Several years ago, I would go to work between 9-10 AM and then take a break (and usually nap or quickly eat food) and then work until 8 PM. I did this so that I could work four ten hour days, and have Fridays off. At first, this felt like freedom. I woke up on Fridays and had a bonus day and was so excited to do whatever I wanted during that time! But quickly, I became tired and stressed from the more intense work week and my Fridays became a recovery day. I would lay in bed, watch Netflix, and try not to think and to recharge so that I would have energy for my weekend. My life had become the opposite of what I needed. What I thought was self-care (watching Netflix, having a treat and taking a long nap) was really just a sign that the life I had built was making me stressed, exhausted and depressed.
One day, I realized that the way I was living my life was no longer sustainable. This realization came through therapy-which I had begun due to my life circumstances pushing my stress to the tipping point. I began to shift things. I shifted my work schedule to a typical 8-5 day, which was hard for me since I hate the morning. But, I quickly realized that it was worth it to be able to enjoy a social life and making dinner and exercise after work. By the time the weekend came, I didn’t need my weekend to numb out the stress of my work week. I was finally taking care of myself again.
My self-care had become setting boundaries, pushing myself to do the hard things I had been avoiding and acknowledging the truth that it was not okay to spend my days numbing out.
Pretty quickly, my motto shifted and became “I can do hard things.”
And now, I remind myself that self-care is “hard, but good.”
When we choose to make changes instead of just slipping a massage onto our schedule, we will create a life that fills us up. It will fill us up as we say yes to spending time with friends that make us laugh and dig deep. It will fill us up as we let go of a relationship where we felt put down. It will fill us up as we skip the shortcut meal and create something that will really nourish us.
True self-care isn’t about short-term feeling good. It isn’t about a superficial fix. True self-care is cultivating a life you want to be living. I once read a quote from Brianna Weist where she said that self-care “is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.” I love this. But I also worry that this idea can be interpreted as “make your life feel like a vacation.” But that isn’t what life is. Life isn’t a vacation, a vacation is a vacation. A vacation is an intentional time to experience joy in a way that is different than the way you usually live. Building a life you don’t need to regularly escape from is working hard to be present in your life and working hard to fix the things that make you not want to be present.
True self-care is about intention. It is living an intentionally healthier life. Getting a massage is a wonderful use of time and energy if it recharges you and helps you be a better you. But getting a massage as a way of working out the knots in your back from pent up stress is missing the mark. We must work to let go of the stress and prevent those knots in the first place.
Is more often about saying no to the beautiful new coat and saying yes to sticking to your monthly budget.
Is standing up for yourself and asking for that raise you deserve rather than avoiding the difficult conversation with your boss.
Is getting sweaty and pushing your body to grow more than it is about opening a candy bar because “I deserve it.”
These good but hard things are all hard. Obviously. They are harder than zoning out and procrastinating. They are harder than having a snack and then taking a nap. But they are so good for us.
To start to shift towards true self-care, you must first be brave and honest about your life. Start by asking these questions:
- Are you present in your day to day activities?
- Are you attentive to your social, spiritual, physical and mental health?
- Does your job or home life make you feel depressed or anxious?
- Are you regularly numbing out as a way to protect yourself from the reality of your life?
- Do you feel happy and satisfied? Not all the time-but generally?
- Have you found a support system that buoys you up?
- Are your routines consistent and helpful?
- Do you feel your daily life has value to yourself and others?
Once you’ve been brave and honest about where you are at then you can begin to rebuild. I doubt any of us are perfect at self-care, because none of us are free from stress. We may zone out when things get hard or we may avoid tense situations-but pushing ourselves will create resilience. That resilience will help us become a better, more present version of ourselves. You’ll know you’re doing it right when you say, “I wish I had done this sooner.”
By Jessica Miller, LCSW (@thoughts.podcast)