What the F*** is Self-Care?

I had a wonderful counselor here in Portland who I met with several years back. He was so kind and encouraging. I was in a very dark spot in life and he brought some light out of me and shone some onto me. It was what I needed then and I am so grateful.

He would always close out our sessions with comments like, Hey, take good care of yourself. Be kind to that inner boy who may need some love. Be gentle with yourself.

I’d nod and say thanks, but I never really knew exactly what to do with those admonishments. I had no idea what it meant to really take care of myself beyond meeting my basic needs.

You mean reward myself with a drink after a long day?

Or take a salt bath in silence?

Or binge watch a new NETFLIX show?

Am I supposed to book myself a retreat?

Or buy something I don’t need—but really want—from Amazon?

[sigh]

I feel a bit ridiculous to even type those questions out, but I really had no sense of what it meant to practice self-care! I imagined reward as the only means to integrating this concept into my life. A reward sounded nice. And more often than not, that meant using meaningless coping strategies to meet my needs. Well, perhaps not entirely meaningless, but certainly not meaningful in helping me move toward a life of happiness. How I took care of myself looked a lot like indulging my vices. Surely there was a better way.

What even is this term self-care? Dr. Agnes Wainman, clinical psychologist says it’s something that refuels us, rather than takes from us. It’s doing something intentional to take care of our physical, mental or spiritual health. Sounds simple enough, right?

For me, I just didn’t even have a way to truly value self-care in my life. I am very accomplishment-driven and I like movement, so taking care of myself felt like a sort of slowing down that I was uncomfortable with. It sounded like a way to waste time that could otherwise be productive. And not just that, self-care also felt like some sort of privilege that I didn’t deserve. Do the work and find happiness along the way, I would tell myself. But I was miserable. I was not finding happiness along the way. And using my coping mechanisms like drinking and checking out were not serving me well. Miserable mornings and lost memories. Something had to change. And you know what? The only way that I would really feel like I did deserve it was to make it a priority in my life. I needed to demand it from myself for myself. And that has taken a long time to be fully realized.

At that time when I was seeing my counselor, the rhythms in my life were not working. I was continuing on a perpetual loop and I was not going anywhere new. I could not integrate this idea of self-care because it was a concept that had no place in the stories I was telling to myself. It simply fell flat. So I had to find a reason to make it valuable to me and to my end goals. To be a part of a better story. I had to take a 30,000 foot view to see it was worth.

We are the stories we tell ourselves. — Shekhar Kapur

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Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Body

We are thinking machines. And our mind is a flurry of activity. That’s great…until it isn’t. We get so caught up in our own thoughts about ourselves, our situations and our relationships that we confuse our subjective ideas with the objective reality. It’s natural. We are subjective creatures. But it doesn’t always serve us well.

You are not your thoughts. There is more to your whole self than simply your thoughts. Your behavior may relay your truth more than you’d imagine. And sometimes, the best way to change your mind is to change your behavior.

When we get locked up in our anxious thoughts, a physical reset can help us re-structure and re-prioritize things.

To change any behavior we have to slow down and act intentionally rather than from habit and impulse. — Henna Inam

And so that’s my first suggestion for self-care: Slow down.

I love walking and hiking. When walking with a friend, I often notice that I’m walking ahead of him. I have to remind myself that I am walking to relax or to get some fresh air or to catch up, not to win a race. It’s just in my nature to move quickly, so I have to practice moving slower. This is not instinctual for me, but it makes the conversation more natural and it gives me a chance to breathe. We all benefit from this.

Slowing down allows for more than just conversation and breath. It opens up a small amount of space for new thoughts and ideas to emerge. Fresher, less frantic ideas. It may even empower your inner introvert to speak up softly and still be heard. It gives you the slightest moment to choose your response.

So slow down. Or at least find times in your day when you can slow down. Your mind and body will thank you.

Another way I give my thoughts a rest is through physical activity. I have had an on-off relationship with running and working out, so in order to incorporate exercise into my life, I needed to make a new association. That’s how I’ve introduced a lot of my self-care actually. Let me explain.

Several months back, I made a decision that I’d like to go to the gym, but I felt like I would probably fight the commitment, so I tricked myself. I made a new association. I was trying out day-trading at the time and it was going alright. So I said to myself that for each day that I made my goal for profits, I would reward myself with a quick trip to the gym. Quick is the key descriptor. No two-hour workout. Just a quick treat. And you know what? It worked. I began to associate going to the gym as a reward. I’d feel excited that I had hit my financial target and so I was off to celebrate at the gym! Making new associations helps when integrating that which seems daunting or dull.

With regards to an exercise regimen, I chose to follow Jordan Peterson’s maxim of Aim low! That is, make it relatively easy to accomplish the goal. At first, I told myself that 15 minutes was all I needed. And as that began to feel good and natural, I bumped that up to 30-45 minutes. But by starting small, I could feel accomplishment quickly. And that reinforces that new association. Positive momentum.

So you wanna run? Great! Go for a one-mile run! Listen to a song or two, get that heart rate up and be proud of yourself. Perhaps next week you’ll run two miles a day. Or maybe just keep it at one mile. Your decision! But whatever you do, aim low at the beginning. Start small, lest you get overwhelmed and procrastinate.

Right now, imagine yourself on that one-mile run. Or taking that 20-minute walk. Or hitting the gym for 15 minutes. Imagine it. How do you feel? Can you sense your heart rate increasing? Can you feel the sweat? And now imagine that you are done. How does that feel? Are you proud of yourself? Perhaps you feel less stressed-out. Perhaps a smile comes to your face as you wipe your sweaty head off with a towel.

