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The mere mention of self-care for mothers in our society likely immediately garners visions of facials, pedicures, and bubble baths. When I became a mom, immediately after bringing my son home from the hospital, people started talking about self-care like it was everything I needed and should be doing at the time. I received giftboxes, flowers, lotions and creams, spa gift cards – all of which were absolutely lovely! Self-care, as it is defined by the majority, usually involves a prescription from the outside – and often requires purchasing of an item or a service. I’m not saying these things are all bad, but let’s be honest, when was the last time you went to get a pedicure…well, first, yes – when was the last time you went to get a pedicure!?!?! And even if you’ve gone recently, when was the last time you went and truly felt relaxed? Like you did something for you, that you enjoyed, that was meaningful, that restored you from the inside out. If your last pedi really did those things, then great. My guess though, is that while nice – it was probably just something you did, something you added on to your massive list of things to do. A “task” you squeezed in and experienced while stressing about your next task, or which kid would wake up from their nap early and whether your partner would remember where their favorite sippy cup is stored. And then you went back to reality to parent, to work, to partner, to get all the things done in none of the time. If self-care isn’t the pedis, the manis, the mimosas with facials, the massages – then what is it, exactly?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer for you.
That’s because self care isn’t about a specific thing and practicing it looks different for everyone. Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, author of Real Self-Care: Bubble Baths, Cleanses and Crystals Not Included explains that self-care isn’t a specific thing, event, or activity. Self-care should focus around four principles: 1) setting boundaries and learning to deal with guilt, 2) developing self-compassion, 3) getting clear on your values, and 4) that self-care is in and of itself, power. These are all great principles, and my guess is they have gotten you questioning what you traditionally considered to be self-care in your life. But they are not particularly actionable in and of themselves. So, like any good behavior analyst would, I’m going to break these principles into actionable behaviors – things you can do every day to live these principles and yes, practice REAL self-care.
Setting boundaries and learning to deal with guilt.
I think I speak for most women when I say that learning to say no, to let others know you can’t, won’t or aren’t willing to do something is especially draining. As women, we almost always lean toward making others happy, so when we’re asked to do something, we’d rather be uncomfortable and unhappy ourselves, rather than make other people unhappy or uncomfortable. But, read that statement again: we’d rather be uncomfortable and unhappy ourselves rather than make others uncomfortable and unhappy. WHAT?!?!?! Let me tell you something: stop that right now! This tendency to prioritize others feelings over your own will only make you miserable. It will make you live a life of regret and one that you don’t want to live. So, what’s the alternative? Say no, establish what works for you and what doesn’t, and lightly manage any guilt that comes your way for doing so. To make this guidance super actionable, let’s take a scenario
A colleague asks you if you can have a 7am meeting. This is when you typically have breakfast with your children and get them off to school. Your initial reaction, if you’re anything like me is: “it’s just one meeting and partner can get them off to school. I know this coworker is busy and likely doesn’t have much other time to schedule the call and it’s really important, so sure why not.” When you think this way and read that rationale – not that bad, huh? But then reality hits. And reality involves: actually attending that 7am meeting, and the worst part – setting the expectation that you are available, that it’s not an inconvenience and that you are willing and able to take early morning calls like this in the future. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “I doubt they will ask again. They know it’s really early for me.” To this, I say “famous last words.” I think we can all remember a time when we said yes to something, regretted it, and then saying yes opened the door for more requests and before we know it, our schedule is out of control, we aren’t having days we want to have and it’s all about what everyone else needs from you and not in the least about what you need for yourself. So, you need to say no, even if the request seems small, isolated, and isn’t that inconvenient. That’s self-care and that’s setting boundaries. And you need to do it early, at first request, before things get out of control. I know all the things you’ll be thinking when you do this, because I think them too – what if they think I’m slacking? What if I lose my job? What if we don’t meet that important deadline? To this, I say – answer those questions with the worst case scenario – what if you lose your job? What if you are considered a slacker? What if you miss that deadline? In my experience, the worst case scenario really isn’t that bad, or even if it is, it will happen and you will manage it. So, so set those boundaries, set them early, and allow the guilty thoughts to pass right by you. Here are some questions I ask myself when I suspect my own boundaries are being pushed and I use the answers to these questions to help guide my decision making.
What will it be like when I am doing that thing (having that early morning meeting, taking that extra trip)? Will I be miserable? Will it be difficult? Will it disrupt my day?
Is this meeting or event even necessary? Can I contribute to solving the problem? Am I needed for it?
What will I have to give up to accommodate it?
How will I feel after I’ve had that day, done that thing?
How will I feel if I say no? If I have a day that I intended to have?
Answering these questions honestly will support you in making the decision that’s best for you. The process, in and of itself, is practicing self-care and setting healthy boundaries.
Self-compassion is a word that gets tossed around quite frequently and we’re often told: have some self-compassion. So, we hear it, we think about it, but do we actually do it? Self-compassion means extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Easy to read the definition, much harder to do. One exercise I share with others and practice myself is that when you have a situation where you feel inadequate, you’ve failed or are suffering, pretend that a good friend has called you and explained that situation to you, asking for input. How would you respond? What would you say to them? My guess is that you will work very hard to build up the self esteem of your friend, to help them understand that they did the best they could, that they didn’t fail or if they did, failure is a good thing. You’d probably do everything in your power to build that person up and make them feel successful and adequate. YET……We don’t do that same thing for ourselves. Communities of women like those in peanut can be unbelievably helpful in giving you the words to demonstrate this type of self-compassion. Self-compassion in action is showing yourself the same support and positivity that you would for a friend. When your mind shifts to thinking this way, this is self-compassion in action and it’s TRUE self-care. It’s one you must practice every day, because it’s likely that you experience feelings of inadequacy every day, but that makes it even more important (and even better than getting that pedicure!)
Getting clear on your values.
For this one, I recommend taking some time for yourself to list out the things that are truly important for you. Everyone’s list will be different and span different categories. Just sit with an empty piece of paper and a pen and think to yourself: What matters? Don’t hesitate, just write what comes to mind. You might list things like feeling good, spending quality time with loved ones, feeling regularly that your work has meaning, having a healthy body, connections with others. There is no right or wrong here – it’s what works and has meaning for YOU. Creating the list is typically easy. Getting to action on leading a life that focuses on those values is the hard part. Once you have that list, you can use it to continuously evaluate your day, your work, how you spend your time, and the decision that you make on how to spend your time, when to do what and how to do it. It’s not completely unheard of to use the list to make even the tiniest of decisions – should I run that errand? Make that phone call? Say yes to that thing? Say no to that thing? Using your values to make daily decisions will increase the likelihood that you will live a live a life that aligns with them or shift your life if nothing you’re currently doing aligns with your values. I also make a regular habit of looking at my values and doing an overall assessment: not specific to one task, or component of my life, but generally how it looks against my day to day life operations. If none of your days and your assessment of life seem to match up to your values, it may be time to make some bigger systemic changes.
Self-care is in and of itself, power.
Practicing the behaviors associated with true self care is in and of itself, practicing self-care. When you say no to that thing, when you let guilt go directly past you, when you make a big change to your life (new job, relationship change) that aligns you to your values, nothing could be more caring and kinder than that! So continue to get those pedicures, go for that run, and take those bubble baths as you wish putting them against a backdrop of TRUE self care.