Picture this scenario:
You’re opening up to a friend about the overwhelming challenges you face as you juggle your children and your multitudinous other responsibilities. You outline the weight of the burdens you carry. The kids, the job, the financial stress, the endless laundry, and the fact that you are the one carrying the mental load of the household.
As you reach that moment of peak vulnerability, pouring out your heart and explaining that you “just can’t do it all”, your friend reaches across the table, holds your hand in theirs, looks deeply into your eyes, and kindly says, “Two words: self-care.”
It’s possible that they’re correct. Self-care matters. A lot.
But – how are you feeling when you hear this advice? What’s your response? What images go through your mind as you reflect on what self-care might look like?
You can’t pour from an empty cup
There is no doubt that tired, stressed out, overwhelmed parents cannot effectively help their children with their emotional needs when they, as adults, are struggling to meet their own. Using the acronym HALTS, I write regularly about how our capacity to stretch and remain in control is heavily based on how Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Stressed we are. Self-care should buffer our exposure to those triggers, protecting us from becoming overly run-down and ineffective as we deal with the challenges of life that reduce our capacity to function well.
But – there are some issues with our current #selfcare pathways. The way we’re trying to fill our cups – or avoid them emptying out – may be flawed.
Self-care: 2020’s style
With the advent of social media, self-care has departed from its roots and become a fetishised and monetised blend of candles, bubble baths, mindfulness meditations at the feng-shui day spa – for those who can afford it – and Insta-worthy photos designed to showcase the sublime perfection of our #liveyourbestlife self-care routine. The need to “do something for yourself” underpins the majority of self-care messaging.
But it’s backfiring. Levels of anxiety and depression are as high as they have ever been. Stress and parental burnout are higher in wealthy, first-world countries where we worry about self-care more than anywhere else. Self-care has become a commercialised concept like Christmas, devoid of anything resembling its true meaning – a hollow shell that promises more than it can deliver, and asking more of its devotees than it returns.
The costs of #selfcare can be high. Many parents, particularly those with young children, feel that the return on the self-care investment is too low. I’ll explain why in a moment.
Self-care: The history and devolution
The idea of self-care developed in the 1970s’ nursing arena to help those with medical conditions manage their health care for themselves. This reduced the burden on the medical system, and it reduced patient’s medical costs. Initially self-care was emphasised for elderly and mentally-ill patients who required ongoing care and who had limited control over their lives.
As time went on, the self-care emphasis shifted towards people in emotionally draining and traumatic professions (therapists, emergency services personnel, etc) so they weren’t overwhelmed by the burdens of their occupations. The idea was that a person can’t help others with their own burdens unless they’ve been relieved of the baggage they’re already carrying.
These ideas make sense. Taking care of our mind and body is good counsel.
However, wellness bloggers and Insta-influencers have hijacked our view and practice of self-care. Self-care has become a coupling of middle-class consumerist self-indulgence and entitlement. Wellness and #selfcare now look more like eating vegan, going to yoga and meditation class, and spending on overpriced spa treatments so you can #followyourbliss.
Research confirms that these things can be self-care. Doing a yoga or meditation class, improving diet, or taking time out to relax are almost unquestionably positive for our wellbeing. But are we doing it as a band-aid? Or because we are genuinely caring for ourselves in an ongoing, positive way?
The trouble is, these Instagrammable self-care strategies can often be something else: self-indulgence and social media signalling. And in many cases indulgence masquerading as self-care may become a house built upon sand.
A house built on sandy foundations
Here’s why I don’t advocate for the commercialised, indulgent self-care strategies:
- They’re typically a quick fix. Feeling lousy? Book in a massage. That will sort you out – #selfcare #bliss.
- They’re often unsustainable.
- They easily trigger guilt (Have you ever found yourself lying on the massage table thinking of all of the other things you could/should be doing?).
- In a related way, have you noticed that they might actually exacerbate stress rather than reduce it because, “I don’t have time for this!”
- They can compound the stress you were already feeling. As soon as the massage, facial, retreat, or bubble bath is over, you open the door and have to face all of the stress that was there before you had your “mini-holiday”.
- Your partner might not be on the same page. When they find out about your latest self-care strategy, the bill shock might leave everyone needing a little more self-care. Or, more likely, they might wonder why you keep putting your feet up when there’s so much landing on their shoulders.
And then there is the bigger issue: These self-care strategies sometimes don’t really work even if you’re only worried about minor issues. But what if you’re dealing with major mental-health challenges? A meditation app is unlikely to be an effective strategy for those suffering from deep sadness or significant stress. Yes, it may help some people sometimes, but it’s unlikely to be the self-care strategy that will be the most effective in such circumstances.
Getting self-care right
It is true that from time to time self-care might take one of those individualistic, “me-time” Instagrammable forms. And even though I’ve comprehensively bagged it out, it’s both important and nice to take time out for that kind of relaxation now and then. The thing is, it’s not actually self-care. Why would I say that?
Definitions matter. When I talk about “discipline” I’m not talking about punishment. That means hurting. Instead, I’m talking about teaching, guiding, instructing: helping.
When someone asks if it’s OK to discipline other people’s kids, my response is, “It depends on how you define discipline”. If you define it as punishment, then no! It’s not even OK for your own kids. But if you define it as helping, then of course it is. It’s essential.
Our definition of, and our approach to, self-care are critically important. I define self-care as taking time for personal growth and the development of true wellbeing. That’s very different from “taking steps to get away from it all so you can finally relax”.
