Self-Care: What it really is, and how to do it well

CPJ Field Self Care

In this blog we hear from our colleague, Emma Symons discuss what self-care is and how we can build it into our daily lives.

What is Self-care?

The term ‘self-care’ gets thrown around a lot, and very often in a kind of ‘woo-woo’ hippy way which puts many people off – so let’s take a look at what self-care really is, and how to do it in a way that really helps.

A quick definition

Firstly, we need to know exactly what self-care really is. In a nutshell it is a collection of habits that support and strengthen your mental health and wellbeing. In other words, self-care is your personal programme for taking care of yourself, especially your mental and emotional health.

Self-care is about consistent habits, not quick fixes

Most people talk about self-care as if it’s a thing you do every once in a while, like taking a day off to veg-out in front of the TV, or remembering to book a massage every now and then.

Don’t get me wrong, a massage or Netflix binge can be very relaxing, but self-care isn’t something you do every once in a while, it needs to be a daily part of your life.

Suppose you asked someone, “Do you exercise?” And they said, “Yeah, I go for a run a couple times a month.” Well, that’s fine, but it’s not really what we mean by “do you exercise?” Someone who is committed to exercising does it consistently, not occasionally. You should think of self-care in the same way. It’s not something you occasionally remember to do whenever you get stressed out. It’s what you do consistently to prevent getting stressed out in the first place!

Self-care isn’t mysterious or complicated

Self-care has gathered the unfortunate association of being a little mystical or ‘out there’, but in fact self-care is remarkably ordinary.

Most people understand that there are certain things we should do consistently to stay physically healthy like exercising, eating healthily, brushing our teeth, etc. Nothing woo-woo there!

Similarly, self-care is something we should do consistently to support our mental and emotional health, like making time for genuine relaxation, getting quality sleep, spending time with friends and family etc.

Self-care isn’t narcissistic or selfish

A common response to the idea of self-care is that it’s somehow self-centered or egotistical. The quickest answer to this idea is the pre-flight speech we all get before the plane takes off: “Remember to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs.”

While a little counter-intuitive, we all see the logic here: you’re not going to be able to help others very well if you haven’t helped yourself first.

The same is true of our mental health. If you’re not taking care of yourself, it severely limits your capacity to be helpful to other people in your life:

Self-care is the opposite of selfish. The best way to be genuinely helpful to other people is to do your best to maintain your own mental health and wellbeing.

Self-care is for everyone

Another misconception is the idea that self-care is just for people with too much time on their hands. This is the ‘self-care-as-spa-day’ idea, and it’s completely wrong.

Self-care is something everyone can and should do in whatever way makes sense for them. You don’t need lots of money or even time to do self-care well. In fact, many of the stereotypical self-care activities people think of – treating yourself to a massage, taking a few days off work, buying yourself something nice because, well, just because – only really help in the short term.

Of course a massage once a month feels nice, but what would be a lot more helpful for your stress levels is using your lunch break each day to actually disconnect and take a break from work instead of just working while you eat.

The point is, often the most effective forms of self-care are simple, inexpensive, and relatively brief. They’re things anyone can do.

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How to do self-care well

Now that we have a better idea of what self-care is let’s look at how to actually include self-care in our daily lives. Important: there’s no set formula for self-care. We are all unique and have different lives and circumstances so it needs to be customised to your own needs. So you won’t find any specific practices for self-care here, instead here are a few principles that can be applied by almost everybody when it comes to creating and building a healthy self-care regime.

Take care of your physical health

Mental health is not independent of physical health. In fact your brain depends on your body being healthy, and for it to function well you need to take care of your body – this means getting regular exercise, quality sleep, and eating well. These are the foundations, and if they’re not solid, good luck building anything on top!

Take care of your social health

People are social creatures, and during lockdown I think we have all seen how isolation has affected people. Even the most extreme introvert needs some social interaction to maintain their emotional health and wellbeing.

