"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." - Audre Lorde
I often ask clients at the end of our therapy sessions together how they will practice self-care in the coming week. The first few times I ask this, I am often met with blank or panicked stares. Some clients wearily shake their heads and say they don't have the time or money for self-care. Others say putting the needs of others (their children, partners, etc.) first will be enough. My favorite response to the self-care question came from an outspoken and high-achieving client.
"Self-care?" he repeated loudly. "What in the world is that?"
What is self-care? The term has become a popular catchphrase in recent years but is rarely defined as anything other than a series of"treat yo self"splurges that include pumpkin spice lattes, manicures, and massages. While there is nothing wrong with these treats, many of the common self-care tropes implicitly perpetuate a stereotype that relaxation and, therefore, wellness is reserved for people not only with disposable incomes but who are also predominantly White and female. Where are the media depictions of self-care practices that acknowledge the need for safety, cultural relevance and accessibility for people of color?
For many individuals who do not identify as wealthy, White or female, self-care as presented in the societal norm does not exist or even make sense in their lives. This version of self-care fails to take into account the reality of sexist pay structures; the continued impact of a racist history in which Brown and Black bodies were not considered human, and, therefore, did not need to be taken care of; and the fact that admitting you need rest every now and then is not a sign of weakness.
Self-care is more than a pricey form of taking a break. In its most effective forms, self-care practices allow your brain to de-stimulate in order to gain more clarity; eases the stress that your body has soaked up over time, which in turn can reduce physical tension and pain; and improves and regulates moods. Self-care makes your life better.
When I introduce the topic of self-care to my clients, I often use an airplane safety analogy. At the beginning of every flight, the airplane crew gives passengers a set of instructions for the upcoming trip, including what to do in case of an emergency. One of the notes is that if the plane unexpectedly loses cabin pressure making it hard to breathe, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling for use. Passengers are instructed to secure their own masks first before assisting others with theirs. You are only able to be helpful and make it through the flight if you can breathe properly.
Self-care is your oxygen mask. You do not always need it but when life gets difficult and stress arrives, pausing to assess what you need in order to be well helps you to be more efficient and successful. Furthermore, practicing self-care even when you are not experiencing a difficult time builds mental, and in some cases physical, muscle memory on how to be resilient, resourceful, and attentive to what you need in order to live a full life. You teach yourself that you are a priority worth investing time and care to develop.
For people of color, self-care is a compassionate and practical way of working against the negative impacts of racism, marginalization and oppression. By prioritizing your wellness, joy and uniqueness you help change the narrative about who deserves to be taken care of and what is possible for yourself. You might even empower others to also take care of themselves.
So how do you actually practice self-care? I advise people to begin by focusing on what positive choices make you happy. Ask yourself what you enjoy doing when you have nothing you must do. Studies have shown us that certain things like eating healthier and exercising create biochemical differences that promote wellness and happiness, but there is no one right way to do this - and if you do not enjoy something, you will not actually follow through with doing it regularly! Choose things that are manageable, repeatable and sustainable for you to do. Include activities and tasks that nurture you mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. If needed, do not call it self-care. I refer to my self-care as how I love myself. Others call it their "mental spa time" or the fun "treat yo self" mentioned at the beginning of this post.
Also, consider things you can do quickly. If you feel yourself getting stressed at work, you may not be able to do the 30 minutes meditation that you love. However, you may have just enough time to do some stretches and shoulder shrugs at your desk before running into your next meeting.
Once you know what you enjoy doing, build time into your life to practice these methods of self-care. This is often the largest hurdle for busy people. I recommend adding self-care into your schedule as if it was one of your other required appointments and treating it as equally, if not more, important. Do not throw it out because an unexpected wrinkle occurs in your schedule. Reschedule your self-care if you must, but keep it a priority. With a variety of activities, you can also fill things that take varying amounts of time to do into your schedule in a way that makes sense. Additionally, having a "self-care buddy," someone who can encourage and join you in some of your self-care practices, is a great way of creating accountability for yourself and reducing isolation.
Here is a list of self-care practices and resources to try. Feel free to find what works for you and your lifestyle! Self-care is about honoring what you need to be healthy and well so as long as it leaves you feeling recharged and happier, you are on the right track.
- Drink at least 2 liters (about 8 glasses) of water a day.
- Do something creative.
- Cook a healthy, delicious meal.
- Spend a day off of social media - this includes email!
- Create a new morning routine.
- De-clutter a room in your home or your work space.
- Buy yourself flowers.
- Make a list of what you are grateful for today.
- Take a long shower or bath.
- Exercise (take a walk, go for a run, find a YouTube workout video you like, etc.).
- Give away things you do not use.
- Set some short-term goals.
- Spend extra time washing, combing and styling your hair.
- Write a love letter to yourself and read it again in six months.
- Find a therapist who you can trust.
- Stretch your body (this can be particularly relaxing before bed).
- Watch an inspiring movie or TED Talk.
- Do a breathing meditation.
- Go to a community event.
- Read a biography or autobiography about someone you admire.
- Go on a trip.
- Spend time with people who are kind to you.
- Get 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
- Drink a pumpkin spice latte or other seasonal beverage.
- Get a manicure/pedicure.
- Enjoy a massage.