Most of the time self-care is exactly the boring thing it sounds like:
- having a medical or dental checkup
- eating a salad for lunch rather than having another packet of Darrel Lea’s white chocolate-coated raspberry bullets or TV snacks
- switching off Netflix and getting a full night’s sleep
- being intentional about making a decision
- developing a skill or qualifying for a degree
- investing wholeheartedly in doing deep “inner” work that changes/improves who you are.
With that established, let’s acknowledge that the indulgent/relaxing kind of self-care sometimes fits into the growth and wellbeing definition. But self-care is so much more.
How do you show that you actually do care about yourself and your wellbeing? Here are six self-care strategies that actually work.
6 surprising self-care strategies that work
1. Practise all of those unsexy habits
This is the stuff that real self-care is made of. It’s the kind of decision-making that commits you to live a better life. If we really cared about ourselves, we’d eat, sleep, move, and take care of our body’s needs so much better.
It matters. Here’s a sample of what might be an unsexy but important habit:
- get enough sleep
- eat healthy meals at consistent times
- move your body
- get time in nature
- be mindful (or get your spiritual/religious practice in order)
- pay off your credit cards.
Doing the unspectacular but important over and over again.
If you’ve ever looked after an elderly parent – or a child? – you’ll know that this is the stuff we talk about all the time. We look at them and emphasise, “You’ve got to take care of yourself”.
In case you missed it, that’s code for “eat well, exercise, sleep, do the healthy stuff”. Seems kind of obvious when you put it like that, huh?
2. Practise re-creation
Recreation is misunderstood. Broken down into two words it literally means we re-create ourselves. The word emphasises the need for renewal. When we re-create something, we build it up from scratch.
What does your re-creation time look like? If it’s time spent on Instagram or Netflix passively consuming content, you’re probably not doing much re-creation.
Re-creation means rest from the everyday distractions – but not necessarily ‘rest’ like you’re lying down in bed. It’s the kind of rest that is restorative. No phone time. But maybe a walk. Or a run. Perhaps a good book that helps you grow. Soak it in. Think. Do inner work. Be mindful. Re-create.
If you swapped out one screen session each day (let’s say 20 minutes on social media or 60 minutes on Netflix) for one re-creation session of the same length, I’d guarantee you would feel more refreshed and #selfcare satisfied.
3. Limit exposure to high-cost relationships
Some people are “energy vampires”. Being around them drags us down. But, I’ve read too many articles about how we should dump people who leave us feeling like that. This is unrealistic. And it’s bad advice because sometimes it’s someone close, such as family!
Two points here:
- Understand the difference between someone having a hard time (like your ADHD or ASD child) and someone who is toxic (such as the “Negative Nelly” who is always making everything about her, or blaming you for all of her problems).
- When you have to be around people who are challenging, find ways to practise compassion towards them. Don’t be condescending about it. Just realise that their life is probably pretty tough and find ways to see them through soft, kind eyes. It will elevate you, them, the relationship, and your wellbeing.
4. Multiply your positive experiences
Science suggests that the sum of many small positive events will matter more than one big thing. Multiply and savour those many moments each day and life will feel less of a grind. For real self-care, make sure you find joy in lots of small things.
5. Learn to tolerate moderate discomfort
No one likes being uncomfortable. And it seems strange that an article about self-care would encourage being uncomfortable. After all, isn’t that why people clamour for #selfcare? Because they don’t want to be uncomfortable?
Here’s what’s strange: when we learn to tolerate discomfort, we find our capacity for it increases. What was once uncomfortable ceases to be so.
Exercise is the perfect example. If you haven’t tried running for a while then a 200m run will hurt. But do it daily, tolerate the pain, and within a month you’ll be running 1km, and then 2km, and then 5km. The challenge, the opportunity for relationships, the positive experience, and the re-creation it generates will be a powerful form of self-care.
6. Challenge yourself
This is my favourite self-care strategy of all.
Think about those you love the most: your children. You instinctively know that for them to find joy in life, they have to do hard things. They have to push through barriers, develop resilience, be strong, and accomplish what they thought was impossible. It’s the very process of doing hard things that brings a sense of purpose.
Those we care about most, we push the hardest to grow and be better versions of themselves.
Doing something hard is precisely the opposite of the Instagrammable #selfcare relaxation vision that is promoted to us. And let’s acknowledge lots of us don’t feel energetic enough to pursue a challenge when we are already weary and walloped by our workload. Yet – doing a self-chosen hard activity over a period of time gives us focus, growth, and purpose.
If we truly want to care about ourselves, we’ll find ways to push ourselves to greater heights. And relationships in family life may be one area that gives us that opportunity more than any other.
Are we saying goodbye to sleep-ins and #selfcare?
A little indulgence now and then can be nice. It might give us a quick-fix pick-me-up. A bubble bath, good book, tasty restaurant meal, facial, massage, pamper party, or fun night out may be just what you need to feel better sometimes. Sometimes we actually do need some “me-time”.
But if we really care for ourselves, we’ll give our bodies and our souls the medicine they really need. And to do it, we don’t have to spend big money. We don’t have to show it to everyone on Instagram. And we don’t have to take huge chunks of time that we don’t have to make it work.
What we do need is to be intentional about how we live, practise smart habits, do the enlarging work of re-creating ourselves regularly, and finding ways to develop and grow ourselves through hard times – maybe even with the ones we care about most.
Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.
About the author: A sought-after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.