You’ve heard the saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup? Attempting to pour ourselves out until the very last drop hesitantly drips off the rim is something that most of us are guilty of, at least occasionally if not habitually. Many of us are overworked, overextended and overstressed. When the responsibilities and obligations start to add up, something has to give. Unfortunately, the little things we do to take care of ourselves are usually at the bottom of the priority list, so they’re often the first to go.
If you were to ask any group of people if they took care of themselves, most of them would probably say yes. A lot of us believe that we really do take care of ourselves, but if you reworded that questions into something like “How do you take care of yourself and what advice can you give me for doing the same?”, you’d probably hear a choir of crickets in the background because this is where the question gets tricky.
The fact is many of us aren’t taking care of ourselves in the ways that we deserve. Unfortunately, it often takes a serious wake up call before we realize just how much of ourselves has been given and how little has been replenished. You might charge on like you have unlimited refills, but if you don’t slow down and make yourself a priority, sooner or later your cup will run dry. It’s inevitable.
This realization is why the term “self-care” is such a buzzword currently. You’ve probably read about it on a handful of blogs, had the topic brought up at lunch with your girlfriends or maybe even heard it come straight from your doctor’s lips. The problem is that the meaning of the term self-care is a little elusive. We all know we need to make ourselves a priority, but it isn’t always clear how. What does self-care really mean, and how can you realistically fit it into your life? Let’s find out.
What Is Self-Care?
In broad terms, self-care is anything a person does to care for and protect their physical, emotional and mental health. The short answer is that it is about making yourself a priority and recharging your spirit by doing things you honestly enjoy. People who regularly practice effective self-care are frequently less depressed, less anxious, more energetic and report having healthier, happier relationships than those who don’t. Sounds good, but it’s also important to understand what self-care isn’t.
First, self-care isn’t selfish. When you’re accustomed to giving more than 100% of yourself to others, putting some of that aside to make time for you can seem selfish, even narcissistic. There are also those of us who enjoy doing for others more than we enjoy taking care of ourselves, and for those people, being told they need to devote more time to self-care can feel like an insult. When considering self-care, it’s important to look at the big picture and realize that protecting your physical and mental health is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that you’re able to continue giving to others in the way that you enjoy.
Self-care also doesn’t include destructive habits. For instance, taking a break and going out for a couple of glasses of wine with friends once a week is completely different that decompressing every day when you get home with a few cocktails. One of these is good for your health and your spirits, while the other is destructive to both. Self-care isn’t just about doing the things you like to do, it’s about doing the things you enjoy that also contribute to your long term health on every level.
Finally, self-care shouldn’t feel forced. If you’re forcing yourself to do something that you really don’t enjoy, then it becomes counterproductive to your self-care. True, you might not enjoy getting out of bed a half hour earlier to squeeze in a little time for exercise, but if you’re doing an activity that you enjoy, say yoga, as opposed to one you’re not fond of at 5:30am – like maybe HIIT – eventually your body and your mind will come around to being more accepting of the change. The goal is to find things that you enjoy, ways to recharge yourself and then make them a priority – no matter how tightly structured your daily schedule appears to be.
Benefits of Self Care
So, what do you get in return for your investment in self-care? Ask any doctor about the difference between someone who makes time for self-care and someone who is constantly stretching past their limits and they’ll be able to provide a laundry list of the benefits of carving out a little “me time.”
Still, sometimes these warnings from our medical professionals aren’t enough to inspire action. Instead, lets look at 5 practical benefits of self-care that you can experience starting today.
Making the time to take care of yourself can actually enable you to spend more time taking care of others and your endless to-do list. There is research showing that people who make time for activities that can be considered self-care benefit from an activated parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for regulating functions like how fast your heart beats, the rate that you breathe and how quickly blood moves through the body.
When we are stressed, tense and exhausted, these functions accelerate which puts additional stress on the body – with one of the first targets to go down being the immune system. This is why it seems like you’re more likely to come down with a cold or stomach bug during times of high stress. Regular self-care can help your body rest and rejuvenate, which in turn strengthens the immune system.
Constantly doing for others might make you feel good, or even accomplished. The problem is that when others are constantly taking from you, even if you’re freely giving, it will inevitably cause your self confidence to take a nose dive. If others only see you as someone to take from, but not necessarily worth of self-care, how are you supposed to feel you deserve better?
