Self-care can occur in many different ways: physically, emotionally, socially. We can practice self-care by doing a five-minute meditation, taking a walk, or paying for a day at the spa. It can be listening to music, getting your nails done, calling a friend, setting boundaries. There are so many ways to practice self-care, and yet it is extremely hard for many of us to put into practice.
We have all heard the saying, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” We cannot give to or do for others when we do not take time to focus on ourselves and our needs. Perhaps this hasn’t been more true, for me personally, since becoming a mom. I feel myself becoming burnt out some days, and in turn losing patience, having less compassion, and yet those are certainly not the moments I allow myself to take five minutes for self-care. Why is that? Too often, time spent doing something for ourselves, such as ignoring a home/work task, and sitting outside with a cup of coffee, feels selfish. We know there are things to be done, and there’s some negative connotation in prioritizing something else instead. I can really appreciate the internal conflict that occurs in those moments. We fear those other things will suffer if we don’t attend to them for a day. We begin to feel guilty, for getting a babysitter or leaving our partners in charge, to do whatever this self-serving thing might be. We decide this means something ‘bad’ about us.
If you’re anything like me, you might also decide you shouldn’t prioritize this self-care thing, such as joining a yoga studio, because you’re too lazy, you’re afraid you won’t really commit to it & it won’t actually make you feel better. You’ve decided it might not be worth the financial burden. Of course, everyone’s financial situation is different, and there might not be a budget for things like exercise or expensive mental health treatment. For me, I also know that there are other areas where I am willing to spend money, despite budgets, without convincing myself it isn’t ‘worth it.’ Again, why is that?
Doing things we “want,” versus things we “need,” might bring up negative self-talk and uncomfortable feelings. After becoming parents, we quickly realize that, so often, our needs and desires take a back seat. While in some ways this is necessary, it does not always have to be our reality. How often do you feel better once you take a few minutes or hours for yourself? The shame that might come up from choosing to spend some time out of the home with friends typically dissipates once you’re there and you may soon notice that you feel reenergized.
So, if you want to increase self-care but have found yourself stuck, what can you do? I find that the first step in trying to make a change, is noticing. Notice what it is we want to do, but that we’re not doing. Notice the cognitive process (the internal conversation and thoughts), the anxiety that comes up when we think about these self-care tasks. Notice what we tell ourselves and what might be getting in the way. In this process, we want to be mindful of the “should” statements. We don’t want to get so caught up thinking we should be practicing more self-care, that it becomes something that feels overwhelming or negative. If it feels like it adds more pressure or stress, it’s not really self-care anymore.
After, try practicing opposite action; a DBT skill that encourages us to notice a current emotion and an action urge that accompanies it. If the urge is ineffective, not serving us well, or does not fit the facts of the situation, do the opposite. So, for example, I realize that I’m feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. I have a fleeting thought that I should read a “just for fun” book during my son’s nap time today. I feel embarrassed, angry for feeling exhausted, and tell myself that reading is a waste of time because I also have to do work and vacuum. My urge is to tackle the to-do list instead of read the book. The facts are: Yes, I have house chores to do and I’m also being reactive and short-tempered. The facts also include me being able to pick another time over the weekend for the “must do” list. The anger and embarrassment I feel are based on the dialogue in my head that says I’m too lazy, not a good mom, and not a good homeowner because I don’t want to do those tasks and, instead, I do want to relax and read. The practice of opposite action would invite me to read the book, despite the negative feelings, because they are not actually based in fact or reality. The hope is that we act opposite and, in turn, feel positive emotions. We are also then more grounded and able to effectively plan for the tasks on the to-do list. An important part of this is to (again) notice the after effects; notice if you feel better after prioritizing yourself & your needs. This is the only way to reinforce the continued practice.
Written by: Nicole Van Hessen, LCSW…co-founder of The Mom to Mom Collaborative
*note: the information in this blog is not a replacement for mental-health treatment.