Sustainable Self Care
Self-care is a dedication to taking an active role in protecting and maintaining our mental and physical wellness. Authentic self-care is not self-centered or indulgent. It is a practice that turns into a lifestyle that benefits not just us, but our families, friends and communities.
Authentic self-care means doing what is needed to increase emotional and physical wellness, to improve our self-esteem, and to build resilience to support us through tough times. Self-care has become something of a buzz phrase over the past decade but it’s also frequently misunderstood.
That’s largely due to the concept of self-care being hijacked by corporations that make huge profits on beauty, comfort and happiness. They are selling self-compassion through products that promote the more indulgent and inconsequential aspects of self-care, the quick fixes that help us feel good for a little while or that improve our appearance temporarily. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with shower bombs, botox or manicures if that’s your thing, but this is the shallow end of the self-care pool and what I’m talking about is deep, authentic self-care that nurtures us through healthy choices that reflect true self-compassion which in turn increases our ability to succeed and be of service to others.
Then there’s the guilt factor. We might feel guilty about self-care because it can go against what we’ve been taught, which is that to be a good friend, parent, spouse, partner, coworker, community member or any other role, we have to put others first.
Self-care means putting ourselves first, and we’re often conditioned to believe this is wrong. It isn’t consistent with those that society admires due to their suffering and self-sacrifice, like Joan of Arc, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, or Harriet Tubman. They didn’t prioritize things like exercise, healthy eating and rest, right? So, self-care can be seen as self-centered, and don’t get me wrong, some people do practice self-care in a self-indulgent fashion, caring only about the self to the exclusion of other people and responsibilities. But we can expand our practice of self-care to extend beyond ourselves and include our family, community, and even the natural world. Self-care can mean modeling living and working in ways that align with how we want the world to be.
Authentic self-care can actually be pretty challenging. It means sometimes saying no when we want to say yes. It means making decisions based on our values, not on peer pressure or for purely monetary purposes. It means making decisions today based on how we want to feel tomorrow. Mindfulness is the most effective foundation for practicing and maintaining self-care because we have to be aware of what we need before we can attend to it. But I frequently hear that people don’t have time to be mindful and they don’t have time to take care of themselves properly.
In fact, we can integrate mindfulness into our daily routines with almost no additional time required. Start as soon as you wake up. As soon as you open your eyes, start noticing your surroundings. Feel your feet on the floor as you get out of bed. Notice how you feel as you rise. Is the sun up or is it still dark outside? Just notice. As you sip your first drink of the day, is it hot, cold, sweet, neutral? What colors are in your first meal of the day?
Before you begin your day in the external world, simply pause for 1 minute, noticing your surroundings, noting how you feel, perhaps feeling gratitude for the day ahead. Don’t worry about losing a minute. Studies show that mindfulness increases productivity, so that one minute will be more than made up for through the rest of your day. Continue paying attention throughout your day. What do you notice on your drive, ride or walk to work? Simply keep your mind focused on the present, observing your experiences.
Maintaining good self-care ensures that we stay compassionate, impassioned, and engaged. It means doing important work in one area without sacrificing other parts of our life. It means maintaining a positive attitude in spite of personal challenges and the larger injustices in the world. I’m not referring to toxic positivity, but to maintain our own well-being, it’s important that we look for the positive when applicable and remember to practice acceptance when something is beyond our control. Self-care activities create daily improvement in our lives and have beneficial long-term effects.
Authentic self-care is for everyone. It’s what we all need and deserve, but it can be hard because it’s not a quick fix. Wellness doesn’t happen overnight. It’s much easier to practice self-care in easy ways that feel good right now than it is to develop the discipline of a healthy lifestyle that often stinks in the moment but feels really great later. And again, authentic self-care is not self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is unrestrained gratification of our desires and whims, behaviors meant only to alter our mood and provide a temporary escape from pain and grief.
True self-care does take discipline. If I’m feeling stressed, I may want to pour a glass of wine, make a bag of buttered popcorn and binge watch a series well into the night. That would make me feel quite content, until the next morning that is. I won’t feel well which means I won’t be doing my best work. It means my clients won’t be getting what they could had I taken better care of myself. It means my family may have to contend with my crankiness. So that makes it self-indulgent, but it’s also self-sabotaging. Self-indulgent self-care isn’t sustainable because we can’t experience consistent well-being much less flourish in life.
If we consider the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sustainable self-care is quite clear. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s basically five tiers that depict universal human needs. Each must be at least somewhat satisfied from the bottom up before we’re able to attend to the next tier.
The first tier, physiological needs, includes air, food, shelter, sleep, clothing and reproduction. Once we have our necessary physiological needs met, it makes it easier to satisfy our safety needs. These include personal security, employment or some other source of income, resources, health and property. Next or perhaps simultaneously, we move into the third tier which is love and belonging. Family, friendship, intimacy and feelings of connection with others. Achieving this level allows us to enjoy the next tier which is esteem. This is where we establish respect, self-esteem, status and recognition, strength and freedom. Finally, we can move into self-actualization, which is the desire to become the most that we can be.
Some people are unable to even meet their physiological needs, the first tier. They therefore may not ever get to the higher tiers because they spend much of their life in struggle and suffering, or may get stuck at tier two, safety needs. Having our physiological and safety needs met is about as basic as life gets because we’re just surviving. So it’s imperative that we achieve these first two tiers through self-care, which may mean making tough decisions about our priorities, including mental and physical health.