Imagine it. Plan for it. And do it.

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Demand it For Yourself, But Not From Others

Because it can be hard to take care of ourselves, it’s easy to take it out on others. But no one wins in that sort of situation. The truth is that we must take radical responsibility for our own lives, our own situations and our own slumps. This is not a time to berate or alienate yourself; this is an opportunity to make your life what you want it to be. Self-care is part of balanced, happy life. So if we choose to have happiness, we must take full responsibility to ensure its place in our lives. Reach out to others, sure! We need other people to help us along. Some of you even helped me along with this article, so thank you. But don’t wait for that friend to reach out or for the perfect circumstance to arise. Take responsibility now.

You are the cultivator of your life; you must chose to not see yourself as a victim. When we give power away to others by blaming them, we lose the ability to regulate our emotions and perspective. On the other hand, when we take full responsibility and cultivate the life we want, we feel more at peace and in control. When we feel like the victims of our environment, we give up the right to be happy right here and right now. And what else is there but right here and right now?

It’s remarkably difficult to pull yourself out of a rut, even though we have all learned our own ways of doing this. And those rutty places are often when I sense the deep need for self-care. But by then it almost seems too late. I hardly want to do anything proactive at that moment.

[sigh]

Listen, you may be thinking, Self-care requires planning and I don’t have the money for a yoga retreat or the time for some self-help workshop! Right?!? We all have such busy lives. It can feel impossible to adjust our schedules, find time or allocate funds.

Or perhaps it just doesn’t seem like a worthy cause. I certainly felt that way. It appeared selfish at first. Why prioritize something that sounds so Bourgie when there is work to be done? How in the world can I carve out meaningful time when there are crazy kids at home and annoying co-workers at work? Where can I possibly find me-time?

Deep breath. It doesn’t have to be so overwhelmingly big. Remember, Aim low! Small steps.

For some of you, you may find a new self-care routine unnecessary for your life. That’s fair. It could be that you have found balance in your life. Perhaps you are already taking good care of yourself. That’s awesome.

But for me, balance can quickly shift to imbalance. More is requested of me, circumstances change or I am exhausted. Then the spiral. When I get into one of those slumps, I try my best to do something nice for myself (kindness) while also checking in to see how I got here (truth). Usually it’s because I didn’t feed myself properly or I slept poorly or I drank too much coffee too fast or I didn’t plan the day realistically or I spent money at the beginning of the month and now I’m strapped. Okay, noted. Tomorrow I will start again and remember what I learned.

Self-care is much better when it is preventative rather than when it is a treatment. But in life, we’ll need it for both. And that’s okay. If we can integrate it into our daily or weekly routines, we may find that when everything does eventually go to shit, we’ll find ourselves a little more balanced, resilient and resourced.

Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will—his personal responsibility. — Albert Einstein 

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Own Your Morning

I first began writing this piece as a simple how-to, but I deleted a bunch of it and chose a different direction. (There’s plenty of information on the interwebs about simple self-care practices.) After receiving a fair amount of feedback from you and others, it seems that most of us know what to do to take care of ourselves, but we may feel stuck trying to introduce these practices into our lives in a meaningful, consistent way. Hence my more philosophical approach to this post. But I thought I’d finish by offering a routine that helps me set my day up well. It’s a daily act of proactive self-care.

Since I am an entrepreneur and have never had to really answer to the bossman, I have to keep myself on pace or I’ll blow the day. I used to wake up naturally between 8-9am and take my time getting going, but I felt like my days were slipping away from me and I wasn’t able to keep up. I was constantly feeling behind on tasks. And when I fall behind on tasks, I find it hard to imagine the future. So I needed to take responsibility for that and make some changes. And that included setting an alarm, something which I have historically despised for obvious reasons.

If you too hate the traditional alarm, I suggest the iPhone’s Bedtime feature (in Clock) which allows you to dial in desired amount of sleep as well as wake time. The sound is way softer and much more pleasant to wake up to. For me, I set it for 6am and for 7.5 hours of sleep. 15 minutes before I should be heading to bed, I get a gentle reminder to start winding down. It keeps things easy. Sleep, oh sleep, you are one of my best caretakers.

When I wake up, I start brewing my coffee, but I don’t drink it right away. I make sure that I re-hydrate with a full glass of water with lemon or a sea-salt mixture so that the water has some vitamins and electrolytes. Then I get myself in front of some light as quickly as possible. You can find blue lights on Amazon if you are in a sunlight-deprived part of the world. This is the one that I use for this time of year, but in the summer, I love to just step outside and soak in some direct sun for five minutes. It starts the cycle of Daytime in my body.

Then I’ll do a short 100 jump ropes. Just something to activate my heart. If it’s a gym morning for me, I skip the jump ropes.

Now I’m moving! And the day is mine. I’m alert and active. And all before I have had my coffee!

By intentionally taking charge of the first hour of my day (and not hitting snooze several times), I am starting a pattern of action and choice. That is me taking the personal responsibility for my own self-care. That is me taking the full responsibility for how I set up my day. And as Annie Dillard says, How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

By the way, that entire morning routine was adapted from Aubrey Marcus’ Own The Day, Own Your Life, a wonderful book full of tips, tricks and fun facts about putting life back on your terms. If you are motivated by the title, definitely check it out. But not to simply add one more book to the pile…do it as a way to take care of yourself.

In the end, it’s not just about self-care. It’s about living the life you love. Putting your days back on your terms. Taking responsibility for your own well-being. It’s no one else’s responsibility. Which means no one is stopping you or holding you back. So let’s get on with this thing called Life.