The trick is to find the right kind of social interaction. An outgoing extrovert might thrive on meeting new people, and spending time with groups of friends, whereas a more reserved introvert might prefer a quiet coffee with their best friend.

The point is, everybody needs some social interaction for their mental health and wellbeing. A big part of self-care involves figuring out the right kind of social interaction given your preferences, and making a specific plan to get that interaction consistently.

So, a good self-care routine would involve regular, consistent meet-ups with the people in your life that you enjoy the most. In the current climate of restrictions this could equally be via Zoom or Facetime rather than in person.

Don’t just intend to call your best friend more often, set up a calendar appointment that you each agree on and do it consistently!

Make time for ‘pleasure-mastery’ activities

The idea of pleasure-mastery activities originated in an approach to the treatment of depression called behavioural activation. The basic idea was that by encouraging people to engage in activities that were either highly pleasurable, or led to a strong sense of mastery and competence, those activities would improve their mood and motivation.

When we make time to do projects or activities that we genuinely enjoy and do them for their own sake, we’re tapping into the same spirit of play that children use so effortlessly. Unfortunately, as adults, we often lose the habit of playfulness, and along with it, more than a little of our zest and enthusiasm for life.

Similarly, as adults, we’ve often reached a level of proficiency in our work that, while comfortable, isn’t really exciting anymore. When you stop learning and being challenged on a regular basis, it can lead to a sense of ‘flatness’ or ‘staleness’ in your life. The antidote is to deliberately make time for activities that genuinely challenge you and give you a sense of accomplishment and mastery. What’s more, these types of activities also lead to a sense of pride and boost our self-esteem.

So ask yourself:

  • What are some activities I really enjoy for their own sake – just because they’re fun or pleasurable?
  • What are some activities that lead to a genuine sense of accomplishment and mastery?

Pick one or two and make them a regular addition to your routine so that they don’t just become forgotten items on the someday-maybe list.

Make sure you have enough ‘white space’ in your life

White space is a term that refers to space in a design that isn’t occupied by anything else. And far from just empty, unused space, white space is actually a key element of a visually pleasing design. This principle of white space also applies to mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Many of us unintentionally cram our lives full of events and activities and obligations and to-dos, leaving almost no breathing room. Every inch of “space” is occupied and taken up, and like a big wall of text with no spacing, it makes just getting through the day stressful.

One of the best forms of self-care is to intentionally add some whitespace into your life. This means deliberately leaving some room for free-time in your days or weeks.

Of course, it’s not always easy to add white space to your life, mostly because it means giving up on something else. For example, if you want more time in the morning instead of being rushed every day before work, you might have to get up an hour earlier, which means you’d have to go to bed an hour earlier, which means you’d have to give up an hour of Netflix in the evenings. It turns out, even giving up an hour of Netflix can be tough!

If you’re the kind of person who’s always busy, few things will make as big an improvement to your mental and emotional health as allowing more white space in your life.

Practise being gentle with yourself

Most of us are quite compassionate with our friends, family, and loved ones, but struggle to be compassionate with ourselves.

Most of us default to being hard on ourselves when we feel upset: we criticise ourselves for being weak, reprimand ourselves for self-pity, or try to scare ourselves with fears of what will happen if we don’t ‘get it together’.

The problem is, this combative relationship with our own emotions only makes our emotional struggles worse. In addition to feeling sad, now you’re feeling guilty for feeling sad. Instead of just feeling anxious, now you’re angry at yourself for feeling anxious!

The solution is to try to start a habit of being more gentle with yourself. This doesn’t mean self-indulgence; it simply means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend who was struggling.

A big part of self-care is simply how we respond to our own struggles. Rather than attacking yourself when you’re already down, why not learn to give yourself a little encouragement instead?

All you need to know

Self-care is neither mysterious or complex, it simply means creating healthy habits that support and strengthen your mental health and wellbeing. It’s not something you do once in a while or try to pack into your schedule when things get stressful. It means acknowledging that your mental health is as important as your physical health. To really be your best – both for yourself and the people in your life – you need to take care of yourself.