One of the common phrases I hear around self care is to "fit your own oxygen mask first." Another you may have heard is “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” Both relate to ensuring you look after your own wellbeing first, especially if you intend to care for others. Even though these terms are common, committing to self care can be hard - but it is essential and possible. Let me explain how.
As hard as it can be, the research, ranging from academic conducted the Self Care Academic Research Unit, to Brené Brown - all point to the importance of self love and allowing ourselves to experience our feelings of vulnerability.
Self care is defined differently depending on who you are and whether you are looking at it from the perspective of a healthy person or someone who is managing illness. Either way, it is an important element in promoting positive health and wellbeing as well as managing illness and ailments.
Definitions are abound, yet my favourite is this one by Marni Amsellem PhD as I think it conveys the notion that self care can be anything, will be different for each person, and doesn’t focus so much on the activity, but how it makes you feel....
Self care is - “anything that you do for yourself that feels nourishing,” Marni Amsellem PhD
Self care is about looking after your wellbeing so that you can do the things you enjoy and find meaningful, and also contribute to others and get your day to day activities done.
So why is self-care so hard?
Perhaps like me, you believe (or have picked up messages) that you need to put others needs first ahead of your own – whether at home, work, etc, as putting yourself first can seem selfish, and bring forth feelings of guilt. Yet self care is not selfish, self indulgent or narcissistic.
In a study 2018 by The Harris Poll, 96% of physicians say self care should be considered an essential part of overall health, yet 43% of people surveyed said they had more pressing issues to focus on.
44% of the 1,006 people surveyed believe self care is only possible for people who have enough time and 35% believed it was only possible for those with enough money.
So, our individual beliefs about time, money and worthiness can be barriers to self care practices. Yet when we do practice self care, there are a multitude of benefits.
The benefits of self care
The benefits of self care are numerous and well documented, and vary depending on the activities you do for self care. For example: exercise, eating healthily, and my two favourites - having a sense of meaning in life and spending time in green spaces - have all been linked to lower mortality rates.
Other forms of self care such as mindfulness and self compassion can have psychological benefits such as reducing distress, building resilience and managing stress better. Reducing stress and anxiety, boosting self esteem, protecting your mental health, and improving your relationships are all additional benefits of self-care.
What is considered a self care activity?
Self care activities can range from enjoying a glass of water, getting a good nights sleep, luxuriating in a massage, soaking in a warm bath, journaling, being present in the moment, or taking those extra few minutes to sit whilst you savour a cuppa.
Savouring activities can be temporary – things that give us pleasure or feel nurturing in the moment (such as curling up on the couch with a bowl of butterscotch pudding and an inspiring book), or activities which provide enduring, longer lasting benefits such as investing in relationships – dinner out with your gal pals, a quite weekly walk with a partner, volunteering, or a regular meditation practice.
Self care activities should be nurturing not numbing.
For instance, watching a feel good documentary or a TED talk that expands your knowledge or thinking can be nurturing, whereas scrolling through social media or binge watching Netflix series after series may be numbing.
Katharine Hurst suggests five types of self care activities:
Sensory based self care activities are about coming to your senses, being aware of the sights, sounds, smells, touch of the present moment. This could link nicely into savouring. Some examples might be enjoying the feel of a soft blanket, the sound of the bird calls, the warmth of the sun on your face.
Emotional self care activities can include building your emotional intelligence, engaging with your emotions, keeping a journal, or having deep conversations with trusted friends.
Spiritual self care activities include practicing mindfulness, gratitude, experiencing awe (such as being in nature, or appreciating the sights on your daily commute in a different way).
Physical self care includes eating healthily, going for a walk, cycling, getting your groove on, yoga, napping – anything that looks after your body.
Social self care might include a night in with your favourite person, or a festive night out, or anything in between. It is about maintaining your relationships with those who are near and dear to you.
To establish a self care practice, try small things to build into your everyday routine – this could be a simple as being more present and noticing the beauty of your surroundings, singing along to a tune on your way to work, simply pausing and acknowledging your efforts at the end of the day, or taking 3 minutes for a quick breathing exercise. Self care does not need to take a lot of time or money.
The key to self-care is giving yourself permission!
To help you with your self care, especially if guilt follows you, I have created some self care permission slips – to promote self compassion and give yourself permission to look after yourself with the same level of kindness and compassion that you would look after others.
Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection writes: “In a society that says, “Put yourself last,” self-love and self acceptance are almost revolutionary.”