Five Lessons in Self-Care

I haven’t always been great at self-care. In fact, in 2006 my lack of self-care resulted in stroke like symptoms that no one could diagnose. After months of scans and tests, it was decided that my intermittent seizures were stress induced, and the only way to stop them was to take better care of myself. I was forced to re-think how I went through life and self-care became an immediate and ongoing priority.

That said, I don’t always get it right. Even knowing (first-hand!) the impact that stress can cause, I still slip into old habits from time to time. I am constantly re-visiting and re-defining what self-care looks like to me, and there are a few things I have learned along the way.

1. Self-Care is Different for Everyone
While there are some universal truths that hold true for everyone, many aspects of self-care vary from person to person. What works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa.

In the early stages of my recovery, I thought self-care meant yoga classes and meditation retreats. I signed up for all sorts of sessions, but I gave up after the second class. As wonderful as yoga might be for you, it was definitely not a working option for me.

Over time, I realised that being creative was my equivalent to yoga. Whether it was decorating a cake or painting a canvas, active creativity gave me time and space to zone out of my day-to-day stresses. I also learned that for my creativity to be truly relaxing, it had to cumulate in a result; a finished product. For me, achieving is relaxing. I am an active relaxer.

Recognising that self-care is different for everyone allowed me the freedom to find activities that worked for me, and I’m still refining how those activities look 16 years later. Don’t be afraid to experiment with ideas until you find something that fits.

2. It Doesn’t Just Happen
Making time for self-care is a conscious and deliberate decision. You need to actively carve out time to recharge and refocus, and that means saying no to other people’s demands from time to time. While that sounds easy in theory, we all know it’s surprisingly difficult to put into practice.

Most people have been raised to believe that ‘good’ people are flexible and accommodating. ‘Good’ people say yes to requests for help, even if they have something else planned. ‘Good’ people keep going and going, until they can’t.

However, what I’ve learned is that ‘good’ people manage their wellness so that they can continue to give in a sustainable way. If you are constantly giving 100% of yourself to others, eventually the pendulum must swing in the other direction, and you’re left not able to give at all. The all or nothing approach is not helpful for anyone in the long run.

3. Diet Does Matter
I am the first to admit that I am shocking when it comes to giving my body the nutrition it needs. However, I can also admit that diet does make a difference to how you feel. I’m not suggesting that you go on some crazy cut-out-everything regime, but if you start paying attention to your body, you’ll instinctively know what you need to cut-out or ramp-up. The more you pay attention, the more you’ll recognise the difference diet makes.

4. People Are Not Judging You
When you first start prioritising wellness, it can feel uncomfortable and clunky. I used to worry what people would think and go to great efforts to justify my self-care decisions. I now realise that most people aren’t interested in how you mange your time or energy. Most people are only interested in what you deliver. I’ve realised that as long as you continue to do your job well, people won’t judge the decisions you’ve made to get there. I know I deliver so much more and so much better, when I take care of my wellbeing.

5. It’s a Work in Progress
Getting good at self-care is not something that happens overnight. Rather it’s a series of small changes that eventually put you in a healthy place, and even then, you’re not going to get it right all the time.

I’ve learned that good self-care takes discipline, and the more you practice it, the stronger your self-care muscles become. I started by setting a simple boundary of not checking my emails in the weekend, then I stopped checking my emails at night, and now I have completely removed email from my phone. If I want to check my email, I do it intentionally—at my laptop. No more email auto-pilot.

When you have small healthy boundaries in place, you develop self-care muscles that enable you to put bigger boundaries in place too. Slowly you can bring your life back into balance, and when things start to go off-course, you’ll know exactly what is necessary to get back on track.

When it comes to self-care there is no magic formula that works for everyone. Rather, you need to identify your own values and purposefully design a schedule and way of being that is in line with what’s important to you. Looking after yourself well does not necessarily mean long walks on the beach or a stress-free job that fits neatly between nine and five. Looking after yourself means identifying what makes your heart sing and then making sure you do more of that. In the words of Simon Sinek: “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.”

How do you practice self-care?