As a full-time clinician and mother to 3 young children, the term “self-care” always sent me a strong message that I was too self-indulgent when I should be solely focused on the needs of my children and my clients. So I stopped listening to advice on this subject and I stopped trying. Each time I set a goal in this area and failed, I became more aware of and focused on the barriers to self-care practice. I found myself quickly becoming someone who does not “do” self-care. Over time, this became a part of my identity as a mother and a therapist and the impact it had on my overall wellbeing was significant.
So here is what I learned through that process.
- Language Matters. The language you use (self-care, wellness, balance or resiliency) can impact the process of giving yourself permission to incorporate self-care into your life. Our values, work ethic, identity and the expectations we put on ourselves to help others also influence how we feel about taking care of ourselves. The term resiliency resonated much more with me and once I embraced this, my relationship with self-care changed for the better. So ask yourself, what comes to mind when you hear “self-care”? If you stop listening when someone mentions the word, then you know that is not the right term for you
- Acknowledge the Barriers. It is essential for us to name and acknowledge the specific barriers to our self-care practice: lack of time, financial constraints, personal and professional responsibilities, etc. Once we increase our awareness of the obstacles, we can address them with intention. For example, if you feel like you do not have the time for self-care, you can explore ways to incorporate practices into the existing routines of your life. Can you play your favorite music while cooking dinner for your family? Can you listen to an audio book during your commute that you haven’t been able to find the time to read at home? Can you take a 5 minute break at your desk to look at a picture of someone in your life that brings you joy or to watch your favorite kitten video on YouTube? Do not let the barriers define you but do let then inform what will work best for you.
- Choose Targeted Strategies. Stress affects us all very differently. There are multiple domains (physical, emotional, social, and spiritual) where people notice the influence it has on their lives. Make sure that your strategies address your specific needs. For example, if you carry your stress in your body and are experiencing tension in your muscles, stretching, chair yoga, or exercise might be exactly what you need. However, if you withdraw from those closest to you in your life when you are experiencing stress, these physical techniques may be less effective. Develop a plan with multiple strategies covering multiples domains of impact so you are best prepared.
- Be Realistic. Set goals that are attainable for you and work within your life/schedule. Focus on the things you are already doing in service of self-care so you can do them with greater intention and you can recognize when you stop doing them. If you drink water throughout your day for example, that is something you are doing to nourish your physical domain. Keep doing it. If during stressful days, you forget to stop and have a drink, take notice of that. It is good information for you.
- Be Proactive. Self-care is not something we only do after a particularly difficult day. You want to incorporate practices into your daily routine to protect yourself and build your resiliency. Then have your next level of strategies on standby and ready to go when you need more. We are surrounded by suffering in our communities and setting boundaries and still showing we care is something many struggle with daily. Strong self-care practices help us better navigate this cost of caring so we have the energy to live our lives in a conscious and meaningful way.
When I chose to have children and work with children professionally, I took an oath to do no harm. In order to fulfill this pledge, it is my responsibility as both a parent and a professional to overcome the resistance I sometimes feel toward taking care of myself properly. I must both be attuned to my own reactions to stress and committed to addressing them so I can be truly present for those in my life.
In the words of Katie Reed, “Self-care is giving the world the best of you, instead of what’s left of you.”
Tara Sagor is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and the Director of Training and Trauma Response for Justice Resource Institute. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Lesley University. She has spent the majority of her professional career working with children and adolescents and specializes in the treatment of complex trauma. She can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.