the water and just breathing in the salt air. Now I live in the mountains so the dog and I will go for a walk in the woods and smell the trees and the river, hear all the birds and try and keep the dog from chasing any other animals. Being adaptable also means that self-care is not all about baths and pedicures, but instead about doing what is best or healthiest at a given time. Somedays it’s a great idea to take a nap, other days it’s a better idea to clean the house. Somedays are absolutely ice cream days, while other days are about having a fresh peach for dessert. The discernment between these things can be hard but usually worth it.
Lastly, I also associate self-care with trying new things and taking risks. When I do that, I grow a little, learn something, and usually become more open to life. For me the hardest part of this is the fear of failure. The inner dialog is filled with negative “What ifs” and “I can’ts,” both of which make me want to stick to what I know. However, the feeling of accomplishing something you didn’t know you could do is amazing. You stand a little taller, smile a little wider, trust yourself just a little bit more. That feeling becomes fuel for the next new venture. On the opposite side, when we do fail, it is an opportunity to practice self-compassion, which, to me, is the greatest form of self-care. Reminding ourselves that we tried and that failing at something is just one choice in millions we will make in our lives and that does not define who we are. Practicing self-compassion allows us to not be perfect and when we’re not, which is every single day, we need to then take care of ourselves, slow down, breathe, have a cup of tea, read a trashy book, call a friend, take a nap, take a bath, go for a walk, meditate, exercise or a thousand other things. Do what works for you! I’m off for tea and pedicures with a friend before I finish my weekend chores.
Tara Moloney is an LCSW who loves spending time with friends & family, travel and sharing a practice with her amazing pup Izzy.