When you practice self-care, you are sending a positive message to yourself. You are telling yourself that you are important, that you are worthy and deserving of the indulgence of a little me time with the things you enjoy. Slowly over time, this cultivates into a stronger, more resilient self-image.
You have a mountain of to-dos on your plate, so many in fact that it’s impossible to organize or multi-task in a way that resembles anything efficient. You might get it all done, but you probably didn’t give each thing the attention it deserved. Why? Because there was simply too much to do and your resources were too limited.
Taking the time to take care of yourself will help you become more productive in a couple of different ways. First, self-care replenishes your resources so that you have more energy and focus on and give to the tasks at hand. Second, you’ll also learn how to more efficiently prioritize by recognizing which tasks are worthy of your immediate attention, which ones can wait, and which ones can be delegated or scrapped altogether because you don’t have the time – something that is perfectly fine to admit.
You Learn More About Yourself
One thing that you’ll often hear from the mouths of parents whose entire days are spent taking care of kids, juggling schedules and balancing work/life responsibilities is that they’ve lost a sense of themselves. That this happens to parents is just an example, because the reality is that it can happen to anyone who has developed the habit of prioritizing others before themselves.
Self-care helps you get back in touch with the inner you. The one that had hobbies, found pleasure in the little things and had goals and aspirations of your own. Through self-care you learn more about yourself and will likely discover that things have changed – in a good ways – since the time you first lost sight of yourself.
Your Heart Grows
No matter how well intentioned you are about giving so much of yourself, as the stress and non-stop pace wears on you, it’s only natural to feel burdened, sad, tapped out and even resentful. Giving too much of yourself is one of the quickest ways to lose sight of the importance of the little things in your life.
When you take the time to take care of yourself, you’re treating yourself with kindness and compassion. This in turn will open your heart, so that you can approach others with the same love that you have for yourself.
Ways to Practice Self Care
How many articles have you read that listed a bunch of ideas for self-care and thought that it all sounded good, but that you already know that yoga, journal writing and me time are the quintessential paths to self-care? You know this and still haven’t been able to accomplish a higher level of self-care through these tactics. Instead of providing you with a list of specific activities to try, I’d rather give you a few tips for behaviors that will make you more likely to make self-care a priority so that you have the time to do the things you love.
- Understand there are different types of self-care. Self-care can happen on a physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual level. All of these are important, but you don’t have to focus on them all at once. Start with the area that you feel most depleted.
- Make a list, but have it be of the things you no longer want to do. It might be things you just don’t have the time for, are counterproductive to your goals or are things that someone else can easily take care of.
- Work on saying no more often, especially to the things on your list. The world won’t stop if you say no, and you might even discover that other people respect your time more in the process.
- Don’t be afraid to be superficial. Have you shunned doing your hair and makeup years ago because it felt like a waste of time that could be better spent? Even if you have no desire for cosmetics, taking a little time to take care of the outward appearance you present to the world can make you feel better about yourself. It’s not superficial to take the time to look your best.
- Start with the basics. You might have plenty of ideas on ways to invest in self-care, but if you try to incorporate too many at once, you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Instead, pick a few basics like saying no more often and giving yourself extra time in the morning for fitness or to enjoy your coffee with the sunrise. As these things become routine, slowly add in a few more.
- Prioritize your health. It doesn’t have to take a whole lot of extra planning to take care of the basics of your health. Eat a healthy diet, get fresh air, drink plenty of water and get ample sleep at night. Your health is your foundation, make the time to take care of it.
- Nix the stress. I know, this is easier said than done, but chronic stress is incredibly harmful to your health. Ask yourself what needs to be done to reduce the amount of stress in your life. Is it asking your boss for more flexibility or to stop working on weekends? Do you need to ask your partner to help more around the house? Have you considered talking to a therapist who can help you learn ways to deal with stress productively or do you add stress reducing activities into your day? Reducing stress is often the first step for helping everything else fall into place.
- Be Mindful. Finally, work towards being fully mindful – which essentially means to be present in the moment. Spend time with the ones you love and be truly with them when you do. Fully immerse yourself in the experience of doing the things you enjoy, and when you start to feel burdened, be mindful of that too – it will help you recognize your limits and set boundaries for healthy self-care.
The new year is almost upon us. Is this going to be the year that you make yourself a priority so that you can enjoy your life more fully and take better care of the people you love? Self-care is an important part of a life that you enjoy living. Make yourself a priority, and give yourself the love, attention and care that you deserve.