If you look at the #selfcare hashtag social media, you’ll see people sharing images of all sorts of self-care strategies: doing yoga, getting a manicure, eating healthy food, taking a bath, reading, drinking a warm mug of chai… the list goes on and on. (The #selfcare hashtag has been used more than three million times.)
The basics of self-care—eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep—are pretty easy to grasp, but there aren’t any official guidelines about the best ways to de-stress or how much relaxation time a person needs. For now, we have to figure that stuff out for ourselves. It’s worth figuring out, because even the most resilient people sometimes need a break.
When I’m stressed out, whether it’s for schedule reasons, financial reasons, romantic reasons, or something else, what I need most is to relax and recover. So why is it so hard for me to unplug? Instead of focusing on self-care strategies, I keep working, while my inner voice reminds me that I “should” be lowering my stress level. I put the word “should” in quotes, because an acquaintance once told me, “People who say ‘I should’ are should-ing all over themselves.” Hearing it out loud made it clear what she meant. I was treating myself like crap and feeling guilty about things I didn’t have the time, energy, or motivation to do.
Real self-care strategies involve making yourself and your goals a priority. I’m calling these “self-care strategies” instead of “self-care tips,” because tips sound too casual and optional. Self-care requires real effort. As a freelancer, I’m fully aware how hard it can be to make self-care a priority. It’s something I struggle with on a daily basis, and I’m determined to get better at it. Here are some of the items on my self-care to-do list:
1. Schedule some unscheduled self-care time.
That may sound like an oxymoron at first, but if you are as busy as I am, you know exactly what I mean. Set aside a few hours (or even a whole day) when you won’t schedule anything. I try not to make plans on Saturday mornings, because I love having at least one morning a week when I can take my dog for a walk that lasts as long as we want. We usually swing by the local coffee place, and then sit in the park for a while. It’s great to be outdoors, especially when there’s no pressure on me to be anywhere else. I know a small park in a residential neighborhood isn’t as good as hiking in the mountains, but after a busy week, I’ll take what I can get.
2. Self-care isn’t just about you. Make time for the people and things that matter.
A close friend recently celebrated his birthday by renting a house so that a group of us could spend a long weekend together. I was excited about the trip, but as it got closer, I realized I was also dreading it. Concerned I couldn’t finish all of my work before the trip, I was tempted to cancel. I ended up bringing my laptop with me, but it turned out that I had to work for about an hour. I spent the rest of the weekend reconnecting with some of my favorite people in the world. As I write this, I’m tearing up over how much I would’ve missed out on if I had skipped the trip.
3. Be careful what you let into your brain.
I’m not talking about drugs or alcohol (but yeah, it’s a good idea to be careful with those, too). I’m referring to how the people and things we focus on affect our emotions and our outlook. I used to have a friend who regularly mentioned her salary in conversations with me. She made a lot more money than I was making, and she knew it. I always felt like a failure after we hung out. She wasn’t a bad person, but she was damaging to my self-esteem. We eventually drifted apart, and now I’m much more aware of how I feel after how I spend time with different people. My good friends leave me feeling both loved and inspired, and that’s part of why I like them so much.
Pay attention to how different things make you feel, and try to lessen the amount of negative input in your life.
The same goes for social media—and media in general. If someone you follow on Instagram makes you feel like you’re not good enough, unfollow them. That one click will probably do more for your self-care than anything that’s ever been hashtagged #self-care. If you start watching a movie or reading a book, and you realize it’s affecting your mood in a bad way, give yourself permission to end it right there. There have been nights when I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so worried about a particular TV character’s fate. I now consider such worries a sign that I need a break (maybe a permanent one) from that show.
4. Get self-care help from the pros.
Taking care of yourself isn’t just about what foods you eat and what badges you’ve earned on your fitness tracker. If you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, start looking for a psychologist—and if you don’t like the first one you visit, seek out a better one. If your back and shoulders are tense and your foam roller isn’t cutting it, schedule a massage. Candle lit bathtubs look pretty on social media, but respect yourself enough to understand when you need more help.
5. Be honest with yourself about your limits.
If it’s the end of the day, and I’m starting to get hungry, but I know I have several more hours of work to do, I give myself permission to get food delivered. As an environmentalist, I usually try not to eat take-out food, because of all the packaging waste, but sometimes I really don’t have the time to cook. On those nights, I take advantage of the fact that I live in a city with great delivery options. I choose something healthy, and think of it as the fuel I need to finish the project. If you can sense that you’re nearing the end of your rope, change something before you hit the wall. If a simple step (like ordering food) helps you stay physically and mentally healthy, consider it one of your self-care strategies.
6. Listen to your heart.
To put the most “self” in your self-care strategies, ask yourself what you can do to make yourself feel better. Everybody is different, and we all have different ways to feed our soul. For example, whenever I make progress on a personal writing project—like a short story—I notice that I’m happier. Being creative makes me feel playful, and that lowers my stress level. I’ve also found that having something to look forward to, like an upcoming vacation, helps me stay focused and positive. Maybe you have a favorite meditation app or deep breathing technique, or you find joy in making music or art. What would it take for you to make your personal self-care strategies a priority in your life? What could you say “no” to, so that you can say “yes” to the things that matter more to you? Give it a try.
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