While this description is somewhat simplistic in that it sounds like we just have to climb 5 stairs to be fulfilled, life makes it quite messy. We are enjoying the first four tiers for example, with decent health, a good job, a nice home, and then we go through a divorce. If we don’t practice authentic self-care during this situation, we may find ourselves back at tier one or two. Perhaps we are all the way up into self-actualization and feeling like we’re really contributing to the world and then a serious illness occurs. Again, down we may tumble.
To practice sustainable self-care, we must stay aware of how we are and what we need. Life is full of struggles. Our basic self-care needs to focus on ensuring that we have our physiological and safety needs met and maintained. If we allow ourselves to go without the sleep and nutrition our bodies need, we’re setting ourselves up for failure in the long run. If we don’t work on our relationships and stay connected to others, we can’t maintain our mental well-being. If our self-esteem has taken a hit, restoring it becomes a high priority to ensure that we continue to experience the best life we can achieve.
Mindfulness increases our self-awareness so is an essential element to self-care. Beyond that, to ensure sustainable self-care, we have to determine what works for each of us individually. For me, it’s a gentle, self-forgiving process. Despite my best efforts, I know that I am unable to exercise every day for 30 minutes, for example. My work, which is important to me, simply doesn’t accommodate that. If I declare that self-care means that I have to exercise for 30 minutes every day, all I will do is set myself up for failure which will harm myself-esteem, tier 4, and that doesn’t serve me. So my self-care means getting as much exercise as I can, when I can.
Remember that mindfulness includes nonjudgment, and that supports my self-care regimen. If I skip two days in a row of exercise, I forgive myself and focus on getting in a good workout on the 3rd day. Does this match health experts’ recommendations? Nope. But sometimes it’s the best I can do and I can’t expect anything more than that from myself if that’s the case. I do set boundaries, however. I don’t go longer than two days without exercise because it would be too easy to slip into skipping it all of the time.
It’s the same with food. I’d love to say that I only eat the most nutritious meals possible every day. But that’s not true for two reasons. One is again my work schedule and the other is pure desire. I love ice cream, chips and French fries. Self-care doesn’t mean self-deprivation which I think can be very problematic on several fronts concerning our mental and emotional well-being, so I set boundaries so that I can enjoy these nutrition-less pleasures. Ice cream is limited to once every couple of weeks and I only buy one pint at a time and eat no more than about a cup per serving. I buy the little bags of chips that are designed for kids’ lunch-bags to ensure that I don’t mindlessly eat a family-sized bag of Doritos in one sitting. French fries are for lunch only so that I have time to burn off some of the calories before bedtime and usually reserved for a meal out. If it’s a fast-food lunch, then I make sure I eat a healthy breakfast and dinner to help compensate.
Are these actions self-indulgent? Yes, but they aren’t hurting anyone else and since I have set up these boundaries, I’m not ruining my self-care overall. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying some of the abundant pleasures in life and again, it’s the same for things like pampering, shopping, screen-time or beauty care. Small doses may be the key, but we’re all different, so only you can decide the best self-care regimen for you. Keep Maslow’s hierarchy in mind, but the most important factor is sustainability. If self-care is too rigid or complicated or difficult to achieve, let’s face it, it goes in the trash. So consider your self-care plan from a gentle perspective, with flexibility and boundaries included.
Sustainable self-care is like mindfulness, we can do it through small actions throughout our days. Integrate it into activities you already do every day so that instead of being a disruption, it’s simply living in a way that enhances your life. When the thought pops into your head that you want to have a second or third beer, ask yourself if that will enhance your life or would water, perhaps, be a better choice. When you drive by the local fast-food joint and you think how good a double-patty hamburger with bacon sounds, consider what else you’re consuming that day and whether you can eat enough healthy food to balance that out. Or, think about how you felt after eating one last time. Is that how you want to feel today? It’s just about little choices throughout our daily routines. And we always have a choice.
One of the biggest overlooked elements of self-care is balance these days. I think most people struggle with maintaining balance between home, work and personal time and it wears us down physically and emotionally. Two actions to establish in your self-care plan could be saying no instead of yes when you have the choice. This may be a major shift, but just consider it. The next time someone asks you to do something, if you’re already overwhelmed, is this an opportunity to gently decline?
The other is to differentiate between your life domains. At the end of a stressful day at work, do you bring it home with you, either literally or mentally? If you have a choice about literally bringing it home, try not doing it for a couple of days and see how you feel. If it’s mentally carrying it with you, create a ritual that lets your brain know work is over for the day. Perhaps use your drive home to practice mindfulness or deep breathing to let the workday go as you transition to your home life. Or create a habit of taking a mindful walk around the block as soon as you get home. Or do a brief meditation. Or take a bubble bath. Whatever works for you, but something that says, my workday is over and now I’m focused on this.
Finally, we can shift our perspective of time in reflecting on our progress. I don’t know anyone who has a perfectly balanced life or who meets all of their self-care intentions daily. We can consider a longer stretch of time instead. Check in and ask yourself, this week, did I devote enough time to my work, family and self to feel good? Or, this month, did I feel nourished and energized overall?
I encourage you to spend a little mindful time creating a self-care plan and then do your best to follow it. Focus on flexibility and incremental actions. Sustainable self-care, which supports you in your own well-being and allows you to be of more service to others, means taking good care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually on a regular basis. And for those days where nothing goes according to plan, at least ask yourself, what do I need right now, and do that.
This podcast is part of the Airwave Media podcast network. We’d deeply appreciate your support at patreon.com/amindfulmoment. Our podcast is now available to view on our YouTube Channel, so be sure to follow us there and on Instagram @amindfulmomentpodcast.
A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.