3 Keys to Practicing True Self-Care
Goodbye, Perfect – The Book
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My mother’s reaction was so predictable. Every time I would share my dreams, my vision, or how I wanted to impact the world in some way, she would listen and then say, “Take care of yourself.”
I remember being triggered at times. One day, I voiced my frustration: “Is this all you care about?”
“No,” she said with that wisdom all mothers seem to possess. “I care about your dreams, but you cannot achieve them if you don’t look after yourself.”
I’ve spent many years since then trying to understand what self-care really means, because we all know it’s not what the world tells us. We’re more stressed, more depressed, more hopeless than ever before, despite a global self-care industry estimated to be worth almost $1.5 trillion. Weekly massages and scented candles are lovely for sure, but are they helping us live our dreams or those of self-serving industries?
A Closer Examination of Self-Care
I believe that the messages we’ve been sold about self-care have a misguided understanding of both self and care. We see the “self” as mostly our physical self, even though the body is far more multifaceted than the size of our thighs or the smoothness of our skin. It’s also our emotions, feelings, and beliefs about race, aging, gender identity, and the gifts and capabilities we possess or don’t possess, says Sonya Renee Taylor, founder of The Body Is Not An Apology global movement.
And we all know what “care” looks like at an innate level. We demand it the moment we’re born. We look for it in our caregiver’s eyes and can feel it in the way they interact with us. It’s fair to say that not receiving adequate care for our emotional needs or soulful self-expression may obstruct the path to self-actualization.
As a coach and confidence researcher, I know that without emotional repair or owning the gifts our lives embody, we can stay stuck in a burnout cycle of proving, pleasing, and perfecting. Ultimately, self-care is about giving ourselves what we need to be our most alive and authentic self, and not just what we’re told we need.
How to Practice True Self-Care
Putting the focus on our needs doesn’t always come to us easily, which can make the practice of self-care seem more elusive than it needs to be. Follow this Tuning-Tilling-Tending framework to help you practice true self-care whenever you need it.
Tuning: Identify Judgment
What’s your relationship with the different parts of your body? Do you judge yourself for being too fat, too thin, too old? Do you judge your sexual orientation, or your race, or your passions and abilities? Do you judge your emotions, tears, kindness, or need to do less or spend time alone?
Underlying all forms of judgment is a sense of inadequacy or unworthiness, which makes it impossible to truly care for ourselves, or to take a stand for our needs when life or other people get in the way.
Ask yourself where this judgment comes from? What were the messages you received growing up, and who indoctrinated you in them? What behaviors have they led to? And are these behaviors helping you feel joyful and alive and allowing you to do your best work in the world?
Tilling: Set Structures
Now that you’re aware of the ways in which you’re harming yourself, it’s time to put healthy self-care practices in place. This involves the dual work of removing the sources that lead to judgment and setting structures in place that help you be your best.
For many of us, removing the sources is about reducing our intake of social media because that’s one place we’ll always find someone who has all the qualities we judge ourselves for not having. It also means having a zero tolerance policy with the judgmental voice in our heads.
Setting structures is about observing what helps you have your best day. What are some of the pillars that are absolutely essential for you? It could be the number of hours of sleep you get, or a certain diet. It could be spending time with people, or doing something creative, or taking regular breaks in your day. Let your life guide you, and let joy be your compass.
Tending: Staying on Top
This is the “in the moment” work of self-care because life will always throw us off. We could have the best structures and plans in place, but there will be days when it’s not possible to follow them. Or when they’re not enough for what we’re facing. How do we continue being well resourced so we can face whatever comes our way?
One strategy is to have if-then plans in place. If-then plans are highly effective for predictable patterns. Perhaps you say yes every time your colleague asks for help, and end up stressed and resentful. Having an if-then plan of “If they ask for help, THEN I will…” where you come up with a thought-through response in advance allows you to bypass the emotional chaos of “Will they hate me?” or “I can’t say no.”
But what about the unpredictable? In The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr, Ed.D., breaks down energy into four levels that build on one another in the following order: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. When feeling stressed or in need of care, walk through each layer in order and ask yourself what’s missing. Do you need sleep, food, fun, or fresh air? Do you need distance from your inner chatter or critic? Do you need to let go of comparison or the need to have everything perfectly under control?
True self-care is our commitment to nurturing a self that author Toni Morrison beautifully put in her novel Beloved: “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.”
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