What is self care, really?

by Ariela Paulsen
What is self care, really?

As a teacher, I’d heard the term thrown around quite a bit.  We have a lot on our plates, so don’t forget about self care!  Working with vulnerable populations is emotionally draining, so be sure to make time for self care!  I remember one conference when I finally just asked “ok, but what is self care though?”  I felt ridiculous to have to ask what seemed like an obvious question, but I had pushed through a grueling year of grad school and then my first teaching years without giving myself a second to breathe.  I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing in this so-called self care time.

It is unsurprising, then, that my health – what little of it was left at that point – completely crashed soon after this conference.  I had been sick my whole life, but repeatedly told that I was fine, so I kept pushing.  I would get home from teaching, unable to stand and continue to work from my couch.  When I could no longer think, I would nap until it was time to eat and go to bed… and repeat.  With the crash came blessed time off, doctor visits around the country chasing a diagnosis, and then months of healing post-diagnosis to get back on my feet.  In those months off, I finally had nothing to do but self care.  I made a point to find exactly what it meant for me.

what it is

Self care can be literally anything that heals you – mind, body, or soul.  It looks completely different to each person, and can change based on what you need in that moment.  For example, when your body feels unhealthy from sitting around on a computer and eating potato chips, self care might mean eating a delicious salad and going for a walk.  On an emotionally or physically exhausting day, self care might mean laying on the couch and enjoying a pint of your favorite ice cream.  For extroverts, it might be going to a party, while introverts might need to turn off their phone and shut out the world.  For someone with a PICC line, it might mean taking extra care to keep your insertion site clean and dry.

what it isn’t

It took me longer to figure out what wasn’t self care than what was.  My main takeaways:

self care ≠ numbing, and self care does not satisfy others’ needs or expectations

The first can be tricky.  Sometimes we feel the need to numb ourselves or run away from a negative feeling such as grief or overwhelm.  We choose activities like drinking or binge-watching TV as a way to escape.  While this may help us feel better in the short-term, the long-term effect may not actually be beneficial to our overall mind, body, and soul.  While there’s no shame in finding ways to escape or numb from time to time, they are not the same as self care, and so it’s important to also find ways of caring for yourself during those periods of higher stress.  If all you do is numb and escape, you never move through the difficult emotions to the more positive healing.  So, if you’ve just spent six hours watching the Kardashians with a bottle of wine, make sure to also block in time the next day for something healing.

One last thought here: there is a fine line between escaping and distracting – sometimes I’m feeling anxious about something and in order to feel better I need a distraction to redirect my brain.  Watching a show – especially a comedy that I know will make me laugh or a nature show that will give me a sense of wonder – can get me out of my funk so that I can then go on with my day without anxiety.  This is absolutely self care!

The second common pitfall is trying to care for yourself by doing something that “should” help, even if it does not.  For example, eating a salad when you’d rather have lasagna because you are trying to live up to someone else’s unhealthy body image standards is probably not helping your overall well-being.  Similarly, pushing yourself to go for a run when your body is screaming to lay down may not be what’s best for your health.  Self care is all about listening to your body.  What does it need?  What does your mind, your soul need?  That’s what matters here.

what self care could look like

Still not sure how to go about it?  No worries!  Think about what makes you feel whole?  What makes you feel loved?  Safe?  Healthy? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Movement: a walk, run, yoga class, dance party… whatever!
  • Time outdoors
  • Socializing with people who bring out the best in you
  • Resting – whatever that looks like for you!
  • Cleaning house so that you can feel more relaxed later
  • Cooking and/or eating delicious food
  • Getting nutrients via food or supplements
  • All things hygiene-related
  • Meditation, breathwork, or other form of stress relief
  • Talking to a therapist or venting to a friend
  • Gratitude journaling 
  • Learning something new through reading, documentaries, taking a class…
  • Crafting
  • Listening to (or creating) music
  • Changing into cozy clothes… or dressing up to feel fancy!
  • Going to the doctor (or canceling a visit because your brain needs a break)
  • Connecting with a nurturing community

Even the small things like drinking enough water, wearing sunscreen, and taking your medications on time can go a long way in buoying your well-being!

Finally, don’t just let self care happen when it happens – schedule it in!  If you keep a schedule, planner, or calendar, literally block in time each day to do something good for yourself.  It could be five minutes of meditation while you sip your morning coffee or a three-hour hike before dinner.  It can also be helpful to schedule productive time right beforehand.  For example, plan to do an hour of focused work to bang out as much as you can and then take a nice long bath to unwind.  Getting items off your plate (and off your mind) first will help you fully take advantage of the self care time!

What’s your go-to self care look like?  We’d love to hear about it!

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