Almost all of us have that super caring yet extremely annoying friend who insists on rescuing you when you’re down without being asked. Or who forces her self-care solutions down your throat without awareness of what you want or need in your situation.

Like telling you what you should say to your manager without knowing the dynamics of your relationship. Or taking time off work to give you company when you’re sick even though all you want is to be left alone.

When people don’t know what we want, their caring can do more harm than good.

Well guess what? How we practice self-care isn’t very different. Most of us go through routines prescribed by the self-care industry without checking if it’s what we really need. Weekly massages and scented candles are lovely, but not always very helpful.

It’s no wonder that despite a global self-care industry worth almost $1.5 trillion and increasing, the rates of stress, burnout and depression continue to rise. We’re wasting time, effort and money on practices that provide a temporary high but leave us right where we are.

True self-care, writes creative laureate Mosley Wotta, is “methodically practicing the beautiful maintenance of showing up and attending to our neglected pains wherever they may be.”

Here’s how you can do it and achieve a real practice of self-care:

1. Tune In to Yourself

It begins with noticing when you’re feeling out of sorts and turning to yourself to understand what you need. Emotions usually arise in clusters, and it takes compassionate attunement to get to the core of what’s upsetting you.

In homes with quick-fix solutions (eat to feel better), we grow up emotionally detached, missing a connection with our feelings. And in homes where caregivers can’t help us manage our emotions, our ability to do so ourselves is compromised. Emotions feel scary, we learn to numb them instead of understanding what they want from us.

Our rushed and head-centric societies don’t help either. People in high-stress and high-stakes environments become accustomed to running faster, hoping that things will slow down at some point. However, no one can continuously run without stopping to check in with themselves and attend to their needs and wants. It’s biologically impossible.

A good place to begin is simply by checking in with yourself when you’re not feeling negative or frustrated. You can ask yourself simple questions like:

  • What do I want to eat?
  • Which movie do I want to watch?
  • You can then advance to complex situations: What’s my body telling me about this situation?

In time, you’ll be ready to tune in when you’re feeling emotional, identify what you’re feeling, and use the date to guide your self-care actions. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s classification of our three basic emotional needs can help: the need for safety, satisfaction, and connection.

2. Give Yourself Permission

The other aspect of a nurturing self-care practice is being willing to give yourself what you need. While it may sound pretty self-evident, it isn’t often so. For many people, knowing how we’re feeling or what we want comes with judgment and that overbearing voice that says:

I shouldn’t be feeling this way, or I shouldn’t be asking for or doing that.

This too often has roots in childhood—being told our feelings, needs or desires are selfish, unreasonable, or wrong in some way leads to a lifetime of judging our human emotions or not giving ourselves permission to honor the human in us.

Judgment also stems from society, where cultural biases determine the expectations on women. This is way worse for working women who face myriad barriers to their advancement based on their gender. Overcoming these barriers begins with the inner work of understanding our own internal barriers, giving ourselves permission to feel and to want.

And while it’s true that all feelings cannot be acted upon, owning them allows you to honor them in ways that are aligned with your values. For example, if you’re feeling jealous of the colleague, you may use that information as a reminder of what you want. You can learn from her and see what she’s doing right.

Similarly, while all desires cannot be honored, all needs are legitimate. When you own them, you can always find alternate ways to honor them. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you could find relief in anything: from changing your perspective on your situation, to reprioritizing your workload, to laying the groundwork for a career change down the road.

So what are the permission slips do you need to write yourself? What will you allow yourself to feel, to need and to want?

When you learn to take care of yourself at the most fundamental level, you can meet the challenges of our day and rise to your highest potential.


A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.

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